The ugly truth in Afghanistan
GRAEME SMITH AND PAUL KORING
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
March 1, 2008 at 12:28 AM EST
KABUL AND WASHINGTON — When managers from all the major humanitarian agencies in Kandahar gathered in a high-walled compound to swap war stories last month, it wasn't the tales of kidnappings and suicide bombs that caused the most worry. Nor was it the reports of insurgents enforcing their own brutal laws and executing aid workers.
"The scary thing was, no foreigners attended the meeting," a participant said. "Everybody had evacuated."
Most aid organizations quietly withdrew their international staff from Kandahar in recent weeks, the latest sign that the situation here is getting worse. It's now almost impossible to spot a foreigner on the city streets, except for the occasional glimpse of a pale face in a troop carrier or a United Nations armoured vehicle.
At least the foreigners can escape. For many ordinary people the ramshackle city now feels like a prison, with the highways out of town regularly blocked by Taliban or bandits. Residents have even started avoiding their own city streets after dark, as formerly bustling shops switch off their colourful neon lights and pull down the shutters. There is rarely any electricity for the lights anyway, partly because the roads are too dangerous for contractors to risk bringing in a new turbine for a nearby hydroelectric generator.
Corrupt police prowl the intersections, enforcing a curfew for anybody without that night's password, or bribe money. The officers seem especially nervous these days, because the Taliban hit them almost every night with ambushes, rocket-propelled grenades or just a deceptively friendly man who walks up to a police checkpoint with an automatic rifle hidden under a shawl.
Insurgent attacks have climbed sharply in Kandahar and across the country. But some analysts believe the numbers don't capture the full horror of what's happening in Afghanistan's south and east. When a girl in a school uniform is stopped in downtown Kandahar by a man who asks frightening questions about why she's attending classes, that small act of intimidation does not appear in any statistics.
Even so, the statistics are bad. The United Nations's count of security incidents in Afghanistan last year climbed to 13 times the number recorded in 2003, and the UN forecasts even worse this year. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says insurgent attacks increased 64 per cent from 2006 to 2007. In the first two months of this year, some analysts have noticed a 15- to 20-per-cent rise in insurgent activity compared with the same period last year, raising alarm about whether the traditional spring fighting season has started early.
The prospect of another year of rising bloodshed has forced a moment of reckoning. Almost everybody involved with Afghanistan is taking a hard look at the country's future, even as Canada's Parliament takes stock of its role in the war. The Liberals nearly forced an election this spring over a government motion to extend the mission to 2011 — and although the extension now seems likely to pass when it comes to a vote next month, the mission is increasingly a source of raucous debate in Canada and among its NATO allies.
"Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," concluded the Atlantic Council of the United States, a prestigious American think tank that deals with international affairs. "Unless this reality is understood and action is taken promptly, the future of Afghanistan is bleak, with regional and global impact."
The toughest parts of the south, such as Kandahar, were considered lawless but not extremely dangerous after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Foreign aid workers drove in unarmoured vehicles along the dirt roads of every district in the province, often with no armed guards. No districts of the province — in fact, no districts in the country — were labelled "extreme risk" on the UN's threat assessment maps in May of 2005.
Despite the relative calm of those years, many aid groups were calling for international forces to bring order in the wild countryside and extend the influence of President Hamid Karzai, who was jokingly called the "Mayor of Kabul" because of his government's limited reach.
Kabul was roaring with activity as foreign aid poured into the capital, and the international community wanted to spread the prosperity into rural areas. It was widely believed that a few thousand troops could stabilize a province such as Kandahar.
"In retrospect, it was naive," said a Western security official in Kabul. "It was a mistake."
By the time Canada's battle group arrived at the beginning of 2006, warning signs were already emerging that the project would not go as planned. The killing of a Canadian diplomat in January of that year prompted Ottawa to cut its provincial reconstruction team from 250 to 120 people early in the year, including a temporary evacuation of all civilian staff, and the Canadians found themselves locked in major clashes with the largest groups of Taliban ever seen in the country since their regime had collapsed.
An updated version of the United Nations threat map was published in June of 2006, showing rising danger levels for humanitarian workers in many parts of Afghanistan, including two of Kandahar's 17 districts, which were coloured solidly pink, indicating "extreme risk."
Like a cancer, those pink splotches on the UN maps have spread until they now dominate the country's south and east. The latest map, updated in December, shows 14 of 17 districts in Kandahar are entirely designated as extreme risk.
