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Six Questions for Secretary Gates

Caroline Wadhams outlines key questions that Congress should ask Sec. Gates as he testifies tomorrow on Afghanistan before the House Armed Services Committee.

Afghanistan faces a growing insurgency that directly threatens its stability and the national security interests of the United States and its allies. Security in Afghanistan has dramatically deteriorated since 2005. This year has been the deadliest year on record for both Afghan and U.S. troops since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people killed in insurgency-related violence.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other top military officials will speak to the House Armed Services Committee about the status of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Members of Congress must provide oversight of the neglected front in Afghanistan and demand greater clarity over strategic plans in Afghanistan and current operations; the questions below provide a good start toward meeting these goals.

1. Do you believe that the United States and NATO are defeating the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan? While the United States and its NATO partners state that we are winning the tactical victories on the battlefield, key figures highlight a deteriorating security situation.

  • This year has been the deadliest year for both U.S. troops and NATO-ISAF forces; 111 U.S. troops and 115 foreign troops have died this year in Afghanistan—more than any other year since 2001.
  • Suicide bombings, a tactic never seen before 2001 in Afghanistan, are now used with increasing frequency. Between 2005 and 2006, a sevenfold increase occurred in suicide bombings. 2007 has seen even higher levels of bombings, with more than 140 bombings carried out by extremists in the past year, killing more than 200 civilians.
  • More than half of Afghanistan, primarily in the south, has a permanent Taliban presence. "The Taliban are the de facto governing authority in significant portions of territory in the south and east, and are starting to control parts of the local economy and key infrastructure such as roads and energy supply." A leaked UN map shows that almost half of the country is now too dangerous for aid workers to operate in, a dramatic deterioration from a similar UN map in March 2005. According to news reports, U.S. and NATO forces have been unable to maintain control in vast rural areas in Afghanistan where the majority of Afghanistan’s population lives, and the Taliban has begun to make substantial inroads into new areas such as the western provinces
  • A National Security Council memo released in November 2007 stated that while U.S. and NATO forces have "scored significant combat successes" against the Taliban, wider strategic goals have not been met. According to the report, militants are able to recruit in larger numbers, and the main source of these new recruits are disaffected Afghans.
  • Support for the Afghan and international mission by the Afghan people is eroding—an essential element to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. According to a survey released last month by the Asia Foundation, 79 percent of Afghans believe that the government does not care what they think. According to a countrywide poll by the BBC, the number of Afghans who believe that their country is headed in the right direction dropped a precipitous 22 percentage points between 2005 and 2006, from 77 percent to 55 percent, while the number of Afghans who approve of the U.S. presence in their country eroded from 68 percent to 57 percent.
  • American military and intelligence officials believe that Al Qaeda may be increasing its activities in Afghanistan.

2. What are the United States and NATO-ISAF doing to minimize civilian casualties?

  • 2006 was the deadliest year on record for civilian casualties since the 2001 invasion; approximately 1,200 civilians have been killed in 2007.
  • According to the United Nations, the international coalition killed more civilians than the insurgents. 314 civilians were killed by international and Afghan government forces in the first six months of 2007, while 279 civilians were killed by the insurgents.
  • NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have called for a reduction in civilian casualties. In May 2007, the Afghan parliament was so disturbed by the casualties that it "called for an end to offensive military operations by foreign troops and for dialogue with the Taliban."
  • Military operations that result in large numbers of civilian casualties undermine security in the long-term and strengthen the insurgency. As the U.S. Military’s counterinsurgency strategy states, "Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is." It also points out that sometimes the best response to an insurgent attack is "doing nothing." As it explains, "often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact."

3. Do you believe that Afghanistan needs more NATO-ISAF and U.S. troops? If so, how many troops and what kind?

  • The United States has approximately 25,000 troops in Afghanistan under two commands: the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, and NATO’s International Security Force. NATO-ISAF has approximately 42,000 troops, and the total international troop presence in Afghanistan is approximately 50,000. This compares with about 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq—a country only two-thirds the size of Afghanistan.
  • Even with Afghan security forces, troop levels are one-tenth the number prescribed by U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which is usually a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1000 residents, or about 480,000 troops in Afghanistan.
  • General Ray Henault, the head of NATO’s military committee, stated in September 2007 that a shortage of NATO and Afghan forces is hampering efforts to win and hold ground from insurgents and that some NATO countries are not providing enough troops and equipment, which negatively affects those countries that do.
  • Secretary Gates has expressed frustration with insufficient contributions by NATO countries to the Afghanistan mission. He has stated that Afghanistan needs approximately 72 operational mentoring and liaison teams, and NATO-ISAF countries have only committed 36 teams thus far. He has also said, "In Afghanistan, a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens" for the rest of the 26-nation group. "The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission—and with it, the credibility of NATO—at real risk."

