By Sameer Lalwani
I have three responses to Matt Yglesias's perplexed questions on the shortfalls of the Afghan National Army (ANA). First, his assumptions overestimate the military effectiveness of the Northern Alliance during the 2001-02 invasion. Second, he underestimates the skill, training, and commitment of the Taliban, both past and present. Third, he doesn't take into account the difficulties of learning the modern system of warfare, let alone modern counterinsurgency.
First off, Afghan indigenous forces were not the formidable fighting force that Yglesias assumes they were in 2001. The alliance of Afghan forces that fought the Taliban alongside the U.S., and later went on to become members of the Afghan National Army, was a mix of battle-hardened Northern Alliance that had endured years of civil war combined with a lesser-trained and inexperienced Eastern Alliance. With substantial U.S. support, the Northern Alliance entered Kabul in November 2001 but did not possess the ability to move on towards Jalalabad, a city in Nangahar province where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had retreated. It was the Eastern Alliance of Pashtun commanders that was used to pursue the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the South and East.
Reading through some of the debates between Stephen Biddle, Richard Andres et al, and Peter Krause, it's clear that the decisive element in the 2001 conflict that tipped the balance of power was American precision airpower that decimated the Taliban positions (though Biddle points out this was not always sufficient). Up to one hundred airstrikes a day were called in by a limited number of US Special Forces on the ground. And when close assaults were needed to accompany airpower, the far superior U.S. Special Forces -- not the Northern Alliance -- played a critical role in the Battle of Anaconda, the first large-scale conflict after Tora Bora.
This suggests that much of the Northern Alliance was not really tested in force-on-force battles with the Taliban, which had held them at bay for years prior to the injection of American airpower. And since we're now engaged in a counterinsurgency rather than an invasion, the role of airpower is purposefully being minimized to avoid the civilian casualties that so anger the population.
Meanwhile, Krause's examination of the battle of Tora Bora -- the December 2001 conflict between the coalition and the Taliban, in which Osama bin Laden narrowly escaped death -- concludes that the weakest link was the indigenous Afghan forces tasked to advance on al Qaeda positions. He writes, "The Eastern Alliance troops were unable to do much more than occupy territory vacated by al Qaeda troops, and their penchant for returning to dine with their families each night meant territory taken was rarely held."
Those forces also suffered from tremendous infighting and unreliability. Al Qaeda fighters were thus able to fend off an assault by Eastern Alliance forces before escaping through the mountain passes into Pakistani tribal areas, where they have since reconstituted much of their initial strength.
Second, by contrast, the Northern and Eastern Alliance, the Taliban were skilled ground fighters that had managed to take control of over 90 percent of Afghanistan by the end of 1999. The Taliban and al Qaeda had large cadres of well-trained and committed troops with mastery over the modern system of warfare. According to Biddle, the bulk of the terrorist training camps run by al Qaeda were actually training infantrymen in Western military tactics. They also had far stronger morale than their Northern Alliance brethren, demonstrated by their willingness to engage assault forces even during U.S. airstrikes.
Today's battle-hardened Afghan Taliban "core" (that number around 8,000 to 10,000 according to counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen, a figure likely rising with Taliban gains) are well-trained and committed. Though it may not be welcome news, it seems fair to estimate, for now, that the Taliban's level of commitment to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan (demonstrated by their acceptance of heavy losses) exceeds the Afghan National Army's commitment to suppress them, especially when less than half of the reported troop levels of the ANA are still in the ranks and ready for duty.
And though they do not have a superpower advising them, the Taliban have effectively promoted entrepreneurial jihad by disseminating a field manual that has been incredibly effective on both sides of the Afghan border.
Finally, it is also not surprising that the ANA is taking substantial time to grow into an effective fighting force. Simply learning what Biddle calls "the modern system of warfare" -- that is, tightly coordinated suppressive fire, dispersion, and small-unit maneuver -- is extremely complex and requires a high degree of commitment and skill. Training for counterinsurgency will in some ways be an even more daunting task, as it requires tremendous exposure and vulnerability compared to high-intensity conventional assaults.
