This morning, I participated in a tele-conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations with Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Senator Kerry, who is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was speaking on prospects for US policy and strategy in Afghanistan, from where Kerry recently returned from a fact-finding trip. Kerry's visit was designed, among other things, to obtain Afghan President Hamid Karzai's acceptance of a run-off vote in the disputed presidential elections in Afghanistan, which Kerry succeeded in getting.
[The transcript of Sen. Kerry's remarks are available here.]
Kerry began by stating that the debate over the proposal by General Stanley McChrystal that a minimum of 40,000 more US troops are necessary to stave off defeat is not the proper topic for policy discussion. Rather, the focus needs to be on developing a comprehensive strategy that melds military strategy with the necessary improvements in the Afghan government and society.
Kerry also stated that the US does have vital national security interests at stake in Afghanistan. Even though most of al Qaeda has been routed from Afghanistan and has moved into Pakistan, the porous border between the two means that if the US withdraws or significantly draws down its operations in Afghanistan, al Qaeda would likely move back into Afghanistan. It is thus imperative, he argued, to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing the kind of sanctuary it was able to provide prior to 9/11. Instability in Afghanistan leads to and contributes to instability in Pakistan.
Furthermore, Kerry warned that a radical departure from the current strategy would threaten US credibility around the world. First, Islamist insurgents would learn that the US can be defeated and lacks the political will to see a conflict through to its end. Second, a US withdrawal would send bad messages to US allies around the world, who look to the US as the leader of, as he called it, the global counter-insurgency movement.
So, the question that needs to be at the forefront of any policy discussion, as Kerry sees it, is what realistic goals can the US establish that can be met and will contribute to success? That in turn raises the question: How should success be defined? For Kerry, success will occur when the US has sufficiently empowered the Afghani government to the point where it can assume responsibility for domestic security and when the Afghan state can be sufficiently stable and secure so as to not be controlled by the Taliban or al Qaeda. This definition is important because it does not require that Afghanistan become a "flawless democracy," nor does it require that the US or the Afghan regime defeat the Taliban. Rather, Kerry was emphatic that the end is "good-enough" governance" which in turn requires capable Afghan security forces and a legitimate, effective civilian government.
After defining "success" Kerry turned to actual policy. He began by rejecting the strategy championed by Vice President Biden of drawing down US troops to shift to a highly limited strategy of targeting al Qaeda as an insufficient footprint to stabilize Afghanistan and protect Pakistan. Furthermore, such a policy could lead to a civil war, which would in turn directly threaten Pakistan. However, he also rejected (noting that this is not the strategy recommended by McChrystal) a broader country-wide counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. The US does not have the capability for such a strategy (Kerry cited a number of 400,000 troops that would be needed); additionally, a broad strategy isn't needed, as the resurgent Taliban isn't active in the entire country, as it largely confined to the Pashtun-dominant regions. Fortunately, Kerry argued, such a broad COIN strategy is not needed. Rather, the US should focus its military COIN strategy on the population centers.
So. Kerry said more troops are needed. But, before the troops can be delivered, several questions need to be asked. 1) Are there enough reliable Afghani forces to partner with US troops and that can eventually assume the primary responsibility for domestic security ? 2) Are there local leaders with whom the US can partner? 3) Is the civilian government ready to support the military mission and to provide the domestic services needed by the civilian populations?
Kerry argued that while the answer to #2 is yes, the answer to #s 1 and 3 is "not yet". Kerry put out a number of 92,000 being the number of Afghan police and security forces currently capable of engaging in operations, although he noted that the real number is probably closer to 50,000, and that 3-4 times that many are required. But the real problem that worries Kerry is #3. The real problem in Afghanistan, as Kerry sees it, is inattention to the basic needs of the Afghani citizens who need basic services -- access to water, jobs, law, etc. -- to live their lives. If the government can't or won't provide these services, the average Afghani will turn to support anyone who can, and that's where the Taliban steps in. Kerry cited the recent revelation that the Taliban have created ombudsmen to hear complaints about their rule, while the government is widely mistrusted.
The key to Afghanistan is, Kerry argued, whether the Afghan government can succeed in providing these basic services and be seen as legitimate and effective. When and where the government succeeds, the Taliban weakens. Kerry claimed that there are only approximately 3,000 "hard-core" (i.e. ideologically committed) Taliban members, while the rest are either common criminals looking to profit, those opposed to the US presence, or those who simply believe that the Taliban offer a better future than does the current government. The right combination of effective governance, money, diplomacy, and promise of reintegration into society can, Kerry believes, siphon off many of these pragmatic Taliban members leaving the core isolated and weakened.
The key to Afghanistan, Kerry concluded, is whether the US and any future troop increase helps the Afghan government provide basic services and security.
Senator Kerry then took several questions from the press (the tele-conference was a press conference) one of which which I'll re-create here to the best of my ability.
A reporter from the Washington Times asked whether Kerry's preferred strategy -- implementing COIN in the population centers -- is any different from the policy implemented in the Bush administration. Kerry answered that the emphasis on effective and legitimate governance would, if done properly, make all the difference. Focusing on good-enough governance at the national and regional levels is the key to success, not increasing troops or even clearing the country-side of Taliban. The emphasis under Bush, Kerry claimed, was clear and hold, but without enough of a troop presence to hold. The proper strategy, Kerry said, is clear, hold, build (as in build civil society and services) and transfer (as in transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan government).
I am right on board with Senator Kerry's assessment. Increasing troop levels to be able to implement a proper COIN strategy is key, but it is matched in importance by the need to develop a credible and effective partner with the civilian Afghani government. These two elements must come hand in hand in order for anything even close to success to be a possibility. For Kerry, the solution is to steadily increase troop levels (Kerry stated that the US can effectively deploy 1 brigade to Afghanistan every 3 months) while concurrently judging the improvements in civilian benchmarks (provisions of services, stamping out corruption, training effective Afghan soldiers and police). The Biden-supported alternative is far too risky, not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan. Given that a complete withdrawal is clearly out of the question, the only other alternative is to increase troops to implement a COIN strategy. McChrystal has laid out the military requirements of such a mission; but the military can only be successful when there is a sound political strategy in place. Kerry has laid out the broad contours of such a political strategy. Let us hope that President Obama listens.