Study highlights problems for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Christian Science MonitorApril 23, 2010 

NEW DELHI — While current U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan broadly conforms to historical best practices, the Taliban have a number of advantages that have produced insurgent success in the past, according to a new study of 89 past and ongoing insurgencies worldwide.

The factors that favor the Taliban include receiving sanctuary and support in another country, learning to be more discriminating in their attacks and fighting a government that's weak and reliant on direct external support.

The historical trends suggest that the Taliban's Achilles heel would be the loss of their Pakistani sanctuary, while the principal American vulnerability is Afghan President Hamid Karzai's weak pseudo democracy.

The study, said the author, cannot be predictive, but it can help the U.S. address or exploit these vulnerabilities.

"A lot of the things being done in the current (U.S. military) plan are along the lines of successful things we've seen in the study," said Ben Connable, the lead author of "How Insurgencies End," published by the RAND Corp. in Washington. "The key is if the U.S. recognizes it is working with an anocracy (a weak central government) and recognizes the limits of that kind of government, you can work on solutions to that problem."

Solutions, he said, involve focusing on local governance and setting up local civil defense forces tied to one location. To some degree, the U.S. is already doing this. In rural Helmand province, the Marines are focused on building local government from scratch, and international forces have dabbled with setting up arbakai, traditional militias tied to local councils.

Still, weak governments have won only about 15 percent of their conflicts with insurgents. "Democratizing an anocracy in the midst of an insurgency is an unappealing but not necessarily impossible venture," says the report.

Another lesson: Indiscriminate terror attacks on civilians tends to backfire on insurgents. The report says that the Taliban have learned to discriminate, but United Nations data challenge that. Insurgents caused most of the civilian deaths in 2009. Their killings of civilians increased by 41 percent over 2008 levels, while pro-government forces reduced civilian killings by 28 percent.

However, there's little indication that these Taliban indiscretions have backfired on the movement so far.

There may be limits to applying international templates to a country such as Afghanistan, a tendency among U.S. military planners that's caused unease among Afghanistan experts. The brain trust that helped prepare U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan relied heavily on counterinsurgency — not regional — experts.

"Afghanistan may well share similarities with other countries and societies, but these elements need to be documented rather than assumed," anthropologist Thomas Barfield writes in his new book, "Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History."

The RAND study examined 89 insurgencies dating to the 1934 start of Mao's communist uprising in China. In order to be included, a conflict needed to have killed at least 1,000 people, among other criteria.

The final score: 28 wins for governments, 26 wins for insurgencies, 19 mixed results and 16 ongoing.

Most of the study's findings conform to the current conventional wisdom about counterinsurgency. One exception is the common belief that insurgents have the advantage of time. The average length of government-won conflicts is greater than for those won by insurgents.

The median length of an insurgency is 10 years. However, "insurgencies with more than two clear parties involved have longer, more-violent, and more-complex endings. Afghanistan is a case in point," the report notes.

More than half the insurgencies studied ended with some negotiation, even in cases with clear winners and losers, but for Afghanistan that doesn't represent an easy way out.

"This is an extremely complicated negotiation theory problem," said Stephen Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If you were to say, 'I am going to be strategist king and I am going to design the perfect solution,' it's like designing a mission to Mars — the complexity of it is really quite great."

Experts have scaled back their expectations about the likely outcome in Afghanistan, particularly since Karzai's fraud-riddled reelection.

"I doubt anybody is going to get their ideal best case out of this. The Pakistanis are very unlikely to get their Taliban government in Kabul to puppet from Islamabad. The U.S. is very unlikely to get a strong centralized, Western-style democracy," said Biddle.

President Barack Obama's effort to speed up a resolution in Afghanistan by planning a drawdown in 2011 elicits concern from Connable. He said that in cases where a foreign power such as the U.S. sponsored an embattled government, the premature withdrawal of support tended to result in the government losing.

". . . Without addressing the root causes of the insurgency, without insuring the government could stand on its own two feet — then the governments tended to lose," he said.

Arnoldy is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.

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