The Forgotten Front

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    Six years after the United States led an invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and destroy Al Qaeda’s safe haven, Afghanistan faces a growing insurgency that directly threatens its stability and the national security interests of the United States and its allies.

    The United States and the international community initially made great strides to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda and stand up the Afghan government following the invasion in October 2001, but the situation has dramatically deteriorated since 2005. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and are supporting the Afghan insurgency while strengthening their own capabilities. Although the current administration has portrayed Iraq as the central front of the “global war on terror,” Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan remain the central battlefield.



    The United States must accomplish two central objectives in  Afghanistan:

    • Deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
    • Build a stable, secure state that is not threatened by internal conflict and does not threaten its neighbors.

    In order to meet these two objectives, the United States must change its current approach. It must fully implement a counterinsurgency framework for all of Afghanistan. All elements of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, including development and reconstruction assistance, support for rule of law, counternarcotics strategy, and military operations should be coordinated within this framework.

    Counterinsurgency, as defined by the U.S. Military’s Counterinsurgency Manual, is “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.” It is a battle over political power, as each side attempts to win over the population. All instruments of national power, not just the military, are used to support and strengthen the host government. Success in a counterinsurgency means that the people consent to the government’s rule, and that the government provides security, rule of law, and social services, and enables the growth of economic activity.

    The United States and its international partners have a window of opportunity to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. But it is closing rapidly. A failure to turn the situation around in the near future will allow Afghanistan to revert to a failed state that is a terrorist haven for Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks. The process of stabilizing Afghanistan and effectively denying sanctuary to terrorist groups is not a quick process; it will take at least a decade. But success in Afghanistan is achievable, and would make the United States and its allies safer from terrorism. The United States, the Afghan government and the international community must therefore undertake the following as part of an effective counterinsurgency strategy:

    1. Build Afghan Government Capacity

    The Afghan government is unable to provide rule of law and services or meet its greatest threats because it is plagued with widespread corruption, an ineffective Ministry of Interior and police force, little to no control over the international community’s actions within its borders, and declining legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan population.

    In a counterinsurgency strategy, strengthening the government is one of the most crucial elements for success—to defeat the insurgency, the population must see that it is in their best interest to support a government. This will only occur if the government provides rule of law, public services, and security.

    The United States should support the creation and implementation of a judicial sector strategy to address the absence of rule of law, support efforts to curtail corruption, reform the Afghan police force and Ministry of Interior, and make the Afghan government a true partner in this approach.

    2. Increase Security

    Security has deteriorated since 2005, and the insurgency is strengthening due to an insufficient number of international and Afghan troop levels, a lack of equipment, a misguided military strategy, a disjointed coalition, a growing recruiting pool for the insurgency, and a safe haven in Pakistan.

    The United States should increase troop levels by approximately 20,000 by redeploying troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, shifting the military strategy fully to a counterinsurgency framework, reducing civilian casualties, strengthening the Afghan National Army, and unifying NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the United States’ separate Operation Enduring Freedom under one NATO command. All of these actions must be coordinated with civilian actors and integrated with other aspects of a counterinsurgency strategy.

    3. Jumpstart Reconstruction

    Reconstruction goals have not been met since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan due to inadequate coordination and implementation of a nationwide reconstruction strategy, insufficient funding, mismanagement of reconstruction monies, corruption, sidelining of the Afghan government, and growing insecurity. The United States, the Afghan government, and the international community must utilize more effectively existing development frameworks, increase U.S. assistance for reconstruction and development projects by $1 billion contingent on increased accountability and transparency of U.S. funds, allocate more funding through Afghan government trust funds, place the Afghan government in the lead of reconstruction, reform Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and provide more assistance on the local level and to other areas of the country besides the south.

    4. Reduce Opium Production

    Opium production has hit all time highs in Afghanistan; Afghanistan now supplies 93 percent of the world’s opium. The current counternarcotics strategy, as pushed by the United States, is working at cross-purposes with counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism objectives by focusing too heavily on the farmers and not the traffickers or leaders of the drug trade. The overall drug strategy must be reevaluated, higher-end actors in the drug trade must be targeted, aerial eradication must be taken off the table, and alternative livelihood programs should be increased.

    5. Remove the Terrorist Safe Haven  in Pakistan

    The Afghan insurgency and Al Qaeda have reconstituted themselves in the borderlands of Pakistan. The historical isolation and weakness of the Pakistani government in these areas are the central reasons that the haven has emerged. However, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s accommodation of extremist elements and miscalculated approach in the tribal areas, and an outdated U.S. policy toward Pakistan, have further contributed to the sanctuary’s growth.

    The United States must put much greater pressure on the government of Pakistan to disrupt the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s command and control, change the scope of U.S. assistance toward Pakistan, increase efforts to facilitate a political dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan, focus on economic development and strengthening governance in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and promote democracy in Pakistan.

    The United States must work with the Afghan government and its international allies to implement a fundamental strategy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By utilizing a counterinsurgency frame- work to focus on the five challenges addressed above, the United States and the international community can turn the situation around in Afghanistan.

    This report will describe the challenges we face in Afghanistan in greater detail and make comprehensive recommendations for addressing each one. All of the challenges are linked, and recommendations in one section will apply to other sections. Creating an effective strategy will require simultaneous action on all elements presented here—the insurgency can only be defeated if governance and rule of law are strengthened, the Taliban-led insurgency is weakened on the battlefield, reconstruction progresses, the opium trade declines, and the Pakistani safe haven is dismantled.



    Phone Conference on Pakistan
    (15 min audio recording)


    Moderated by:
    Caroline Wadham, National Security Senior Policy Analyst


    Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
    Sen. Tom Daschle