4. What is the status of the Afghan National Police? What are the United States and NATO-ISAF doing to improve the performance of the ANP?

  • Building a police force is one of international community’s highest priorities in Afghanistan, seen as essential to battling the insurgency. By July 2007, 71,147 Afghan police had received; they are projected to increase to 82,000 by 2008. Yet many believe that police training is far behind from where it should be.
  • The police are often perceived to be corrupt, abuse, and lacking discipline. According to one report, "Afghanistan’s citizens view the police more as a source of fear than security."
  • The United States and the international community have had conflicting visions for what the Afghan police should look like, undermining their training and effectiveness. The U.S. government tends to view the police as an auxiliary military force and has placed its training under the Department of Defense. They have been trying to stand up the ANP as quickly as possible. The Germans and the Europeans seek a longer-term approach of growing a police force that is more along the lines of a civil force.
  • Only 118 women were trained out of 71,147 police. In a society where many women are not allowed to speak to men outside of their family, especially in rural areas, this means women have few channels to voice their concerns or seek help.

5. How should the United States and the international community address the safehavens in Pakistan, which allow for the training of Afghan insurgents and global terrorists?

  • Al Qaeda and the Taliban-led Afghan insurgency are now using Pakistan as a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan and around the world. They have reestablished their command and control and reconstituted their training camps for suicide bombers and other extremists.
  • Compared with 2006, cross-border insurgent attacks have dramatically increased in 2007, including a doubling of attacks in June 2007 compared with the June 2006.
  • Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s influence are growing throughout Pakistan, in what Pakistani and U.S. officials calls a process of Talibanization. The Taliban has assumed leadership roles within the tribal areas and now operate in major urban areas beyond.
  • Apart from killing and capturing some key leaders, the Pakistani military has been very ineffective at destroying these safehavens. In fact, on September 6, 2006, it actually signed a deal with tribal leaders in North Waziristan to withdraw the Army and leave the area under the control of the militants.
  • Recently, the Bush administration outlined a plan to enlist tribal leaders to fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The primary objective in the plan will be training, equipping, and financing a tribal paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps. While modeled on U.S. success in allying with local Sunnis against Al Qaeda in Al-Anbar Province in Iraq, the circumstances in Pakistan are fundamentally different from Iraq. The conditions, which caused Iraqi Sunnis to turn against a foreign Al Qaeda presence, do not exist in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The Taliban is an indigenous force with deep roots in the area, and it is supported by many of the tribes that this plan would attempt to enlist. In the absence of reliable allies or a coherent strategy, flooding an unstable, hostile region with money and arms may be a recipe for disaster. The last thing that Pakistan needs is more unaccountable, unconstitutional and uncontrollable militias.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development also plans to provide $750 million in economic assistance to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is unclear what the strategy is for distributing this aid, or whether realistic accountability mechanisms can be put in place in such an unstable area.

6. Do you believe that the United States and NATO-ISAF should merge their missions under one command?

  • Currently, two missions exist: the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO-ISAF. Operation Enduring Freedom is largely engaged in kinetic, counterterrorism operations, while NATO-ISAF largely focuses on stability and security operations in coordination with Afghan security forces.
  • The U.S. Military’s Counterinsurgency Manual states, "Unity of efforts must be present at every echelon of a COIN operation. Otherwise well-intentioned by uncoordinated actions can cancel each other or provide vulnerabilities for insurgents to exploit."
  • OEF forces report to Maj General David Rodriguez, head of Combined Joint Task Force 82, based in Kabul, Afghanistan, while NATO-ISAF is led by U.S. General Dan McNeil in Belgium. These two commands do not meet until the president of the United States.; As Ambassador Jim Dobbins, former representative to the Afghan opposition in 2001, stated, "You not only have two commands in Afghanistan, but you’ve got two four-star generals, each of whom is the link between those commands and the national command authority in Washington. Now, almost any structure can be made to work, but structures that have this degree of dissonance and friction in them are just much more difficult to work effectively, and they are invitations for serious problems at some point down the road.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow