When 9,800 Doesn't Equal 9,800

The dirty secret about Obama’s Afghan plan is that tens of thousands of American civilians will be on the ground long after the troops have left.

News coverage of President Obama's speech at West Point Wednesday focused on one seemingly hard and fast statement: The United States will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, ensuring that the nation's longest war continues a little longer. The 9,800 troop figure has been repeated so often, and in so many places, that it actually obscures a key point: An invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors will remain in Afghanistan well in the future, likely outnumbering the 9,800 troops that will be there next year and the smaller numbers of troops that will be there in the years to come.

The size, scope, composition, and duration of that civilian mission to Afghanistan will hinge on the way the Obama administration answers four questions: (1) what does Washington plan to do in Afghanistan; (2) how will the White House divide those missions among military, civilian, and contractor personnel; (3) what level of risk should the United States be willing to accept for our missions and our personnel; and (4) how much will Washington rely on allies, both Afghan and international, to shoulder the burden going forward. Depending on how the administration answers those questions, and what mixture of civilians and contractors it chooses to field, the U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan could grow to be two or three times as large as the military mission there -- or more.

In his remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden, and today at West Point, President Obama outlined "two narrow missions" for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014: "training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda." What remains less clear is the extent to which the United States will continue its multibillion-dollar reconstruction and development program under the auspices of USAID and other civilian agencies, as well as how the United States will continue support private sector and international efforts to develop Afghanistan, if at all.

The U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul has mushroomed to include nearly 300 foreign service officers -- still smaller than the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but large by State Department standards. These diplomats work alongside scores more from USAID, the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, and other civilian agencies, as well as civilian contractors, short-term government employees, and workers from nongovernmental organizations. Alongside these personnel, a clandestine force reportedly including hundreds of personnel from the CIA and other agencies also serves in Afghanistan. The embassy will need at least this many personnel to do its job as the locus of leadership in Afghanistan passes from the military's headquarters to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. And if the United States chooses to continue its massive Afghan development program, this supersized diplomatic footprint will likely include scores or hundreds of personnel across the Afghan countryside as well, responsible for oversight of the billions of dollars in projects the United States is funding there (an alarmingly large amount of which has, over the years, been lost to corruption or mismanagement).

And therein lies the crux of the second and third questions: Who will do these missions, and how much risk will we be willing to accept in accomplishing them? U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham recently said there's "no way" his civilians from State and other agencies could continue the fieldwork they do in the absence of U.S. military support. He's right, to a point. No troops equals no forward operating bases to work from, no ground troops to provide convoy security, and no medevac helicopters to call on when casualties occur.

However, U.S. officials have floated at least two plausible options for continuing the countrywide diplomacy and development mission in Afghanistan.

The first is to contract for a sizable security and movement support network, similar to what was contemplated for the U.S. mission in Iraq after our troops left there in 2010. To safely move U.S. personnel around Afghanistan without military support would require hundreds or thousands of civilian contractors with their own air support, ground vehicles, supply lines, and communications networks. By the Pentagon's latest count, there are 61,452 contractor personnel supporting the Defense Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. (This is down from 113,491 near the height of the Afghan war in January 2012.) These figures represent the current contractor support network for U.S. military forces, at a ratio of roughly two contractors for every U.S. service member. After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military, because the State Department and other civilian agencies don't have the same logistics, communications, and security force structure as the military. A diplomatic mission of 1,000 to 2,000 could require as many as three to five times its number in support contractors, depending on the extent of its movements around the country and the amount of security risk it wants to take in Afghanistan. (Today, more than 5,000 contractors support the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq.)

Although contractors represent the State Department's preferred option for security in places like Afghanistan, this option won't come cheap, nor without some potential problems. In the post-Benghazi environment, it's not clear the United States will be willing to accept the inherent risk of manning smaller diplomatic outposts or sending civilian personnel to project sites around the country, especially facing a heavily armed and sophisticated adversary like the Taliban. And even if the United States chose to hire private contractors to effectively supplant the military, it's not clear it could work because the Afghan government has increasingly clamped down on private security contractors, directing that all operate under Afghan law and work in concert with an Afghan guard force called the Afghan Public Protection Force. Contractors enjoy a somewhat murky status under Afghan law, protected to some extent by the 2003 diplomatic agreements between the United States and Afghanistan, but with somewhat less protection under the draft Bilateral Security Agreement now under consideration.

The second option is to rely increasingly on a mixture of remote-observation technology and Afghan employees to be the eyes and ears of the U.S. mission outside the walls of the diplomatic fortress in Kabul. Although this minimizes risk to U.S. personnel, it asks a great deal of the Afghans who will instead monitor and evaluate U.S. projects around the country, putting many in the cross-hairs of the Taliban and other armed factions who will have the ability to influence, intimidate, and block their activities with near impunity after our troops depart.