Military commanders often sneer at the United Nations threat maps, saying that civilian analysts exaggerate the risks, but security officials say the UN mapping generally reflects the military's own classified analysis, and it's far from the only measure by which Afghanistan's security has worsened in the past two years.
In a blunt assessment this week, Vice-Admiral Michael McConnell, the U.S. intelligence czar, admitted that the Karzai government controls less than one-third of the country. The Taliban hold 10 per cent on a more-or-less permanent basis while the rest is run by local warlords, he said, describing the situation as deteriorating.
Even that gloomy picture may represent an airbrushed version of events, some analysts say, because increasing collusion between Taliban and local powerbrokers — criminal groups, warlords, drug barons, ordinary farmers and even government authorities — allows the insurgents to operate freely in districts without exerting visible control.
A rising campaign of intimidation in recent months also seems aimed at persuading those still undecided about the Taliban. Police officers' bodies, shot or beheaded, have been dumped in public places. Other corpses hang from trees, dangling from nooses with the word "spy" scrawled on a note attached to the body. More detailed notes are posted at night on the front doors of anybody suspected of having sympathies for the Kabul government, warning of deadly consequences for anybody who helps what the Taliban call a "puppet regime." It's well known that the insurgents rarely make empty threats.
Even if villagers aren't afraid of the Taliban, many join up because they find the new government unpalatable. No regime has ever been overthrown at the ballot box in Afghanistan, so political opposition often becomes part of the insurgency.
Many Afghans view the government as a family business, reaping the spoils from foreign donors at the expense of those who don't belong to the well-connected tribes or family networks.
They watch government officials profit from the drug trade, and grow angry when eradicators destroy their small field of poppies. And in the battle-scarred landscape where Canadians operate, many people nurse deep grudges against the foreign troops after having their relatives detained or killed in the years of fighting.
"That's where we're seeing the growth in this insurgency, from the local grievances," Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said.
The increases in bloodshed have been dramatic: Last year, more than 6,500 people, most of them ordinary Afghans, were killed in the violence, as compared with roughly 4,000 in 2006, and 1,000 in 2005. More than 220 foreign soldiers, most of them Americans but also dozens of Canadian and British troops, were also killed in 2007, by far the deadliest year since the United States invaded. Those early years of fighting, in 2001 and 2002, caused 80 deaths among the U.S. troops and their foreign allies.
ƒè Canada's 2,500 troops are deployed in a rugged province of blistering deserts, snowy mountains and lush valleys roughly the size of Nova Scotia. With a desperately poor population of more than one million people and a long, porous border with the hotbed of Islamic extremism in neighbouring Pakistan's tribal lands, bringing security to Kandahar would be a challenge even without the Taliban.
On most days, fewer than 600 Canadian soldiers are "outside the wire" of NATO's sprawling base at Kandahar Airport, a number that everyone concedes is far too few to conduct a classic counterinsurgency campaign.
For rough comparison, NATO sent 40,000 troops into Kosovo — a place roughly one-quarter the size of Kandahar and with no active insurgency in 1999. More than one-third of them are still there eight years later. In fact, NATO has five times as many troops deployed in Kosovo as Canada has in Kandahar.
Comparisons with other insurgencies show a similar shortfall of soldiers in the Afghan war: Conflicts in Somalia, Malaysia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Iraq all required far more troops per capita than NATO has devoted to Afghanistan.
But finding another country to replace Canada, or even provide the additional 1,000 soldiers the Harper government is demanding as a price for staying in Kandahar until 2011, won't be easy. Few NATO members are in a position to help.
A simpler, more effective, solution exists: The number of boots on the ground, outside the wire, could be doubled if deployments were increased to a year from the current six months.
It's unpopular with those in uniform and politically difficult, but even the huge U.S. military has turned to longer deployments as an effective force multiplier.
U.S. army units now deploy for 15 months. Canadian troops spend barely one-third that length of time in Afghanistan, once a mid-deployment vacation is included. The relatively short deployments also means that the two- or three-week overlap required to get the incoming unit familiar with the people and terrain they will occupy and fight cuts more deeply into their effective time on the ground than if rotations were longer.
Longer rotations would also reduce the problems that happen every time a fresh group of Canadians arrives in Kandahar. There is usually a spike in civilian shootings as the nervous new troops settle into their roles, and Afghan politicians complain that every new group of soldiers seems to forget what the previous rotation learned. Every newly arrived soldier is forced to start anew with the slow process of building the personal relationships that form the critical basis of all dealings in a traditional, largely illiterate society.
