What solutions?

In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. He had opposed the Iraq War and had denounced at the time the strategic error of opening a second front—all the more that this was an unnecessary war. In addition, he had announced that priority would be placed on the war in Afghanistan and after a lengthy consultation period, he chose a new approach. On the suggestion of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he decided to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy and to reinforce military presence on the ground with thirty thousand additional men. To reassure his public opinion, Obama announced withdrawal from Iraq—under certain conditions—starting in 2011.

But to restore a situation so badly started more than a half-dozen years earlier and from which the adversary had largely benefitted during last years (2004-2008) was no easy task. What were the necessary (but nonsufficient) criteria? First, time was needed. But from the start, an unalterable commitment had to be made to be out in three years. Then troops were needed: thirty thousand men were therefore the bare minimum, not even to improve the correlation of forces but simply so it would not deteriorate. Above all, a government was needed, one that would try to improve the economic situation of a considerable part of the population. The one that had been placed in power was characterized by the corruption of a clique that made it a habit of co-opting potential opponents by paying them off. In such conditions, how would it be possible to win over the rural population, that is, the country’s majority?

In addition, the situation had been made even worse by two serious disadvantages. The war had been mainly waged by foreign troops, whose rejection by the local population, grown stronger, had been skillfully exploited by the Taliban. How long can foreign armies claim to be fighting for the liberation of a people? Above all, the Taliban had found assistance and refuge in Pakistan; a state receiving US financial aid was backing its donors’ very adversaries. This dilemma was never solved, nor even approached (except during the secret operation carried out in Pakistani territory to eliminate Osama bin Laden).

This was the lame Catch-22 situation of US troops in Afghanistan. (It is true that Pakistan’s nuclear status constituted an obstacle to applying pressure on the country.)

One last element can be added to this picture shedding light on the US failure in Afghanistan. The Afghan army, which was getting classic training (unsuited to hunting down the Taliban), was made up, according to US estimates, of thirty thousand operational soldiers out of a total of one hundred thirty-four thousand (2008), that is, no more than twenty-five percent. The soldiers’ wages were one hundred sixty-five dollars a month, which could explain the attractiveness of the military function but did not contribute to their willingness to fight. For years, the police force had been a plague for its behavior and corruption. Its recruits were much worse than the army’s. According to US sources, forty-seven percent of them had not completed their training period.

Something that is remarkable about US democracy is related to its capacity in times of crisis to take rigorous stock and to act. This was the case regarding Iraq in 2006 with the Baker-Hamilton report, and regarding Afghanistan, with General McChrystal’s lucid report. By comparison, in France we are a very long way off. For having given a rigorous account of the Afghan situation in a French daily, General Vincent Desportes, at the time director of the École de Guerre, the official body in charge of setting military doctrine, was upbraided by the Army Chief of Staff and lost his post. This type of attitude is a recipe for failure.

In his report (published on September 21, 2009 by the Washington Post), General McChrystal established, in substance:

  • Wanting above all to protect US troops for fear of suffering casualties is partially the cause of collateral damage and has distanced the troops from the Afghan population, both psychologically and physically.
  • The weakness of the state, the corruption, and the errors of the coalition has dissuaded the Afghans from supporting a government that has done so little for the population. The crisis of confidence with regard to a state that has guaranteed security, justice, and basic services so poorly, together with the absence of an economic outlook has facilitated the adversaries’ propaganda.
  • In many areas, the existence of a Taliban shadow government has been found, which has the populations under its control. The Taliban are taking the lead, and are seeking to exercise even greater control over the population, breaking the coalition’s determination.

These were his proposals to improve the situation:

  • To gain the initiative, put troops on the ground, protect the populations, and improve their living conditions.
  • The coalition has an advantage over the Taliban: financial means to improve the situation in the rural areas.
  • Success will depend, in the long run, on an effective administration perceived as being at the service of the population, and on reliable security forces.

The first panel of this tryptic was attempted but did not modify the situation for lack of both follow-up and men. The third panel was unrealistic from the start. The country’s administration was non-reformable.

Given these conditions, there has been very limited leeway. In fact, counterinsurgency was abandoned just one year after being attempted. Instead, the proven “ink blot” technique was applied, which consisted in cleaning up an area, then moving on to another. The southernmost province of Helmand was selected to be the theater of the new strategy. The “ink blot” method consists in spreading out from a center and pushing the adversary to the periphery. This of course requires that the adversary is not evasive. The Taliban, however, did not try to hold their ground. They preferred to withdraw and take the combat elsewhere, in particular to the province of Kandahar.