Which leads to the fourth and final question: If the United States no longer runs these missions with military personnel, and decides not to do them with U.S. civilian personnel, can the United States rely instead on its allies to carry the torch? It's unclear that our allies will be willing to invest the billions or tens of billions of dollars necessary to continue large infrastructure projects throughout Afghanistan, pay the costs of running the country's impoverished central government, or pick up the tab for Afghanistan's growing security forces. And even if they do sign on, they don't have the forces in Afghanistan (if at all) to secure the countryside and oversee the massive and corruption-ridden Afghan development program. Which means that European governments will have to answer the same questions facing the Obama administration -- except that their risk tolerance is far lower than ours. Allied willingness to soldier on with Afghan reconstruction will depend largely on the security environment in Afghanistan, and is not within our control. If it wants continued Western help, the post-Karzai government of Afghanistan must create a secure environment for the country, relying on a mixture of Afghan security forces, economic incentives, and negotiated political bargains with adversaries such as the Taliban. It's far from clear, to put it very generously, that the Afghan government will be up to its share of the task, or that our allies will be willing to persevere in such an uncertain and risky situation.

For 13 years, our troops have largely led the effort in Afghanistan, shouldering the bulk of the burden and the majority of the casualties as well. The president's announcements this week signal an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but leave many unanswered questions about the extent of our total involvement there, and the size of the civilian mission that will remain after the last combat troops come home. The White House has to make a decision about the diplomats and other civilians it has stationed in Afghanistan: whether to go big, go small, or go home. How the White House answers those questions will dictate the shape of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan long after the now-famous 9,800 troops come home.

Scott Olson/Getty Images


'Playing Straight into the Hands of al-Shabab'

Kenya's counterterrorism approach following the Westgate Mall attack is crude -- and may actually be spawning more violence.

NAIROBI, Kenya — At around 7:30 p.m. on March 31, three blasts went off in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood. The explosions, which police say were caused by grenades, killed six and injured around a dozen civilians congregating at two local cafes in the suburban area, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.

The bombings were only the latest in a spat of terror attacks following the September 2013 siege of Westgate Mall by Somali gunmen, which left 67 people dead. In December, a grenade blast killed four people in Eastleigh. In late March, unidentified gunmen entered a church near the coastal city of Mombasa, killing six. In all, nearly a dozen attacks that bear the marks of al-Shabab, a jihadist group based in Somalia that was responsible for the Westgate attack, have rattled Kenya since last fall.

Police are taking a high-profile approach as they respond to these attacks, detaining thousands of Somalis and Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage. But stops and arrests are not based on intelligence. Rather, police officers simply scour ethnic-Somali neighborhoods, sweeping up civilians from the streets.

Terrorism analysts say this sort of policing may actually be making Kenya less safe. As indiscriminate profiling becomes the fabric of security procedures, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan-Somali Muslims -- a group from which al-Shabab affiliates are actively attempting to recruit -- have something to be angry about. The government's ethnic-focused, and often brutal, anti-terror tactics thus may be fueling the very attacks they are meant to suppress.

In response to the March grenade attacks, police indiscriminately picked up thousands of people off the streets of Eastleigh and locked them in a stadium for several days, out of reach of human rights attorneys and the press. An unknown number still remain inside. Such arbitrary detentions are ongoing, according to human rights groups, and they are the most visible incarnation of Kenya's official response to terrorism post-Westgate. "The Kenyan police want to appear as if they're doing something," says Stig Hansen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences who researches terrorism in the Horn of Africa. "To collect a lot of Somalis appears like doing something."

Kenya's police chief, David Kimaiyo, proclaimed last month that the "war against terrorism is still on, and we are not relenting." But he also has insisted that no profiling, bribery, or unprofessionalism has taken place. 

Countless Eastleigh residents have stories to tell of being stopped or taken captive by police, only to have to buy their freedom. The consequences of nighttime police raids on Eastleigh homes can be even more severe: One woman fell, or was pushed, from a fifth-floor balcony when police entered her home one night. In a separate raid, police took a woman away from her six-month-old baby, who died in her absence. Hundreds of Somalis -- including some with legal status as refugees -- have been deported altogether.  

Across Nairobi, police killings have reportedly become routine, raising doubts as to the ability or will of authorities to uphold the rule of law, even as they ostensibly go about enforcing it. Security forces have also failed to carry out even the most basic of investigative procedures. On May 4, grenades exploded on two crowded buses in Nairobi, killing three and injuring 62. At a loss to explain the source of the blasts, police responded by criminally charging the bus operators for "failing to prevent a felony."

"Imagine if the FBI's response to 9/11 was to prosecute the security guards at the World Trade Center," one Somali-Kenyan said to me.

Authorities have done very little to reassure Somali Muslims that their grievances matter. Police in Mombasa have yet to name any suspects in the assassinations of two outspoken, hard-line Muslim clerics. Many Muslims suspect police themselves may be responsible for the killings, which occurred in March and last October, respectively.

Mombasa has long been the country's hotbed of religious tension between Muslims and Christians. Occasionally that has escalated into violence, and police have often managed to aggravate such episodes. When a gang of Mombasa youth rioted and burned a church following the killing of the first cleric, Kenyan police responded by storming a nearby mosque during prayer time, dragging out worshipers, and beating them with batons.