Aside from the social and political characteristics that will pose obstacles, Daniel Byman lays out some of the tactical and organizational capacities critical to counterinsurgency that most of our allies in the region lack. Afghanistan specifically suffers from poor integration across units (to ensure communication, territorial coverage, and reinforcement when necessary), poor morale, and bad noncommissioned officers, and it will take some time for the relatively newly composed ANA to develop these capacities.
It also doesn't help that the ANA is perceived to be dominated and controlled by ethnic Tajik minority, which probably hinders mixed units' cohesion as well as hampers its operational effectiveness in the southern Pashtun-dominated region.
In a state where there is little history of a professional military possessing a monopoly on legitimate violence, asking the ANA to master conventional warfare and counterinsurgency anytime soon is improbable. Add to this challenge a formidable insurgency -- one with some external support but more importantly a large batch of seasoned and committed fighters -- and it's no surprise that this will be a struggle for quite some time.
Sameer Lalwani is a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research fellow at the New America Foundation.
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By Sameer Lalwani
On the eve of the Afghan presidential election, there are very few public polls on which analysts and commentators can base their forecasts. So it's worth taking a moment to evaluate how useful these are and consider some of the biases that confound accurate polling.
First, polling will suffer from tremendous sampling bias, in which the sample is not representative of the national population. Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world with an extremely low telecommunications penetration rate. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there is less than one fixed phone line per thousand people. The world average is about nineteen per thousand.
Afghan mobile phone usage has increased exponentially in recent years to 29 per thousand but this still remains half the global average. This telecom divide means phone polling tends to favor wealthier urban constituents and under-sample rural areas. Pollsters can correct for this with face-to-face interviews (as the IRI and Glevum Associates did in their recent election polls) though they are more time consuming and expensive. But polling in a conflict-zone incurs new sampling biases by tending to over-sample safer and less-conflict ridden areas.
Second, polling in America is far different from polling in Afghanistan. A colleague who extensively traveled and studies the Middle East once warned me about putting much stock in foreign polling numbers, particularly out of American firms. His reason was this: the United States is an open society with a long history of polling and consumer surveys that acculturates people to be more responsive and forthright in their opinions. In conflict-ridden societies with a history of repressive governments, people have learned to guard their beliefs and are more likely to mislead polling interviewers out of fear retribution from the central government, local elites, or insurgents.
Finally, polling will predict inaccuracies if it doesn't match up with actual turnout. Specifically in Afghanistan's case, the two real election polls by IRI and Glevum both equally sample men and women. While appropriate in theory, the fact is in Afghanistan's 2004 presidential election, women were only 40% of the turnout. And with the resurgence of the Taliban in the south and east, as well as the deal cutting President Karzai has done to win the support of conservative Shia men, if anything women's turnout will likely be further depressed.
These biases also need to be accounted for when it comes to polls of Afghan support for the central government or US/NATO forces. And while these biases might introduce just a few points of error, it is those few points that could be the difference between a Karzai majority victory and a runoff election.
Sameer Lalwani is a research fellow with the New America Foundation and a Ph.D. student in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
By Sameer Lalwani
During the 1980s covert campaign against the Soviets, Pakistan's General Zia ul-Haq told CIA Director William Casey that being an ally of the United States was like living on the banks of a major river -- "The soil is wonderfully fertile, but every four or eight years the river changes course and you may find yourself alone in the desert." Since then, Pakistan has remained cognizant of Zia's warning and insulated itself from fully allying with the United States.
Barack Obama's current approach to Afghanistan fundamentally depends on Pakistani cooperation to squeeze the Taliban insurgency from both sides and halt the cross-border raids that have frustrated NATO efforts. But despite surface appearances and tactical victories -- like the recent elimination of a major Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud -- it is increasingly evident that the U.S. president does not have the partner he needs or wants.
After repeated setbacks, advocates of the Afghanistan strategy partly base their optimism on the Pakistani military's recent turnabout, launching offensives on Taliban strongholds. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Pakistan's moves against the Taliban are anything more than tactical, or that the Pakistani leadership shares America's threat perceptions or strategic interests.