To occupy the ground lastingly and to change the populations’ living conditions while continuing to hunt the Taliban in the neighboring provinces, more troops would have been needed. Tactical victories were possible. But to take over administrative power on the ground at the scale of the country, at least half of which was controlled by the adversary, was hardly possible without more time and men, both of which were out of the question.

The differences openly expressed by General McChrystal and published in the Washington Post led to his resignation in 2010. By 2011, in my view (one unofficially shared by top-level officers on the ground), the war had been lost politically. Thereafter, it was no longer possible to foray outside of Kabul without taking considerable risks. The north of the country was invested as far as the Badakhshan province. As for the Taliban operations, by 2011 they were being carried out by several hundred men.

US objectives for 2014 were the following: to restore security, to improve the country’s administration, to create jobs, to develop the economy, and to fight against drug trafficking. None of these was reached. Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai, re-elected in 2009 under more than dubious conditions, would finally withdraw officially to make room for a fairly unpopular leader who would not be able to change anything fundamentally. The military situation remained just as poor.

Pakistan had shown its capacity to cause trouble in the fall of 2010 by preventing trucks essential to the coalition’s logistics from going through its territory. Not to mention the presence of Osama bin Laden, who had taken refuge there for a dozen years…
In 2015, when the death of Mullah Omar was announced (he had been dead for about two years), minor dissensions arose but not a serious crisis. Power was assumed by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. In November of the same year, a group of dissenting Taliban took as their leader Mullah Mohammad Rasoul. A month earlier, the Taliban had managed to seize for a brief moment the town of Kunduz, in the north of the country, showing their capacity to make trouble, even in the state’s urban strongholds. Kunduz was taken back thanks to US intervention, but this also meant that departure of US troops by the end of 2016 as promised by Barack Obama was no longer on the table. The generals demanded to have ten thousand men after this deadline, and the president authorized a few more than five-and-a-half thousand.

The war in Afghanistan was at a point of non-victory from the military point of view and of political failure, which could have easily changed into a military defeat if US troops were withdrawn. The Afghanistan problem, collateral damage of the Iraq War, had appeared to be solved in 2002.1 Nearly fifteen years later, it had turned out to be one more fiasco, after that of Iraq. Although it had been costly financially, it had not been so in terms of men, neither for the United States nor for the coalition allies. Nonetheless, like in Iraq, due to pressure from public opinion, some contingents were withdrawn (Spain’s, among others) showing the strong misgivings of public opinion experiencing the permanent anxiety diffused by the media, television in particular.

The last year of US presence will undoubtedly be remembered for its spectacular growth in urban attacks. What the United States called “Afpak” will have been, from 2001 to 2016, a complicated game of duplicity, with Pakistan, thanks to its atomic weapons, playing both sides to get substantial economic aid from Washington. Pakistan is a state in serious difficulty, which lost its competition with India a long time ago. While its army was fighting against its own Taliban, it never stopped supporting, and monitoring, with its intelligence services (ISI), the Afghan Taliban who were fighting the United States and their allies. A second constituent contradiction can be added to this one, namely, how, with foreign troops knowing nothing about the cultural context, could a war intended to consolidate an unpopular and corrupt power possibly be won?


The 2007 reversal

It was in 2007 that the war really took an opposite turn. In Kandahar, the Taliban were able, with complete impunity, to blow up the city’s prison walls, release three hundred Taliban and an even greater number of common criminals, and retreat in a bus, scot-free. Just a few miles away, a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team heard the explosion but did not budge. The fact was that Kandahar, despite the offensives of an administration controlled by the Karzai family, was a Taliban stronghold. None of this was reflected in the official discourse, and the foreign media themselves remained vague on the situation. Few people investigated seriously and when they did, the results of the investigation were known only to a small number of politicians, at the top, who continued to not change course.

On the field, right in the middle of the country in the province of Urōzgān, it could be noted that the Italians had paid the Taliban to avoid clashes, and that the Dutch remained strictly confined and were not holding the ground. The governor of the province spent most of the year in London and received his guests in the garden of his strongly guarded villa. In 2008, it was decided to send additional troops (perhaps ten thousand). Too little, too late. Was it possible to hold a country like Afghanistan, which had an active sanctuary at its disposal, with some seventy-five thousand men, even if there were twice that many when including the security firms (almost exclusively in cities, especially three or four cities)?

