Briefing Book

Why the Taliban Are Winning -- for Now

The last few years have been a strategic fiasco, but this war is still winnable. Here's how.

The war in Afghanistan has not been going well, and it is no surprise that Americans are frustrated. Many observers can rightly point to signs of progress: the functionality of specific Afghan government ministries and programs, the slow growth of the Afghan National Army, the building of major infrastructure such as roads and dams, and agricultural improvements. These accomplishments, however, have not created the conditions that the United States has aimed to achieve: an Afghan state with a competent government considered legitimate by its people and capable of defending them, such that Afghanistan can no longer function as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups. Indeed, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces, recently suggested, the situation shows signs of deteriorating: Afghan enemy groups remain highly capable, have gained momentum, and have expanded their areas of operations. Violence against coalition forces is rising. So the question is: Why haven't we been winning in Afghanistan?

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Although I served on McChrystal's assessment team, I do not know how he would answer this question, nor could I speculate about his recommendations for the strategy going forward. But after much research, as well as two visits to Afghanistan this year, I personally think that the military operations themselves are failing because there has been no coherent theaterwide counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama's newly announced "Af-Pak" strategy, the U.S. and coalition campaign this summer is a continuation of the poorly designed operations from 2008. And the sheer inertia of military operations means that it will be hard to turn this supertanker around for the better part of this year. But turn it around we must, starting with correcting the following flaws in the strategy that McChrystal and his team inherited from their predecessors.

1. Fighting in the wrong places

NATO forces are widely dispersed throughout Afghanistan, even in the Pashtun areas in the south and east, rather than concentrated on one or two priorities. A possible exception is Helmand, the only province in which two brigades are deployed -- the British force and the recently arrived U.S. Marine expeditionary brigade. In contrast, during the surge in Iraq, the United States concentrated about half of its forces in Baghdad and its suburbs. Baghdad was the center of gravity of the fight. If we controlled it, we'd win; if the enemy controlled it, we'd lose. So five brigade combat teams -- roughly 25,000 troops with their enablers -- protected the city of 8 million people. Four more teams protected Baghdad's southern approaches, and at least one, sometimes two, additional teams protected the city's northern suburbs.

There is no simple equivalent to Baghdad in Afghanistan. Instead, most of the population -- and the insurgency -- is dispersed in rural areas. Nevertheless, some areas, such as Kandahar city and the districts around it, are more important -- to the enemy, to the Afghan government, and to us -- than others. And yet, there are almost no counterinsurgents whatsoever in all but two of the districts around Kandahar, and none in the city itself, just a scant footprint from the Afghanistan national security forces. Worse still, the ratio of counterinsurgents to the population in those two districts is approximately 1 to 44, close to the minimum requirement. A good evaluation of our priorities in Afghanistan would yield a significantly different, and more effective, distribution of coalition forces. This is undoubtedly why McChrystal recently told reporters that he will be concentrating forces around Kandahar city.

2. Fighting in the wrong ways

Another problem is that NATO forces have briefed counterinsurgency doctrine better than they have practiced it. Almost all NATO units in Pashtun areas claim that they are protecting the population by engaging in a sequence of military operations known as "shape-clear-hold-build." But these forces move through the sequence too rapidly. Based on recent experiences in Iraq, shaping an area requires 30 to 45 days, clearing it requires three to six months, and holding it takes longer than that. With very few exceptions, NATO forces in Afghanistan have never operated on such timelines. They condense shaping and clearing operations into a few weeks, and then they transition prematurely into what they perceive as a hold phase. As a result, NATO forces rarely gain permanent control over areas -- or if they do, those areas are so small as to have little effect on the insurgency or the population. The enemy simply dissipates and then returns.

What's more, coalition and Afghan forces are excessively focused on securing supply lines and reducing the threat of improvised explosive devices through tactical efforts rather than by countering the insurgency. Consequently, many forces -- especially Afghan forces -- are distributed along the ring road, the main corridor that circles the country. Static positions such as these waste troops. Of course, our forces must be able to maneuver along strategic corridors, but the best way to do that is by securing populated areas and maneuvering off the ring road to defeat the enemy in its sanctuaries and support zones.

In other areas, combat forces are trying to do the right things but, again, in the wrong places. As the Iraq experience demonstrated, successful counterinsurgency often entails distributing forces from larger to smaller bases in order to live among the population. But in some remote areas of Afghanistan's eastern theater, such as Nuristan, where the enemy has little operational or strategic effect, combat forces have overextended themselves. They have moved off large forward operating bases, pushed into strategically insignificant areas, and established small combat outposts that can barely sustain themselves: The units there are too tiny to do anything but protect their outpost. A better approach is to concentrate forces for counterinsurgency operations and run greater risks in places of lesser importance.

