What Do You Do When the Taliban is less corrupt than the Afghan Police Force?
On this day, July 14, 2009, the United States and its coalition partners have been engaged in the sands of Afghanistan for approximately 7 ½ years. Starting from the very first U.S. strike on Taliban strongholds in October of 2001 (one month after the Al’Qaeda-sponsored attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon), Washington has made it absolutely clear that defeating the Al’Qaeda terrorist organization is paramount to a broader success in the War on Terrorism.
So the reasoning goes, depriving the Taliban and other Islamic extremists from acquiring political power in the Middle East (or Southwest Asia) will allow for democratic governance to prosper among the people. With democracy established in Kabul, the Taliban Regime that was once so influential in the mid- 1990’s would lose its luster as a movement…exposing its leadership as the fanatical menace it really is. The main American objective would then be fully completed: democracy would be set up in Afghanistan, thus giving the Afghan population an incentive to abide by international law for the sake of international peace.
Indeed, this endeavor could be categorized as the biggest and boldest plan that Washington has formulated in modern history. If there was ever a challenge for the worlds remaining superpower, transforming a war-torn and anarchic society dominated into a modern nation-state fits this description.
Over the last seven years, tens of thousands of American troops have worked extensively with anti-Taliban warlords in the pursuit of this very same goal: uprooting the Taliban movement and driving them to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Fortunately, this strategy has been tremendously successful for the United States and its allies…paving the way for a young democratic government under President Hamid Karzai to flourish. Expanding the western way of life seemed all too easy for President George W. Bush in 2003, given the fact that both the Taliban and Al’Qaeda were severely degraded to pieces of their former self. It appeared at first glance that the extensive American-NATO ground campaign was quickly being accomplished.
And then came the preventive war with Iraq, a campaign that diverted immense amounts of manpower, resources, and technical expertise from Kabul to Baghdad. And then came the six-year American-led occupation of Iraq, prompting devastating waves of violence by Islamic fighters and Al’Qaeda in particular. Suicide bombs, ambushes, and roadside attacks were claiming the lives of U.S. soldiers by the day, all the while mitigating the coalition’s effectiveness at establishing law and order in Iraq’s provinces. Sunni insurgents and Shia militias began to fight one another in a full-fledged civil war over the country’s resources and power. Innocent men, women, and children were routinely targeted on the streets with tactical strikes and bomb-blasts. It took Washington two years of civil-war to finally embrace a new strategy for Iraq…getting back to basics by implementing an effective counterinsurgency doctrine to combat incidents of terrorism and indiscriminate murder.
Thankfully, Iraq’s violence has decreased significantly over the past two years. Yet, the United States is finally discovering how much they sacrificed to salvage Bush’s Iraqi campaign. Afghanistan, the country where America’s War on Terrorism began eight years ago, is now undergoing the same type of violence that plagued Iraqi society years before. Inadequate ground troops, ineffective Afghan Security Forces, a Taliban resurgence and the corruption of President Karzai’s administration has all but diminished any prospects for a stable democratic state in the heart of the Islamic world. The war in Afghanistan is now being labeled as Mr. Obama’s Vietnam War: an analogy that not only questions America’s commitment to the fight, but brings a wrath of skepticism as to whether the fight was even worth it in the first place.
The newly-elected Barack Obama seems to realize this recent phenomenon. His administration has already approved an additional 21,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan, most likely in the hopes of securing the population for the upcoming August 2009 presidential elections. American forces and their NATO comrades have teamed up to drive the Taliban once and for-all from their hideouts in Southern Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kandahar where Taliban philosophy reigns supreme. News reports have described numerous U.S air strikes directed towards Taliban-infested villages…quickly trying to reverse the last seven years of failed Afghan policy. Although early in this new military campaign, it appears that Mr. Obama’s “Af-Pak” strategy is working with tremendous effect. The fact that the President has already stated that Taliban fighters have been pushed back is a testament to how unwavering his commitment to Afghan security is.
However, while the ground phase of the battle is beginning to decimate the morale of the Taliban movement, another front in the war is continuing to be ignored…the establishment and implementation of a neutral and just judiciary system complemented by the rule of law. Afghan villagers tell depressing stories of corrupt officials in Afghanistan’s national police force, stopping innocent civilians and looting them of their possessions. Urban and rural residents alike point to the “brutal” nature of these untrained men in uniform, terrorizing the local population while exerting direct control over much-needed resources. Instances of sexual assault and rape are commonplace, according to Mohammad Gul, an elder in the village of Pankela where British troops have recently expanded their offensive:
“If the boys were out in the fields, the police would come and rape them…you can go to any police base and you will see these boys. They hold them until they are finished with them and then let the child go.”
Such horrific descriptions are especially difficult to accept, considering the fact that western troops were tasked with training, equipping, and teaching Afghans how to become effective and law-abiding public servants. With widespread instances of rape, looting, and beating towards the very same people they are supposed to protect, members of the Afghan national police are behaving more like petty criminals than legitimate servicemen. These crimes against humanity have reached to such an extent that Taliban militants are cheered on by local Afghan villagers…a development that U.S. troops should be deeply concerned about. As this same elderly villager comments, “We were happy (after the Taliban arrived). The Taliban never bothered us. If the police come back and behave the same way, we will support the Taliban to drive them out.”
One can understand these statements early on in the war, when the Taliban still enjoyed a relative share of support among the Afghan population. Yet, a full seven-years into the conflict, compliants like these are beginning to emanate from Afghans of all tribal divisions. Even the most ardent critic of the Taliban regime must question the effectiveness of the U.S-NATO campaign.
President Obama and leaders of CENTCOM must begin to realize that winning the hearts and minds of the people is just as essential, if not more so, as military force when destroying an insurgency. All the military successes in the world will not bring Afghanistan closer to victory. As long as the Taliban remains the only true alternative to a corrupt and demeaning Kabul government, the principles and tenants of Islamic fundamentalism will remain embedded in Afghan society. As long as President Karzai is unable to exert control past the capital city, insecurity and the influence of warlords will turn Afghanistan into a fragmented country on par with its dismal history of civil war. As long as the government of Afghanistan is unable or unwilling to create economic opportunities for its people, opium production will continue to increase throughout the countryside…furthermore funding the Taliban’s insurgency.
Military strikes on Taliban hideouts are indeed important if the United States wishes to secure the population for the short-term. President Obama has already expresed how important short-term security gains are to Afghanistan’s political development: U.S. forces are ordreed to stabilize the country long enough for the Afghan people to safely vote in the country’s upcoming elections. While such efforts are warranted, we must ask whether this strategy is enough to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a potential safe-haven for terrorists. If politicians in Washington and Brussels truly wish to box Islamic fundamentalists into a corner, military force must be accompanied by development and reconstruction. Rather than strive for the short-term, the U.S. and its coalition partners must make available the funds and resources required for a friendly Afghan government to function. More importantly, Washington and Europe must begin to implement reconstruction projects that help to serve the basic needs of the Afghan population. More often than not, electricity, schools, and businesses are more helpful in removing insurgency than bullets and air-strikes.
Above all, it is vital for the United States Military to gain the trust and support of Afghan natives. The only possible way of achieving this, of course, is by treating people with respect and dignity. The United States and NATO can facilitate this progress by doing what should have been done seven years earlier: monitoring the Afghan police force and recognizing that the advisory mission is a primary responsibility.
-Daniel R. DePetris
-Information from AFP and Peter Graff of Reuters contributed to this blog