By 2007-2008, the war was lost, not at the military but at the administrative level, at least in the Pashtun area—or more than the southern half of the country. The Taliban, as noted, were present at the scale of the villages. This was obviously not newsworthy. There is nothing spectacular about groundswells affecting the social field underhandedly, especially when they occur in such a surreptitious way. The Taliban technique was classic, based on the mobilization methods that Mao Zedong, in another ideological context, had popularized in China.

The Mujahedeen I had known in 1980, especially during my second stay, longer than the first, had reacted spontaneously to the foreign (and impious) intervention, even if the local traditional authorities had set the tone. In a quarter of a century, many things had been shaken up by the war: the local leaders had made way to young commanders, and tribalism had lost ground. Undoubtedly partly thanks to their training by Pakistani intelligence services, the Taliban had adopted Leninist-Maoist-style persuasion/coercion techniques to impose themselves. They denounced the regime’s corruption, significant in the cities but in the countryside as well, and the presence of foreigners who claimed to impose rules contravening religion. They established their first contacts in mosques and followed them up with shows of force. And once their presence was established, they stood in for the state, which was absent and corrupt anyway, and rendered non-negotiable justice according to rules familiar to the populations.

Facing them was an Afghan army with many weaknesses: insufficient troops (fifty-eight thousand men in 2008); too many non-Pashtuns in its ranks, an obvious disadvantage in the Pashtun region; defective logistics, which made it dependent on the coalition troops; and finally, chronically, numerous deserters, even if there are no reliable statistics.

The Taliban, for their part, had serious advantages, in particular thanks to Pakistan, which, in addition to logistics and sanctuary, offered them an inexhaustible reserve of volunteers (with a population of at least fifteen million Pashtuns, if not more). In addition, the Taliban exercised administrative control over the population in the south and, gradually, the north of the country. Moreover, they had understood that the center of gravity of the conflict resided in Western public opinion, which had become unable to bear military losses. Thus, in 2009 in Uzbin, not far from Kabul, the French forces lost ten men in an ambush. The French president of the republic went there to pay them homage. The French media—and part of public opinion—adopted a victim’s interpretation of the ambush, stating, overall, that the soldiers had not fallen in the line of duty, or even of their commitment, but because of an unfortunate accident, which should have been avoided.

There were other advantages offsetting the relative military weakness of the Taliban: the Taliban opposed the presence of foreign troops while combating a manifestly corrupt regime, which, in ten years, had done nothing for the rural areas, or so little; the values preached by the Taliban were more familiar in rural areas than for instance “democracy” or the role of women; and finally, their ideological motivation (whatever the judgement on its nature) was infinitely higher than that of their adversaries, whether Western or Afghan.

False hopes had been built up since 2007 on the possibility of rallying certain Taliban. This turned out to be a delusion. In this type of civil war, the aim was not nothing less than to destroy the adversary as soon as the foreign troops evacuated the country. In fact, the Taliban’s main condition for any negotiations was the departure of all foreign troops.
The situation in the country in 2007 (six years after the beginning of the presence of the coalition gathered around the United States) was one of dismaying mediocrity: very few combatants on the Western side; and a badly armed, unmotivated Afghan army (often joined just to have regular wages).

In spite of appearances, Hamid Karzai was essentially the master only of Kabul. A few provincial capitals were under control, but with the passing of time they mostly depended on the local governor’s capacity to manage an increasingly restricted domain.

On the whole, never were counterinsurgency and reconstruction of the nation (a pretty much impossible task for foreigners) anything other than slogans. It is difficult to see, in fact, how such ambitious tasks could have even been considered with no knowledge of the local culture or language. Once again, the contrast with the colonial period is striking. The worst was not having the slightest information on local culture, customs, and behavior. Failure was contained in the project itself.

Apart from tiny inflation, all the indicators were negative: three-quarters of the population were suffering from malnutrition; just as many had no access to drinking water; infant mortality affected twenty percent of children under five; sixty percent of Afghans had no access to health care; and finally, three-quarters of adults (and ninety-two percent of women) were illiterate, with primary school being attended by sixty percent of the boys and thirty percent of the girls.

Under these conditions it is easy to understand why the slogan “Nation building” was Utopian. Seven years after the intervention, the balance was pathetic. Globally, Afghanistan was ranked 176th out of 178 countries for corruption. And according to the World Bank, it was one of the five poorest countries of the world.


The international coalition side

Whether among the reconstruction teams, stingily spread over the Afghan territory, or among the troops confined to a half-dozen camps, the atmosphere was same: we are among our own. We eat our country’s cooking—this was the case for Americans, who were the most numerous—we watch our own television, listen to our own music, and watch DVDs from back home. We pump iron. We hardly go out, and when we do, it is always in convoys preceded by cars clearing the road to avoid car bombs. Contacts with the population are rare, except when searching for suspects or when searching a house.

