Can Afghanistan Afford to Survive?

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Can Afghanistan Afford to Survive?

Despite the Obama administration’s claims of success, Afghanistan is in a guerrilla war that might be too expensive for the country to win, argues Juan Cole in our feature interview.

The Obama administration has insisted that real progress has been made in Afghanistan, in military terms. Do you agree?

In a guerrilla war, if you put in extra troops, then the guerrillas will stay back. So maybe temporarily there will be more security in those places in which the troops have been placed. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about overall progress in the battle because guerrilla wars are such that the enemy doesn’t necessarily stand and fight, or hold particular territory. I think it’s a conventional war measure being applied to a guerrilla war, and this raises questions as to its validity.

The US has said it will begin drawing down troops this summer. Is this feasible?

The deadline is so vague that there isn’t any problem with it being met. The plan is to turn over some of Afghanistan’s provinces to Afghan police and the army, so in those provinces there won’t be US troops. But the fact is that there are 34 provinces. The Hazara Shiite provinces in the centre of the country are characterized by high degrees of security, and local police and the Afghan national army can certainly keep order in those provinces. There are fewer known Pashtuns and fewer known Taliban in these places, and you could take out US troops without any real fallout. So that’s what’s going to happen—the safe provinces will be evacuated first. That’s all the troop withdrawal means.

The real problem won’t come this summer. The problem comes as you continue down the list of the 34. I think something like 80 percent of the country is in striking distance of the Pashtun insurgents, so once you get past the safe 20 percent of provinces then it starts to become problematic.

You’ve mentioned there the idea of Afghan forces taking control of security in some provinces. Is the US doing enough to help create a force capable of securing the country?

The US and NATO are putting enormous effort into training a new Afghan army and an Afghan police force—this effort is at the centre of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan. There can be questions about the efficacy, but about the effort there’s no question that this is something they are putting a lot of resources into.

The problem is that the national government that these troops would serve is starting to lack credibility, and these troops are being asked to risk their lives for this regime that’s riddled with corruption and that appears to have stolen elections. So there’s a problem with troop morale.

Also, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is 28 percent, while the literacy rate among the Afghan troops is about 10 percent. So obviously it’s not the urban middle class that they’re recruiting, it’s rural illiterates. And those troops might be brave, but they do form a challenge with regard to training and discipline. So, for example, a private contractor was brought in a couple of years ago to train them on how to use M1 rifles, but they weren’t trained to use the sights. So their superiors and US officers were puzzled as to why they were firing inaccurately and didn’t seem to get better over time. And an investigation had to be done to find out why. In fact, even just sending around orders is difficult with illiterate troops, because it has to be done orally and so there are problems with misunderstandings. Ironically, many of the insurgent groups, including the Taliban, are literate, so they have an advantage.

And then there are also problems of discipline and drug use and also mixed loyalties, because something over a fourth, and less than a third, of the troops are from the Pashtun ethnic group, and some of them have mixed feelings about loyalty to Kabul rather than to their ethnic group.  There has also been a problem with recruiting troops from certain provinces—Helmand and Kandahar provide a very small percentage of the Afghan national army troops.

You’ve said the Karzai regime is flawed. Is there any pressure the US can and should be applying to improve the situation?

The US really has very little to say about it. The Obama administration came into office apparently determined to unseat Karzai, and I think very unwisely made that determination public. But by now, Karzai is a long-term incumbent and has many resources on which to draw to fight that kind of effort, and so he simply stole the 2009 presidential election, and there seems to have also been very widespread fraud in the parliamentary election that was held this autumn. He didn’t always get what he wanted, but the idea that the US could get rid of him, which seems to have dominated Obama’s thinking when he first came into office, was a nonstarter.

I think the only thing the US can do with the current Kabul government is to devote resources to training a professional bureaucracy and hope that over time, experienced technocrats and bureaucrats will be able to make themselves felt. It has to be a longer term strategy. But intervening in who the central leadership is just didn’t work.

Are there any issues you expect to see coming to the fore this year that have been out of the international media spotlight so far?

I think there’s a real fog of war with Afghanistan, and it’s extremely difficult for the media to get a fix on the situation on the ground in many of these provinces. So during the last election, for example, I read something from one reporter who said that he was going to a voting booth in the southeast of the country, but that he couldn’t drive to Ghazni Province because it was too much in the hands of the insurgents. But Ghazni isn’t very far from Kabul, and if Western reporters can’t drive through it, then things are pretty bad. This was actually a stray comment in an article on how successful voting was. So I don’t think we get a real sense from the reporting about how much of the country isn’t in Karzai’s hands.

Another issue is just the diversity of the insurgency. The US has a tendency to call most of them Taliban. But as far as I can tell, most of them aren’t Taliban, that is to say they aren’t former seminary students. Many of them are actually old Mujahedeen, or who Ronald Reagan called freedom fighters. There was an article in December in the New York Times alleging there was greater co-operation between these groups. But that just strikes me as implausible—it sounds like something the reporter was told by someone in the Pentagon. The evidence that I see is that there are turf wars between the insurgent groups and that some of them are trying to crowd out others.  And so the diversity among the insurgent groups is something the media doesn’t do a good job of conveying on the whole.

Broadly speaking, how optimistic are you about Afghanistan’s long-term future.

I’m pessimistic about Afghanistan in large part because I can’t understand how this government is going to finance itself in the long term. The kind of army that’s being stood up by the US and NATO is probably going to cost $1 billion or $2 billion a year to maintain in nominal terms. And I don’t think the Afghan gross domestic product is more than about $12 billion. So it’s completely unrealistic that Afghanistan can maintain an army like this. And it’s the fifth poorest country in the world, despite a certain amount of breathlessness about its mineral potential, which is limited.

The kind of government that NATO is trying to set up—a bureaucratic system with a standing army—needs a lot of money to work. This kind of model might work in Iraq because Iraq is an oil state and so does have the resources to pay its troops and so forth. But as far as I can tell, the international community is going to be called upon to just give Afghanistan several billion dollars a year to run its government, for possibly decades. I’m worried that the international commitment to Afghanistan may not be sustainable. And when the money stops coming in, then the whole enterprise could be in trouble.


Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of 'Engaging the Muslim World.'