Collective anger over such incidents may be radicalizing certain individuals here, not only in Mombasa but across the country. Those within Kenya's ethnic Somali communities say some young Muslims seem increasingly ready to act upon that anger.

"If they feel more pressure than they can take, anything can happen," said Somali-Kenyan journalist and Eastleigh resident Said Hassan Anteno, who interviews victims of police harassment. "When you punch someone, what do you expect? They punch back."

Indeed, several recent terror attacks seem to have specifically targeted the police: In April, a bomb exploded outside a police station, killing two officers. And just last week, gunmen near Kenya's northern border with Somalia killed three police officers, in addition to nine civilians, in an attack that al-Shabab claimed to have carried out.

This cycle of ill-disciplined policing accelerating anti-state violence isn't new. When the Islamic Party of Kenya was founded in the 1990s, Kenya's then-president, Daniel arap Moi, immediately accused the party of "promoting Islamic fundamentalism." Although relatively benign, "the gathering of these Muslims created an almost irrational fear by the government and over the course of the early 1990s, led to numerous violent clashes with police... [and] arguably spread the ideology of extremist views amongst Muslims in Kenya," explains Samuel L. Aronson in a recent paper on Kenya's failing security.

The spark that ignited Kenya's current fight with terrorism was Kenya's 2011 invasion of Somalia in reaction to the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from northern Kenya. Months after the unilateral incursion, Kenyan troops integrated with the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and advanced as al-Shabab's leadership abandoned their former stronghold in the town of Kismayo, a strategic port city in southern Somalia.  

But these missions did little to eradicate al-Shabab. As Kenyan soldiers fought a war in Somalia, their enemies came to Kenya. "Al-Shabab is telling Kenya that there's a price to pay to be involved in Somalia," Hansen said. "It's not only telling Kenya this through the Westgate attack, but through the over 70 attacks that have taken place since 2011."

The accelerating pace of attacks highlights just how little Kenya's leaders have done to address some of the nation's tangible, even obvious, vulnerabilities. For instance, the four Somali gunmen who sieged Westgate are believed to have entered Kenya at the same unsecured border crossing through which illegal weapons used to attack an Israeli-owned hotel and airplane in 2002 were smuggled.

U.S. agencies are trying to strengthen Kenya's counterterrorism capabilities. The FBI has trained some 800 Kenyan security personnel over the past several years, according to the bureau's legal attaché in Nairobi, Dennis Brady. During the Westgate attack, the FBI deployed more than 80 officers in Nairobi and has since continued to assist Kenyan authorities in their investigation. 

And yet embarrassments on the part of security forces emerged even before the mall was cleared: Security footage shows ­­­­Kenyan commandos looting the mall while Kenya's government claimed that the gunmen were still at large. Reporters surveying the carnage found safes whose locks had been shot at and bars whose alcohol had been ransacked. 

For their part, Kenya's lawmakers haven't really addressed the myriad accusations of security forces' unprofessionalism. A 2013 parliamentary report largely whitewashed, despite overwhelming evidence, accusations of looting in Westgate. In March, the Associated Press revealed that Kenya's anti-terror police unit in Nairobi was operating on a budget of only $735 per month. In comparison, parliamentary salaries and allowances total about $15,000 per month -- per representative.

In a popular political stance, lawmakers are demanding the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, which houses some 400,000 Somali refugees in northern Kenya. Calling the camp "a nursery for terrorists," the head of Kenya's Parliamentary Committee on National Security, Asman Kamama, said in September 2013 that "the U.N. must now understand the security of Kenyans comes first. Even if it is about human rights, it should not be at our expense."

The sentiment plays well among ordinary Kenyans. More concerning to the broader population than illegal detentions and other human rights abuses of ethnic Somalis is the fact that these police tactics have failed to quell the violence.

But no one in Kenya has more cause for concern than Somali-Muslims themselves: It is the refugee camps, border communities, and urban Somali neighborhoods that, in fact, have been the targets of most terrorist attacks here. "A week and a half ago there was an explosion, and Eastleigh was turned upside down [by police]," said Ahmed Mohamed, an assistant to a parliamentary representative from Eastleigh and a well-known figure here, on May 14. "[A police] operation has been going on for six weeks. And then yet another explosion happens. It's not working."

Earlier this month two bombs killed at least 10 and injured more than 70 in a crowded market in downtown Nairobi. At that same time, just a short walk away, a cleric in Nairobi's Jamia Mosque delivered a lecture before hundreds of worshipers, most of them ethnic Somalis. Sheik Mohamoud Shakul urged the crowd to separate religion from politics and to avoid associating with those who might lead them astray from a peaceful interpretation of Islam. "In some communities, ethnic profiling has taken place," he said. "We all know that is happening. I want us to go back to the basics this time."

Sitting in his Eastleigh office a few days earlier, Shakul had warned me that the "actions of the police can radicalize the youth of Kenya against the government." He and other Muslim leaders say they are trying to keep the peace. But their task is being made increasingly difficult by the counterterrorism activities sanctioned by Kenya's leaders.

"The Kenyan police are playing straight into the hands of al-Shabab," said Hansen. "By inflicting collective punishment, they are again reviving the Muslim sentiment against them."