Finding the 'right stuff' in Afghanistan

Reducing violence and bringing the US military under NATO command won't be easy.

In the war on terror, success should be measured by the absence of killing and the spread of prosperity.

Recently in Afghanistan, the upsurge in Taliban activity has sparked concerns over the dearth of development with the imminent expansion of the NATO-led 36-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the volatile southern and eastern regions currently under American command.

Nevertheless, the British general in charge, David Richards, is buoyant: "I have the right men and women under my command, an excellent and productive partnership with the government of Afghanistan, and, increasingly with key elements of the rest of the international community. Building on the American experience, we are all getting our act together. A focused strategy is being put in place. It is the right stuff."

But reducing levels of violence and bringing the US military under foreign leadership will not be easy. ISAF will also have to convince Afghans that they have a real stake in a post-Taliban government. More and more, they are questioning its ability to deliver basic services and law and order. And they wonder why the $3 billion or so of donor money for their country never seems to hit the ground.

To beat the insurgency and win over Afghans, we need a strategy that rests on four pillars.

First is to link development activity with security action. That means showing that foreign-designed plans can benefit citizens – not just international consultants. Afghanistan National Development Strategy provides an overarching development framework, well thought out and beautifully sequenced. But it falls apart on contact with Afghanistan's veneer-thin human resources, fragile political compact, and in places, medieval living conditions.

Second, development projects will have to focus on sectors with the greatest economic multiplier effect, most likely roads, housing, water, and power. They will need to be branded and publicized for maximum public impact, and in a way that keeps the international community firmly behind – but not leading – the Afghans.

The growing of "ink spots" of calm and prosperity by matching development and security efforts with trouble spots, has been energetically seized on and promoted by General Richards. The aim is to expand government capacity and reach through nonviolent instruments, rather than fighting. The 23 military-run provincial reconstruction teams are central in rolling out generic infrastructure development packages, the nib through which the ink will flow.

Third is to rethink international attempts to demobilize the 1,800 or so illegally armed groups that remain.

Such a strategy risks undermining stability in comparatively calm areas in the north and west, especially since the government and ISAF do not possess the capacity, governance, and military to fill the resulting power vacuum. Instead of the demobilization of militias, the focus should be on legalizing and regulating them through central government control and funding. Afghans have to be allowed to devise their own solutions, and even fail, if necessary.

Fourth, the West's focus has to be on "the art of the possible," which may involve holding back, for the moment, on drug eradication – especially if Afghanistan's eventual recovery takes as long as its quarter century of decline. Interim attempts to do away with what is the sole means of income for some communities, especially in the south, in the absence of instant alternatives, is only likely to inflame and mobilize antigovernment support.

This cannot be done without strengthening the police. No small challenge in a tribal, largely premodern society, where our judicial niceties will not fit easily. But in the absence of a secure, better-governed and more prosperous local environment, Afghans will not succeed in tackling the country's poppy fields, the source of 90 percent of Europe's heroin.

The biggest challenge of all may be in bridging the military-political divides within the alliance. European NATO nations must support their leadership in theater by dedicating the assets required to enable robust military action alongside a "softly softly" development aspect.

The US will have to come to this new party by aligning its counterinsurgency strategy to multinational NATO command. Defeating insurgencies requires winning populations over to your cause. Fewer bombs, less bombast, and more hearts and minds – if they can do that in Afghanistan, they may turn the tide in the all-important information war. This means finding a new middle: The Europeans putting more money, people, and assets on the table, with the US understanding a new world, its own limits and place in it.

Greg Mills heads the South Africa-based Brenthurst Foundation and is a special adviser with ISAF. Terence McNamee is editor of the Royal United Services Institute Journal in London.

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