3. Fighting with the wrong assumptions

What too often determines where coalition forces conduct their shape-clear-hold-build operations is the prospect for conducting development projects -- not population security. This tends to favor the important over the urgent, the possible over the necessary. For example, major combat operations in the British area of Helmand have been conducted in order to permit development. The Kajaki dam and the agricultural development zone near Lashkar Gah have driven the concentration of forces within the province and, indeed, within the southern region generally. In eastern Afghanistan, U.S. forces have conducted operations to build roads, such as the Khost-Gardez Pass road. These projects are important for long-term development, but they are only sometimes important for achieving our military objectives and should not be allowed to dictate the disposition of scarce military resources.

Moreover, military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan make the wrong assumptions about development. Too often they emphasize the value of a development project as a model -- as a demonstration of Afghan government competence and Western goodwill. Completing a specific dam, for example, shows the population that the Afghan government can provide services in general; clearing a specific village shows that the Afghan national security forces can secure the population in principle. But if the model is not replicated widely and rapidly, it's simply a demonstration of what might be accomplished. Demonstration effects will not defeat the insurgency. Either a venue is secure and has an operating government, or it does not. A good counterinsurgency plan succeeds by generating synergies among good, localized projects -- not by identifying a thousand points of light and hoping that they constitute an electrical grid.

4. Fighting successfully -- or failing?

Metrics are important in any war, and based on recent reports, the Obama administration is preparing a new set of indicators to measure whether the fight in Afghanistan is succeeding. As important as identifying good metrics is rejecting bad ones. Violence against coalition forces, for example, is an unreliable indicator of success or failure. For one thing, as we saw in Iraq, violence against friendly forces can increase at the start of a counteroffensive to regain control of areas that the enemy holds. No violence, in turn, might mean that an area is completely controlled by the enemy. The metrics of success are not simply statistics, and they cannot be determined independently of a campaign plan, which sets out a hierarchy of tasks and objectives.

5. Can we win?

Some answer simply and sharply in the negative: They claim that Afghanistan has never been centrally ruled (which is wrong) and that it has been the "graveyard of empires" (which is true in only a specific handful of cases). Failure is not at all inevitable. The war in Afghanistan has suffered almost from the start from a lack of resources, especially the time and attention of senior policymakers. The United States prioritized the war in Iraq from 2007 until 2009, for strategically sound reasons. Some of this parsimony also comes from flawed theories of counterinsurgency: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, misreads the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, which has consistently led him to argue incorrectly against expanding the size of the force there, claiming that it increases the risks of failure.

We can win in Afghanistan, but only if we restructure the campaign and resource it properly. Adding more resources to the military effort as it has been conducted over the past few years, without fundamentally changing its conception, design, and execution, would achieve little. This was also the case in Iraq before the surge, and the change in strategy and campaign plan that followed was as important to success as the additional resources. This explains why McChrystal might adopt a different campaign design -- perhaps requiring additional military resources -- when he submits his formal assessment to the U.S. secretary of defense and NATO secretary-general sometime after the Afghan elections.

The fact that we have not been doing the right things for the past few years in Afghanistan is actually good news at this moment. A sound, properly resourced counterinsurgency has not failed in Afghanistan; it has never even been tried. So there is good reason to think that such a new strategy can succeed now. But we have to hurry, for as is often the case in these kinds of war, if you aren't winning, you're losing.

AFP/Getty Images

Briefing Book

A Somali Surprise?

U.S. officials are worried about the chaos radiating from the Horn of Africa. But how concerned should we be?

In a speech closely watched in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, said Thursday that al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups around the world are "under tremendous pressure" from "years of U.S. counterterrorism operations" in cooperation with other countries.

"[Al Qaeda] is being forced to work harder and harder to raise money, to move its operatives around the world, and to plan attacks," he said, though it remains intent on attacking the United States and its allies.

Brennan's talk came just after Hillary Clinton concluded a meeting with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in Kenya, where the secretary of state pointedly warned Eritrea to stop supporting militant groups in neighboring Somalia, an increasingly lawless country that foreign-policy experts are viewing with growing concern.

Brennan, a gruff, flint-eyed former senior CIA official with 25 years of government service, spoke with the clipped diction of a U.S. official. He pronounced the names of "al Qaeda" and "Hezbollah" with a noticeable Arabic lilt, underscoring his years of experience in dealing with the Middle East as a State Department political officer in Saudi Arabia, a top regional analyst, and later a CIA station chief.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, said the likely motive of the speech was to "establish the president's identity on this issue" and rebut criticism from Republicans that Obama is "soft on terror."

