There are good reasons to think that counterinsurgency may not work as well in Afghanistan as hoped, or as new commanding officer General David Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual says it should. But before despairing, NATO forces should try three common-sense measures with a long history of effectiveness in counterinsurgency: We must secure Afghanistan’s 5,529 kilometers of border, count and identify the Afghan people, and establish a functional justice system.
These are tactics. But they correspond to a strategy.
First, we must restore Afghanistan to neutrality. It will never be at peace as long as its neighbors perceive it as a space in which to enact their own political dramas. Second, we must leave Afghanistan as a functioning state that has a reasonable amount of control over, and knowledge of its population. And finally, we must show the Afghan people that democratic institutions can offer better and speedier justice than the Taliban.
All this is still no substitute for providing Afghans with a government they prefer to the insurgency. But they are necessary steps.
General Petraeus’s “bible,” Field Manual 3-24, says “insurgencies often rely heavily on freedom of movement across porous borders.” But unfortunately the Manual has nothing to say about the importance of securing borders. Afghanistan has 2,428 kilometers of border with Pakistan, 943 with Iran, not to mention Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Guess how many police guard those borders? As of May 21, 16,104—probably down a couple hundred by now, given the high attrition rates of the Afghan Border Police. More than 4,000 quit in the 12 months ended March 21.
American training efforts have scanted the Afghan Border Police. Our training efforts with the 109,000-strong Afghan National Police have come to little after four years of double-billion dollar a year expenditures. Because it’s very dangerous to be an Afghan cop in the south and east, they quit in droves: 16,000 last year. Maybe it’s time to move most of the Afghan National Police to the Pakistani and Iranian borders where they won’t be an irritant, but an asset.
The Field Manual also insists on the importance of “population control,” yet after eight years no one knows if the population of Afghanistan is 20 million, 33 million, or somewhere in between. Nor do we know how many belong to each ethnic group. It’s hard to do basic governance, like running an election, without knowing how many people are in the electorate. This will be a problem in this fall’s scheduled parliamentary elections, which offer a rare hope for a fresh start if they are conducted honestly.
General Petraeus’s Field Manual has excellent counsel about census-taking: “Population control includes determining who lives in an area and what they do. . . Establishing control normally begins with conducting a census and issuing identification cards. . . Census tasks include establishing who resides in which building and each household’s family head.”
Afghans have national ID cards, but they don’t have biometric data on them. Even the Afghan Army and Police haven’t included biometrics on their ID cards, which permits the all too frequent instances of insurgents wearing police or army uniforms infiltrating.
The U.S. forces have even failed to undertake cheap, common-sense measures. For example, number the houses in each village. A very brave Afghan cop I met in Khost province in 2008, Sergeant Arafat, who goes by one name, came up with this one. So when an IED went off, he could call the Americans and say, “Explosion near house 20, men are running out of house 32,” and so on. But as far as I know, this idea has not been replicated.
Finally, the Afghan justice system is more or less nonexistent. Illiterate judges don’t know the Afghan penal code—or don’t want to know it—so they free IED cells, heroin smugglers and child rapists apprehended by our forces or Afghan forces. A bribe gets just about any type of criminal out of jail.
The words “martial law” do not occur in Gen. Petraeus’s field manual. But it’s time to think about declaring martial law in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and probably some of the eastern provinces as well. The laws should be simple, clear, constantly announced on the radio and strictly enforced. Some will object that this violates Afghan sovereignty. So be it. Afghanistan isn’t France—and even France needed a coup to save it, in May 1958.
Too expensive to do? Or too expensive not to do? Perhaps our results to date in Afghanistan answer the questions.