While the Canadian army is probably too small to send two 1,000-soldier battle groups to Afghanistan simultaneously on six-month deployments, doubling deployment lengths to a year and adding another 400 or 500 soldiers would come close to doubling the available boots on the ground.
The other serious shortfalls that plague the war in Kandahar may be harder to solve. The desperate shortage of medium- and heavy-lift helicopters is so serious, and European allies so unwilling to help, that NATO is chartering Russian commercial helicopters to move food, fuel and munitions. While that reduces the exposure of resupply convoys to the deadly roadside bombs, the civilian-flown choppers aren't cleared to carry troops.
At least temporarily, hard-pressed Canadian troops in Kandahar will get help when more than 2,000 battle-hardened U.S. Marines and their helicopters land this spring in southern Afghanistan.
"My hope is that the addition of the Marines will provide the kind of help that will reduce the levels of casualties," U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said when asked about the disproportionate number of Canadians killed battling the Taliban.
The Marines, sent in to reinforce NATO forces for this summer's fighting season, will add massive punching strength to the thinly stretched Canadians in Kandahar. The influx of Americans may also bring a shift in strategy: U.S. commanders have been saying that Canada and other NATO countries have been too "soft," too hesitant to pursue the Taliban into their rural strongholds.
The Canadians, by contrast, have often quietly denigrated the American forces from whom they inherited Kandahar in 2006, saying the U.S. soldiers were more interested in "search-and-destroy" operations than holding key zones and trying to bring development in limited areas.
Canadian and Dutch forces in the south have pointedly avoided major sweeps through far-flung Taliban enclaves in the past year, and even avoided patrolling some Taliban-held villages just 15 kilometres outside of Kandahar city, saying they don't have the necessary troops.
That cautious approach will likely end with the arrival of the Marines.
The American presence may continue to grow, too. Shifting political priorities in the United States are bringing new attention to Afghanistan.
Iraq "distracted us from the fight that needed to be fought in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda," said Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic front-runner, who has promised to both pull all of his country's 160,000 soldiers out of Iraq and send tens of thousands to Afghanistan.
Recent developments in another country, Pakistan, may also affect Afghanistan. The defeat of religious parties in a recent election; a recent spate of insurgent attacks on Pakistani military and intelligence targets; and the rise of the so-called Pakistani Taliban whose declared goal is waging holy war against Islamabad, have raised hopes among an optimistic few observers that Pakistan's authorities might finally take action against the Taliban's havens in that country. Others see the turmoil in Pakistan as a grim sign.
Nearly everyone agrees, however, that Afghanistan will likely see rising violence in 2008. Two Western security analysts predicted that the year will bring increased sophistication in the Taliban's technology; they're likely to use so-called explosively formed penetrators„© for the first time, adopting a technique often used in Iraq to puncture even the most heavily armoured vehicle with a specially shaped explosive.
Afghanistan's economic growth is also expected to continue slowing. Private investment was cut in half in 2007 compared with a year earlier, to about $500-million, and trade within the country will be hampered by Taliban and criminal roadblocks on the main highways.
The insurgency is showing signs of increased radicalization, too, and analysts expect this will continue with spectacularly vicious attacks in the coming year, as the most extreme insurgent leaders try to wrestle control away from more moderate Taliban who may consider the government's offer of negotiations.
It's unclear whether a political settlement can be reached with the Taliban, or what that might resemble if it happens, but the difficult process of talking with the insurgents won't likely bear fruit in the coming year. Even the most optimistic NATO officials say they cannot expect to reduce the levels of violence in 2008, and the Taliban claim they have momentum, meaning they're unlikely to give Kabul favourable terms.
"Existing measures to promote peace in Afghanistan are not succeeding," said a report published this week by Oxfam International.
But if the tough situation in Afghanistan does not inspire hope in the short term, many observers still believe success is possible, eventually. The insurgency does not yet appear to be spreading beyond the ethnic Pashtun areas of Afghanistan's south and east. Ms. Nathan of the International Crisis Group said the international community can prevail by digging in for the long term and making the Afghan government into something palatable for ordinary people.
The author of the latest Oxfam report, Matt Waldman, said the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has inspired other creative ideas about what should happen next.
"We need to think hard about the entire international approach to Afghanistan," Mr. Waldman said.
In an interview at his Kabul office, the respected analyst said he has grown enthusiastic about an approach called "community peace-building," which envisions local meetings to solve the squabbles over land, water or patronage that often simmer underneath the broader reasons for conflict. The solutions may not resemble the kind of Afghanistan that outsiders want, he said, but in some places they may bring peace.
"The secret to success will be not imposing Western ideas and values," he said.