x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A 'civilian surge' in Afghanistan

As the country prepares for the presidential election amid violence and scepticism, the US says it is putting in place the biggest change in strategy by focusing on security rather than killing enemies.

A woman reviews copies of ballot papers during an election awareness programme on the outskirts of Kabul.
A woman reviews copies of ballot papers during an election awareness programme on the outskirts of Kabul.

Taliban gunmen, some wearing vests packed with explosives, seized a shopping centre in Logar province outside Kabul last Monday and opened fire on a nearby police headquarters. The ensuing battle lasted several hours with mortar shells hitting the homes of residents caught in the crossfire. It is believed about six people were killed. At the same time, an hour's drive away, the president, Hamid Karzai, was introducing his election manifesto, which includes a promise to provide better security for Afghans if they vote him back into power for a second term next Thursday.

The contrast between the two scenes was a sign of the extraordinary conditions under which the presidential election is taking place and how far the country is from the peace many Afghans hoped democracy would bring when George W Bush's administration overthrew the Taliban eight years ago. It seems like another age when Mr Karzai was so popular at home and abroad that Tom Ford, the former Gucci designer, named him the most chic man on the planet.

A May poll of 3,200 Afghans by the International Republican Institute, a non-partisan organisation, indicated that only 30 per cent of those questioned believed Afghanistan was heading in the right direction. The figure in April 2004 was 79 per cent. "The new president of Afghanistan, the new government of Afghanistan will clearly understand there is a lot of pressure both by the Afghan population and international community on him to deliver and deliver fast," said Said Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to America. There are signs that the United States is preparing a strategic reappraisal to help whoever wins do just that.

The most pressing issue remains next week's election, however. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt it, and a three-ring security cordon of Afghan police and army and western soldiers - an astonishing force of approximately 273,000 - will be deployed across the country to protect the voting. Their caution is understandable. In the lead-up to the election, the insurgents have already done a fair job of disruption.

So far this year, 893 Afghan civilians have been killed and 63 per cent of those deaths have been blamed on insurgents, according to the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington. July was the worst month for American troops since 2001, with 42 killed. In addition, 22 British soldiers died, the highest toll since the Falklands war in 1982. Thousands of well-paid expatriates are leaving town to wait out the election violence. The planes flying out of Kabul for safer shores such as Dubai are packed.

Those staying on have received instructions from their employers that as of early next week they are in "lock down" for several days, which means they are not allowed to leave their heavily guarded houses under any circumstances. Next week it will be increasingly difficult to enter the major urban areas due to Afghan police and army checkpoints on the outskirts to keep out troublemakers. "The election will be difficult and expensive but we will show resilience," Mr Jawad said.

Not having the election would make the government even less popular than it already is. "There is truly no other option. It is a constitutional requirement but also if you don't have an election you will undermine the legitimacy of the political system and make it even more difficult for the government to be present and deliver services." While the country braces itself for the voting, behind the scenes, away from the daily death toll and campaign promises by the 41 presidential hopefuls, significant changes are taking place.

After years of complaints by aid workers, Afghan leaders, civilians and diplomats that the country was being neglected, Washington is now tearing up its user's manual on Afghanistan and putting in place the biggest changes in its approach to the conflict since 2002. A crack team of diplomats, soldiers and officers has been given the task of turning around the Afghanistan disaster by the president Barack Obama's administration. Since American forces pulled out of Iraq's urban areas on June 30 the focus has steadily began to shift to the original front line of what was once called the "war on terror", a phrase that has now fallen out of fashion.

"Civilian surge" and "it's not about how many enemies we kill; it's about how many civilians we protect" are now the popular buzz phrases. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top American and Nato commander in Afghanistan who was waiting by an aeroplane to fly to Kabul the day his appointment was finally confirmed by the American Senate in June, has been given unprecedented freedom to choose 400 ambitious officers and soldiers, who will rotate between Afghanistan and Washington for three years. He was also been given 60 days to come up with a plan for how he will carry out an ambitious new strategy.

That eagerly awaited war review was expected to be presented to the defence secretary Robert Gates this week, but it has been delayed until later this month or early September. It appears the general can ask for whatever he likes - except more troops. On Thursday, Mr Gates told reporters in Washington that the review would not include a request for more soldiers. Broadly, the strategy will mean providing security for Afghan civilians in a country that has not known the rule of law for three decades.

"I think Gen McChrystal's view is exactly where we need to be going that is taking away the insurgents' valuable resource and that is the [support of the] population. Without [that] there can be no insurgency," said Col Wayne Shanks, the chief of public affairs, in an interview from Kabul. In anticipation of the difficulties ahead, the Pentagon last month ordered 2,244 all-terrain vehicles designed to negotiate the rugged landscape and protected against mine explosions, a popular tactic with insurgents.

In Florida's US Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 130 intelligence analysts have been assigned to Afghanistan compared with 90 for Iraq. Soldiers are being offered courses in Dari and Pashto, the official languages. Next year the Pentagon will spend US$65 billion (Dh239bn) in Afghanistan - more than the $61bn earmarked for Iraq. Whether the changes are genuine and long-term remains to be seen.

Between 2002 and 2008, $14.7bn in aid was spent but another $14.7bn that was promised has not materialised. There are still 130,000 American troops in Iraq - twice as many as there are in Afghanistan. "Part of the problem is few people understand how badly resourced this war has been," said Anthony Cordesman, an adviser on the experts' panel that helped to draw up the new strategy for Gen McChrystal. "It's a war where for half a decade you had insurgents allowed to move into the vacuum. It will take real leadership from the American president to change."

The war will not be won unless there are more soldiers, money, experts and fewer restrictions on Nato member countries to fight, Mr Cordesman added, stressing these were his own views and did not necessarily reflect those of the McChrystal panel. "You are never going to have perfect security, perfect stability, but the key is going to be whether the majority of the Afghan population has security, whether you can shift from counterinsurgency to law and economic development."

In 2004 the then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld hailed the first presidential election as a model for democratic change in the Muslim world, but next Thursday's vote is being viewed with more realism. "One candidate has had nearly a year to buy his way to victory, making political appointments," said Mr Cordesman, referring to Mr Karzai. "It is probably better than having no elections, but most Afghans at this point want security and effective government. Simply having an election is not going make it happen."

Another high-profile name in town is the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, a retired general who did a long tour of duty in Afghanistan and has been given three experienced former ambassadors to help him on the diplomatic front. A so-called "civilian surge" of 732 government experts, including embassy staff, is expected to arrive by the end of the year. "They talk about a civilian surge but it borders on being a joke. These hires are not a surge but rather a step to correct years of understaffing," Mr Cordesman said.

One of the biggest complaints has been deaths of civilians in Nato air strikes. Mr Jawad has said he welcomes new efforts to limit the number of casualties and distinguish between insurgents and civilians. "In the past, eliminating or killing the enemy was the first priority, but now the mission has completely changed by making population security the first priority. McChrystal has not just talked about that but made clear rules of engagement so civilians are not part of casualties."

Increasingly, American forces are staying on to defend territory claimed back from what soldiers nickname the "$10 Taliban" in reference to their daily rate. "When we go and clear an insurgent's area, we will remain in that area with an adequate amount of forces to keep them from coming back," said Col Shanks. "That's been our strategy in the last couple of months." After years of drifting and complacency, there is a sense of urgency.

"The enemy's getting better and tougher and we need to turn that around in the next 12 to 18 months," Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters at a briefing in Washington recently. However, patience is wearing thin. hghafour@thenational.ae