Attention Turns Again to Afghanistan

Stephen DeAngelis

February 11, 2008

With the conflict in Iraq capturing most of the headlines in the U.S., it is easy to forget operations underway in Afghanistan. By most accounts, things have not been going well there [see my post Afghan Conflict Confirms Tie Between Security and Investment]. One of those accounts is from retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones [“Conflicting Assessments of War in Afghanistan,” by Peter Baker, Washington Post, 11 February 2008].

“Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones hoped to get Bush’s attention with the report he produced on Afghanistan, he was clever enough to be blunt from the start. ‘Make no mistake,’ the report says in its first line. ‘NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.’ … Military officials reported that 2007 saw more U.S. casualties than any year since the 2001 operation to push the Taliban out of power. Today, according to most assessments, the Taliban and its allies do not control territory but operate with impunity from bases in Pakistan. U.S. forces beat the Taliban in any direct engagement but have been unable to defeat them strategically. Reconstruction remains spotty and opium production a growing problem. … Jones, the former NATO commander, does not couch his judgment. In a pair of reports that he oversaw, he made clear he views the situation in dire terms. One of them described ‘a stalemate of sorts’ in which the Taliban cannot beat U.S. and NATO forces but ‘neither can our forces eliminate the Taliban by military means as long as they have sanctuary in Pakistan.’ The report goes on to say that ‘urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state.'”

As a result, the Bush administration is reportedly contemplating a surge in Afghanistan similar to the one in Iraq. Just like in Iraq development also needs to move forward at the same time. There are lots of things holding Afghanistan back, including the continued presence of powerful warlords as well as Taliban rebels. Critical infrastructure is also lacking. As a result, the principal cash crop in Afghanistan is opium poppies. The World Bank claims that Afghanis will never quit their poppy habit without a significant investment in critical infrastructure [“World Bank: Stamp out Afghan opium cultivation,” Associated Press, USA Today, 5 February 2008].

“The world needs to invest more than US$2 billion in irrigation, roads and other rural development to wean Afghanistan off booming opium cultivations, a development bank report said. … The report, by the World Bank and Britain-based Department for International Development, argued that opium cultivation — Afghanistan’s leading business — can only be combatted if the country’s impoverished farmers have other means of making a living. ‘Without strong economic and development underpinnings, other counter-narcotics efforts cannot achieve sustained success,’ said the 98-page report. Needed steps include boosting community-based development projects, expanding irrigation, increasing use of livestock, and helping rural businesses and entrepreneurs thrive. The proposals include investments of US$1.2 billion to expand the land under irrigation, US$550 million to boost rural enterprise development, US$400 million for rural road planning, construction and maintenance. The money will be spent over up to 10 years.”

There have been continued attempts to build and rebuild infrastructure in Afghanistan, but security concerns have halted, even reversed, some of those efforts in the past. Nevertheless, there have been some notable exceptions [see my post Provincial Development in Iraq and Afghanistan]. One of the ways that the U.S. is addressing the need for Afghani infrastructure is using Provincial Reconstruction Teams in partnership with other NATO countries [see my post Dutch Soldiers Implement Sys Admin Approach]. An article in the Washington Times indicates that the U.S. is placing new emphasis on these teams [“Teams work to rebuild Afghanistan,” by Philip Smucker, 4 February 2008].

“With vast swathes of the Afghan countryside slipping under the sway of insurgent groups, the U.S. military is attaching new interest and urgency to the work of the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams charged with bringing development to the country. Where progress once was measured in Taliban fighters killed and captured, commanders now are as likely to count success in terms of soccer clubs organized and women’s centers completed. ‘Instead of killing [Taliban fighters] and seeing the insurgency just replace its own, we need development as a means of isolating the enemy,’ said Col. Jonathan Ives, an engineer from Washington state who heads up Task Force Cincinnatus in Kapisa province.”

Smucker points out that the soldiers who man the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are a different breed than normal warfighters. My colleague, Tom Barnett, calls these kinds of fighters System Administration Forces.