U.S. terrorism experts agree that al Qaeda has suffered setbacks, at least in some parts of the world. Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said the "net effect of the drone attacks" along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, "has been devastating to their planning and training." Polling data also show a loss of public support for al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, Bergen said. "But even if a small percentage of people think that Osama's a great guy, that's still a lot of people" in a country of 170 million. He also pointed to recent al Qaeda activity in Yemen.

Then there's Somalia, a country that has only become more chaotic since FP contributor Jeffrey Gettleman dubbed it "the most dangerous place in the world" back in March. Several analysts mentioned the recent involvement of Somali expatriates from Minneapolis in fighting in Somalia and, allegedly, in  Australia -- where five men stand accused of plotting a suicide attack on an army barracks -- as a worrisome trend. Some 200,000 ethnic Somalis live in the United States today, many of them relatively recent migrants.

According to Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, al Qaeda is strengthening its hold on Somalia, as well as Yemen and Algeria, where affiliated militant groups have deep local roots. Al Qaeda operatives are "shifting to Somalia because of the newfound opportunities there," he said, and because al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-affiliated militant group that controls much of the country, is consolidating its power.

American officials are also worried. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in April that the U.S. government was "very concerned about the threats that they pose to U.S. facilities in the region, in the Horn of Africa, and potentially to the U.S. homeland," referring to al Qaeda and al-Shabab. "We have seen a very, very small percentage ... of individuals of Somali descent and some who are not of Somali descent who will have come to identify with extremists in Somalia," he said.

Brennan, outlining today what he described as "the contours of a new strategic approach -- a new way of seeing this challenge and a new way of confronting it in a more comprehensive manner," sought to contrast Obama's approach to terrorism with that of his predecessor. "Like the world itself, his views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological," he said of the president.

Brennan's remarks, delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank in Washington, were the fullest articulation of the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy to date. In an interview with the Washington Post prior to the speech, Brennan said the United States was not engaged in a "war on terror," and in today's address, he explained his reasoning further.

"Portraying this as a 'global' war risks reinforcing the very image that al Qaeda seeks to project of itself -- that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate," he said. "And nothing could be further from the truth."

Hoffman agreed that "the ‘war on terrorism' has outlived its usefulness, even if it was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of 9/11," and become "more of a liability than an asset."

Terrorism analysts said there was nonetheless a great deal of continuity between the Obama administration's policies and that of the Bush administration. "It took the Bush administration 7 years out of 8 to put together a coherent strategy," Simon said, "but having waited 7 years to do this, the Bush administration essentially forfeited any of its ability to carry any of it out."

"For people like al Qaeda, it doesn't matter if Obama or Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush is in office," Bergen said. "Their laundry list is so long that no American president could satisfy them."

Brennan's remarks were also noteworthy for what they didn't say: much on Somalia. In the question-and-answer session after his prepared talk, Brennan said that "Somalia's a good case in point in terms of not looking at an issue only through the counterterrorism prism" and that the United States needed a "more comprehensive approach" toward the Horn of Africa. "Sometimes in these places young Somalis or others will join up with terrorist groups because it gives them an opportunity to have three square meals a day," he said, and the United States needs to get better at providing alternative livelihoods. But he indicated that U.S. policy on the region was still in a formative stage.

"It's a little unfair to suggest that we were only looking at Somalia through a counterterrorism lens," said Juan Zarate, who was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009 in the Bush administration, pointing to efforts made, especially from 2005 or so onward, to take a more comprehensive approach to fighting terrorism. "He's right, it needs to be looked at more broadly," Zarate said of Brennan's comments. "The problem is there are no easy answers" to a country like Somalia.

Zarate also said there was less new than was advertised in the new administration's approach to terrorism. For instance, Obama has continued to use the word "war" to describe his strategy toward al Qaeda -- if not toward "terrorism" in general. "We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates," the president said in his speech at the National Archives in May.

Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina and an expert on the Horn of Africa, said that the Obama administration was "trying to take a more diplomatic approach" to Somalia. Menkhaus sees Clinton's meeting with the Somali president as a "huge boost" to his embattled government and "a sign that the U.S. intends to fully back it." But he said he was looking for signs that the Obama administration would go beyond arms shipments and allow Sheikh Sharif's government to reach out to "Islamic rejectionists."

As for the dangers of Somali radicalization in the United States, Simon thinks they are manageable. "And I think there are people trying to manage it," in the U.S. government. "It's not something that's going to sneak up on people."

The Australia case may be different. "If there is evidence Shabab leadership sent them back to conduct a suicide attack, then that is truly a game changer, and the Shabab automatically qualifies for membership in the 'incredibly stupid Somali political movements since 1990'" group, Menkhaus said. "But we have to wait for the details of the case to come out."

Might al-Shabab decide to take over Mogadishu in the wake of Clinton's comments, to embarrass the United States? "They'll do it when they feel they're strong enough," Simon said.