Afghanistan’s Race Against Time

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Afghanistan’s Race Against Time

U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan won’t be able to kill their way to victory. But they may be able to choke off the insurgency.

Ali Mohamed has a surprise for his U.S. Army advisers. An explosive one. It’s right here in his backpack.

It’s late January in Marzak, a remote town in this rugged, sparsely-populated province in Afghanistan's extreme east, along the border with Pakistan. Mohamed is the newly-minted platoon leader for Marzak’s first and only Afghan Local Police force, a militia-style security outfit trained by U.S. troops and paid and equipped by the Afghan Interior Ministry. 

No, Mohamed isn’t one of the approximately 45 Afghan police, soldiers and airmen who have turned on their U.S. trainers over the years, killing 70 Americans. Rather, he’s an important ally in a critical Afghan village at an important late stage of the Afghanistan war. In many ways, Mohamed represents Afghanistan’s future as the U.S.-led NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) eyes the exit after 10 years of bloody fighting.

The Army’s 172nd Infantry Brigade has identified Marzak as a vital node in a Taliban supply route through Paktika’s mountain passes. For several years now, U.S. forces deployed to Paktika have concentrated on identifying and shutting down Taliban footpaths.

Marzak is the key to controlling this particular path. In early January, an American platoon flew into the impoverished, agricultural village and began the hard work of recruiting and training a 100-strong local police unit from the local military-age, male population. The first 40 of the new militiamen completed their training on January 23. The Americans tapped the quiet, diminutive Mohamed to lead them.

And just a few days later, Mohamed, acting on a tip from one of his neighbors, goes stalking off into the snow-coated mountains, unannounced, to dig up a Taliban weapons cache containing a 105-millimeter artillery shell (likely meant as bomb component) and more than 100 rounds of 12.7-millimeter machine-gun ammunition.

Mohamed hauls the weapons back to Marzak and proudly presents them to his American trainers. They pat him on the back and gently recommend that, maybe next time, he should inform his chain of command of what he’s up to. All the same, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Flynn is proud. “This is a new beginning for Marzak,” he says. 

But in Afghanistan, it’s a bit late for new beginnings. Indeed, Mohamed is a human manifestation of the coalition’s end-game. As a local cop interdicting Taliban weaponry, he represents the U.S. and ISAF’s last-ditch efforts to stabilize Afghanistan ahead of the planned departure of foreign troops.  

The Clock is Ticking

Today, some 124 months after the first contingent of U.S. Marines riding in CH-53E heavy lift helicopters infiltrated the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the American-led international intervention in Afghanistan has an expiration date.

“Hopefully, by the mid to latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a visit with European military leaders in Brussels.

President Barack Obama had previously pledged to withdraw all regular U.S. combat troops – currently 90,000 strong – from Afghanistan no later than the end of 2014. At least 20,000 Americans will quit the country by the end of 2012, the Pentagon says.

Some Special Forces are slated to remain behind as advisers, potentially for years. But they might number only a few thousand.

Without U.S. combat forces and, just as importantly, America’s logistical expertise, the roughly 40 other ISAF nations, together providing some 60,000 troops, can’t hope to continue fighting – nor is there any indication they want to. France and Germany, two of the biggest force-providers outside the U.S., are already beginning their pull-outs. 

The fighting in Afghanistan is largely seasonal. Violence escalates in the spring and summer and declines in the autumn and winter. Extreme cold, snow and poor visibility block the Taliban’s supply routes connecting their safe havens in Pakistan to the main battlefields in east, south and central Afghanistan. There are just two fighting seasons remaining before the scheduled end of the U.S. mission.

And that has forced NATO commanders and their Afghan allies to narrow their focus. With time running out, ISAF has had to invest its resources where the coalition believes they can make the most lasting difference – and fastest.

“You kill off an insurgency by choking off the things it needs,” explains U.S. Army Lt. Col. Curtis Taylor, commanding forces in western Paktika, including Marzak. “The hardest are fighting men and safe havens. The easiest are weapons and the support of the local populace.”

In other words, there’s no chance, particularly this late in the game, that the coalition can kill its way to victory. More young men – Pakistanis, mostly – join the Taliban and other extremist groups every year than the U.S and its allies can hope to kill. “I’m not sure there’s an end to the wave of people the Taliban can recruit on the Pakistani side of the border,” says Maj. Eric Butler, Taylor’s intelligence chief.

And since an invasion of Pakistan isn’t on the cards, ISAF can only hope to interdict weapons by blocking Taliban supply route, and also win the support of some everyday Afghans while pushing Afghan soldiers and police to take the lead on security operations. 