Nor does Mehsud's untimely demise change this picture. In the past, the Taliban have displayed surprising cohesion even after the death of senior militant commanders. In many cases, they've only been replaced by more zealous leadership.
Of the some 20 militant groups that broadly compose the "Pakistani Taliban," the Pakistani military selectively confronts the ones that directly threaten their government. Insurgents who confine their activity to cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO forces remain largely untouched. After Mehsud's death, it is unclear whether Pakistan will be less of a target for Taliban attacks. One thing, though, is certain: The various factions of the Pakistani Taliban will not only continue their cross-border raids on NATO troops but will likely step them up in response to the drone strikes.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban that use Pakistan as a safe haven will continue to be given a pass. Pakistan considers them "strategic assets" to hedge against Indian encirclement, the Baluchi insurgency, or a rapid Western departure from the region that leaves Pakistan holding the bag.
This strategy is the product of what the Pakistanis see as limited options. Despite calls to model the success of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, the Pakistani Army is not adopting such techniques because of the tremendous costs and tradeoffs involved. A serious counterinsurgency effort would require a force the size of the entire Pakistani Army. This poses an insurmountable obstacle since Pakistan still considers its eastern border with arch-rival India a far greater existential threat than the Taliban, and with good historical reason. While the latter can launch attacks and disrupt daily life, the former has defeated the Pakistani military in three wars and possesses the capability to capture territory and destroy the state.
Manpower requirements notwithstanding, counterinsurgency is one of the most difficult military strategies to execute. It is extremely time-, capital-, and labor-intensive -- and bogs down even the most capable and sophisticated militaries in the world. It can also potentially weaken a military's conventional capabilities. Recent studies suggest that after decades of quelling insurgents in the Palestinian territories, Israeli Defense Forces were underprepared for the largely conventional fight against Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Public opinion also significantly influences Pakistan's strategic choices. Pakistan is a partial democracy with a vibrant independent media and an active citizenry. But the public remains distrustful of U.S. intentions and is loathe to unleash the Army on its brethren for what are seen as Western interests. Even if the public shares some threat perceptions of al Qaeda, overwhelming majorities strongly disapprove of U.S. leadership and its mission in Afghanistan, and believe the United States seeks to divide and weaken the Muslim world. Pakistani leaders also estimate NATO's presence in Afghanistan to be more destabilizing for their country.
Obama faces a strategic "Catch-22": If he increases troops in Afghanistan to demonstrate a commitment to the region, this will reinforce suspicions of a Western colonial occupation and galvanize support for the insurgency. If the Pakistani government confronts Taliban militants raiding Afghanistan, perceptions of colluding with this occupation could intensify resentment, militant recruitment, and attacks on the Pakistani state. And a destabilized Pakistan would be far more dangerous than a destabilized Afghanistan.
Strategists in Pakistan think the ruthlessness and ferocity of the Taliban, which once controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan, will outlast a hesitant NATO and a largely hapless Afghan National Army. Reports indicate they already control the south and east and are beginning to infiltrate the north. Even Americans are starting to balk at the price of a decade-long counterinsurgency effort that can cost roughly half a trillion dollars and as much as 50 casualties a month.
Pakistan's calculations won't be easy to change. In 2001, U.S. threats coerced Pakistani cooperation but today -- with its dependence on Pakistan to transport up to 80 percent of its supplies for Afghanistan -- the United States no longer possesses the same leverage.
Understanding that Pakistani strategic and political interests are not aligned with American ones should prompt a serious rethink of investments in the "Af-Pak" region. Obama has three options: Raise the stakes to induce real cooperation by making Pakistan a strategic and financial offer it cannot refuse, deploy another 100,000 troops or more to control the Afghan border region without Pakistani help, or forego Afghan nation-building for more limited objectives like containing al Qaeda, even if it means the Taliban retaking the country. These options are political nonstarters for now. But so long as the United States misunderstands its partnership with -Pak, its strategy in Af- will remain in jeopardy.
Sameer Lalwani is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of a forthcoming report on the Pakistani military's counterinsurgency capabilities.
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