“The new strategies are calling for a new kind of soldier, and the PRTs are finding them — warriors who are as willing as any to place their lives on the line, but who — like Col. Ives — can also recite from memory the United Nations Millennium Goals for economic development. Capt. Eric Saks, of New York, recalls the first time he came under enemy fire while climbing through a line of boulders. He tossed a camera to a lieutenant and posed for a picture so he would not forget the adrenaline rush. But Capt. Saks said he is equally comfortable in his new role as a diplomat, aid disburser and peacemaker — a role that has earned him and his fellow PRT members some respite from hostile action. ‘The truth is that we are a little like rock stars out here,’ he said. ‘We have not been attacked while traveling alone, only when we are out with other teams or combat units. Even the bad guys know we are not really looking for a fight.’ Despite a growing appreciation of their work from their superiors, the PRT officers say they could use more help. Col. Ives said he would like to see another 25 civilian experts added to each 75-member team. ‘We need persons with degrees in government and law,’ he said. ‘I don’t care if they are from the U.S. or not; Finnish or Swedish experts would be fine.’ The PRTs take an expansive approach to achieving their three main objectives — improved governance, better security and reconstruction.”

As I have noted many times, those three pillars — good governance, security, and investment — are all required to foster sustainable development. Take any one of them away and the process tumbles like a broken milking stool. When Tom first proposed his SysAdmin Force, he received a lot of pushback from people who believed that soldiers must have a warfighting ethos. That ethos, they argued, is undermined when you ask soldiers to build nations as well as destroy adversaries. That’s why Tom argued that the warfighting force (which he labeled the Leviathan Force) needed to be separate from the SysAdmin force. Although a separate force has not been created as a separate department, specialized forces, like those manning the PRTs, have made his SysAdmin force a near reality. The idea is catching on in other countries as well [see my post The Economist Looks at the System A
dministration Force
]. Smucker concluded his article by providing a glimpse into some of the day-to-day activities performed by the PRTs.

“Col. Ives and his officers count among their achievements the organization of a youth soccer league, designed — in a country where half the population is under age 15 — to give teenagers an alternative to listening to the pitches of Taliban recruiters. ‘Tell me this isn’t a perfect picture of what people back home would want to help Afghanistan out with,’ said one officer as a group of youths pulled out photos of their team in matching uniforms. Members of the 25 PRTs in Afghanistan — which include civilians as well as military members — have mentored local officials and trained police auxiliaries, along with building numerous schools, dams and district government office buildings. But, Col. Ives’ officers say, success also depends on listening carefully to the needs of a war-torn nation. On a frigid day recently, a lawyer for women’s groups across the province, Zaheda Kohistany, presented Capt. Saks with a list of projects that would bolster the standing of women by educating them, informing them of their rights and providing them with sanctuaries from abuse. Capt. Saks and Capt. Toni Tones, a female Air Force officer who was last deployed working with AIDS orphans in Africa, perused a blueprint for a new women’s education center. ‘It is crucial that we try to move ahead with this project now, because if we don’t build it, the government will take back the land from us and use it for something else,’ Ms. Kohistany said. Other women in a meeting with U.S. soldiers asked for help saving a flooded girls school. ‘I have been here for 10 months, and I am just now learning that there is a girls school here,’ said Capt. Saks. One of the problems faced by U.S. forces as they try to step up their humanitarian assistance programs is continuity — being on the ground long enough to pinpoint development needs without duplicating past work or investing in useless projects. A new U.S.-built post office in Kapisa’s capital stands unused. Col. Ives said his soldiers have to assess human needs as well as human nature. Identifying honest leaders is at least as important as killing ‘high-value’ targets, he said. ‘First, we try to get a sense of what drives government officials: What is their background, what is the size of their clan and how corrupt they are.'”

In my discussions about the full implications of Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach, I have talked about how it could be used in collaboration with communities of practice, which must involve local groups and individuals. I’m pleased to note that the PRTs are getting involved in such communities of practice, even if they don’t call them that. One of the things that Tom has heard time and again from military personnel who have been involved in so-called “nation building” is the immense satisfaction they have derived from helping people. You can sense that same feeling in the people profiled in Smucker’s article. SysAdmin forces change lives and are changed themselves as a result.