Meanwhile, the Americans are offering Taliban one last chance to “reintegrate” with mainstream Afghan society by joining one of the pro-government militias. The goal with this initiative is to draw a clearer distinction between native-born Afghans who are sympathetic with Taliban ideology but not terribly motivated to destabilize the Afghan government, and foreign extremists who are determined to tear down Kabul.

“There’s a big difference between foreign fighters and the local Taliban,” say Capt. Jim Perkins, commanding troops in Marzak. “They [the local Taliban] are very much against the foreign fighters.”

U.S. commanders consider each security scheme and territorial gain in light of prospects for full Afghan control. If the Afghans can’t take it over, and soon, it’s probably not worth doing so late in the waning intervention. “How do we make this sustainable?” Taylor says he asks himself.

Protect Your Own

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program, of which Mohamed is a member, overlaps with many of the commanders’ goals. The year-old initiative, launched in nearby Logar Province last year, aims to help far-flung communities protect themselves against Taliban attack by installing small, minimally-equipped, locally-recruited and -based police forces.

The ALP represents a sort of urgent reinforcement for the roughly 300,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces, which have reached their planned peak strength and are still spread too thin to defend every town and village. Even adding ISAF’s 150,000 troops results in a force too small for the traditional, population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN). ISAF wants to raise 30,000 local police in otherwise unprotected communities. 

The coalition carefully weighs where to install ALP units. For nearly a year now, U.S. troops in Paktika have been working to establish 100 to 300-man ALP forces in towns astride Taliban supply routes. Marzak, for example. The goal is for the local police to help block the routes, starving the extremist fighters of the weapons and troops they need to take on Afghan and international forces.

“You have to interdict over time,” Taylor says. The coalition believes a community-based force can play a key role in that kind of sustained interdiction, particularly as foreign forces become thinner on the ground.

The ALP units also represent job opportunities for young men who might otherwise be tempted to fight alongside the Taliban – or who already have. “ALP and reintegration are very closely tied,” Taylor explains.

The major criteria for ALP recruits are that they be from the community hosting the police unit, and that they are willing to defend their home against the hardcore Taliban. Given those conditions, past crimes are forgivable. Marzak’s ALP unit includes several former Taliban. “They [Afghans] like that idea,” Taylor says. “There’s an option for the Afghan Taliban, but no option for foreigners.”

Finally, local police can function as symbols of lawfulness, safety and self-governance for communities that have long been exploited by the foreign Taliban. Locally-recruited, -trained and -led but paid and equipped centrally, ALPs could be the best possible representatives of the otherwise distant-seeming Kabul, helping bolster the government’s standing in the eyes of skeptical villagers.

Provided the means to defend themselves from infiltration and intimidation by foreign-born Taliban, most communities will opt to side with the government. At least, that’s the coalition’s stance. “These guys hate Pakistanis – and we can tap into that to isolate the source,” Taylor says.

But the local police program is risky. No fewer than five previous attempts by ISAF to stand up community defense forces failed when local warlords ultimately co-opted the community fighters. ISAF recognizes that the same thing could happen with the ALP. “It’s a short-term solution that causes a long-term problem,” Taylor says of the local-police initiative.

Still, the ALP program represents one of ISAF’s last, best hopes. Unfortunately for foreign policymakers hoping to leave behind a transformed Afghanistan, there are few guarantees that any of the current international efforts will continue after the backbone U.S. troops depart in two years’ time.

Isolated examples such as Mohamed’s weapons-find are encouraging. But there are plenty of counter-examples, even in Marzak.

The local police force that Mohamed commands nearly collapsed in mid-January when one of the police, acting on some unexplained tribal vendetta, went rogue. The day before his ALP class graduated from basic training, Mohamed Aman led 11 police recruits into Marzak and, consulting a list he’d drawn up, denounced several residents as Taliban supporters and ordered them out of town.

Village elders raced to defend the accused, and withdrew their support for the police program until the Americans got rid of Aman. Shortly after Perkins fired Aman, the 11 men who had followed the rogue cop threatened to quit the program unless Aman was reinstated. Perkins managed to talk them down.

It was just one worrying incident among many, at a time late in the war when Afghan forces are supposed to be demonstrating their ability to provide security on their own. Instead, the same old personal and tribal conflicts all too often interfere with efforts to defeat the Pakistan-based insurgency.

“The big challenge for 2013 is what to do with the ALP,” Taylor admits. 

“The priority should be to create mechanisms to ensure proper training, supervision, and accountability so that the Afghan Local Police does not become just another abusive militia,” Human Rights Watch reported.

Perkins says there’s a proposal to fold the local cops into the national police force, which could provide better oversight. But that would require extra training. And extra training takes time. With just two fighting seasons remaining before foreign troops leave, time is one thing ISAF doesn’t have.