Lessons from Iraq for Afghanistan

The hottest guessing game within the Beltway is the question of when, how many, and for what purpose President Obama will surge additional troops to Afghanistan at the request of his top general there, Stanley McChrystal. It is worth noting that whatever the President’s decision regarding troop levels, reinforcing the military buildup with a political surge by weaning away fighters from the Taliban insurgency is likely to be the centerpiece of U.S. and NATO strategy.

Consider history: A 1972 case study by RAND of the Malayan counterinsurgency experience from 1948 to 1960 found that protecting the population via a “reward-for-surrender” program and imaginative exploitation of surrendered insurgents helped produce success, but it took about 12 years to do so.

After reviewing successful counterinsurgency (COIN) programs in Malaya and the Philippines in relation to Afghanistan, a 2009 Brookings study concluded that it may take well into 2010 to see if this kind of population security strategy is actually working for Afghanistan — especially if resources devoted to such a COIN strategy may be at the lower end of what such missions have generally required to be successful. This Brookings work on Afghanistan found a type of population security strategy employed during 2001 to 2005, when Washington “…paid tribal leaders and warlords, in some instances formerly loyal to the Taliban, huge sums in exchange for providing regional security and local expertise in hunting down Al-Qaeda.” The period after 2005 until 2009, however, was under-resourced to carry out a population security strategy in Afghanistan.

And an American Enterprise Institute study of how COIN programs in Pakistan could learn from India’s experience in Kashmir concluded that COIN campaigns, especially successful ones last on average over a decade. The bottom line regarding length of time for a successful population security strategy to be effective is about a decade.

In addition to having enough time for success, it is important to have means to bring warring parties to the table for negotiating political compromises. Then-presidential candidate Obama said during the 2008 election campaign on how the surge in Iraq depended on mediators:
It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, Sunni nationalists, from a more radical, messianic brand of insurgency.

Indeed, the effective 2007-2008 military surge under President Bush of some 30,000 Americans coincided with a political surge of tens of thousands of Sunni fighters drawn away from supporting al Qaeda in favor of U.S. forces.

During a research trip to Iraq during 2008, I found one key to peeling Sunni tribes from the anti-American insurgency was use of an interlocutor trusted by both sides; in Diyala Province, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, the main Iranian opposition group, was such an intermediary, as reported in my book, President Obama and Iraq: Toward a Responsible Troop Drawdown. Such Diyala tribes included al-Baeej, Somaida, al-Zoheiri, Alkhashali, al-Masoudi, and Neda.

A lesson drawn from Iraq for Afghanistan is to combine military and political surges. To create a political surge requires drawing Afghan Pashtun tribes, such as the Noorzai, away from the Taliban core and al Qaeda. While there is some indication of tribes available to peel off, there is little evidence of an interlocutor to assist in doing so.

U.S. military officials estimate that as much as 70 percent of Taliban fighters are motivated not by ideological affinity to the Taliban core’s radical version of Islam, but by money or political rivalry with President Karzai. Most Pashtuns are conservative Sunni Muslims and do not subscribe to the core Taliban’s Deoband version of Islam. Furthermore, despite Pashtun adherence to conservative Sunni Islam, most Pashtun tribes govern themselves under a system of secular tribal law, and do not adhere to the Taliban practice of clerical governance.
Simply because Pashtun tribes in southern and eastern Afghanistan do not share the religious aims of the Taliban movement does not mean they are easily co-opted. Despite ideological distance from the core of the Taliban, Pashtun tribes that form the bulk of the insurgency are notorious for their resistance to both foreign armies and political centralization in Kabul.
U.S. efforts to wean Pashtun tribes from the insurgency will have to focus on empowering local tribal leaders to govern themselves without allegiance to the Taliban and cannot aim to lash such tribes to the government in Kabul, which would be a bridge too far and drive tribal leaders away.

Just as Sunni tribal leaders who supported al Qaeda in Iraq were drawn away from the insurgency, so might Pashtun tribes be drawn away from the Taliban core and al Qaeda partners if there is an Afghan interlocutor like the Mujahedeen-e Khalq in Iraq; without a mediator to win the trust of both sides and create an Afghan political surge, a military buildup is likely to fail.

Winning such confidence may involve working with unsavory leaders. In 2005, Haji Bashar Noorzai, leader of the million-member Noorzai tribe was arrested in Manhattan on drug charges as he was offering to sell out the Taliban and cooperate with the United States. With the Taliban on the ascendancy, can the United States allow the quest for the best to be the enemy of the good? If so, a military surge is unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan.

The most recent iteration of this dilemma is the October revelation that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and representative of Kandahar province, receives regular payments from the CIA for a variety of services. Evidence that Karzai is involved in drug trafficking raises questions whether elements of U.S. policy are working at cross-purposes: In the same month, three DEA agents were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
Given the role of the opium trade in financing the Taliban, efforts to eradicate the drug from Afghanistan are important; foreign policy, however, is often about making difficult choices among distasteful options. As the Taliban regains momentum in Afghanistan, peeling off the group’s Pashtun allies is a top priority of the United States and NATO. So long as such tribes remain under the sway of Mullah Omar and the Taliban core, the battle against corruption and the drug trade has little hope of lasting success.

Enduring success can only come as the result of U.S. and NATO efforts to wean Pashtun tribes away from the insurgency; and the use of political and monetary concessions from Kabul to keep Pashtuns on the side of the allies will be essential to a U.S. exit strategy. Such transfer of sponsorship from Washington to Baghdad was essential in preventing Iraq’s Sunnis from reverting to insurgency, which was risked by Baghdad’s initial reluctance to make timely payments. And to wean some of the Taliban’s tribal Pashtun followers away requires a sufficient number of U.S. forces to win the trust of locals by providing population security against Taliban retribution as well as having a mediator bring the warring sides to the table.