Now that communications make it possible, we are in touch with our family and our loved ones every day. We belong to a professional army with a one-year rotation—sometimes less than one year, for some coalition nationals—with combat units that must above all keep safe and not suffer losses. The major part of the troops is in fact psychologically and physically in transit. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that in about fifteen years, US troops only lost less than two thousand five hundred men, that is, an average of approximately one hundred fifty per year.

The famous reconstruction teams, each made up of two to three hundred soldiers, were building wells, schools, and health centers—and gathering intelligence. This military and political use of humanitarian aid disqualified the work of NGOs, which were seen as instruments of the occupying forces. As there were not enough men, private security firms, like in Iraq, proliferated, with the number of their members soon exceeding that of the coalition soldiers.

It was only when conducting investigations in the provinces in 2005-2011 (I was able to go to nearly ten of them) that one could measure what was not reflected in the propaganda of the regime and its backers. The criticism and reservations of international civil servants, when they were expressed, were non-official (off the record). Sometimes an observer would publish a critical assessment to be lost in the water wheel of the media, which would essentially reproduce the official propaganda of the moment. Nowhere did the “gray beards” from the rural areas or the boroughs mention any improvement in their living conditions.

With the passing of the years 2006-2007, it became evident that the Taliban were progressing and that using the air force multiplied “collateral damages,” enough for Hamid Karzai to soon feel obliged to protest on several occasions. In May 2006, there were violent anti-US riots in Kabul. The US forces were mainly confined to a succession of camps (close to Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, and elsewhere). Sometimes the air force proved effective: one of the important military leaders, Mullah Dadullah, was killed by a Predator (2007). But the population came under Taliban control as of 2007-2008.

The Taliban comeback

The Taliban were back by 2004, though in small numbers.

In the beginning, the Taliban were rural and educated in Deobandi madrasas preaching a rigorous and puritanical vision of Islam that had been encouraged during General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in Pakistan in the 1970s. As Pashtuns, they were embraced by the population, especially in the Pashtun area in the south. Their legitimacy was supported by restored security and stemmed from sharia law. This was perfectly suited to the rural world.
The state that the Taliban had set up since 1996 allowed them to control more than eighty percent of a country that in the absence of economic growth relied on a subsistence economy, hence on the countryside. The Taliban state was mostly confined to a sterile and formal moralism and allowed itself to be drawn by al-Qaeda into global jihadism, where it had nothing to gain. The price was paid shortly after September 11. Military defeat came quickly and, contrary to Mullah Omar’s expectations, his troops were not given the opportunity of a face-off with US infantrymen.

In addition, the Taliban’s allies were accomplices of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former leader of the Hezb-e-Islami movement, which had been the greatest beneficiary of US aid (the group was directly responsible for the Uzbin Valley ambush, which had resulted in ten French casualties). Lastly, the Haqqani network (which had originated in Paktia) was well established in both Paktika and in Paktia.

Reorganized by Pakistan, the Taliban quickly made their presence felt in the south and the east of the country, and attacks resumed. Sporadic in 2004, they were suicide bombings aimed at killing police and Afghan army soldiers. At the time, they were attributed to foreign terrorists, because suicide bombings, it was claimed, were not part of the Pashtun culture. Nor had they been part of the Tamil culture before the Tamil Tigers began to use them systematically. These latter were modern-day pioneers in this area. By resorting to suicide bombings, their goal was to obtain the greatest effectiveness with the smallest investment. And using female terrorists allowed them to double the contingent of a minority amounting to only fifteen percent of the population in Sri Lanka.

Suicide bombings were no more a part of the Chechen culture and even less so with female perpetrators. But modi operandi were changing, and insurrectionary movements were happy to copy one another when an effective innovation materialized. Irregular warfare makes it mandatory to be on watch, a difficult practice both for bureaucrats and for a regular army convinced of its superiority and contemptuous of an obviously less powerful adversary.
There was constant talk for about fifteen years about eradicating poppy farming, but it did not happen. In 2005, according to US sources, it was estimated that Afghanistan provided nine-tenths of world poppy production. Ten years later, this share had virtually not budged. The populations of the provinces involved made a modest living off poppy cultivation; the Taliban and the administration derived substantial benefits from it, with the state taking its cut before the crops left the country toward Iran.

In 2005, the coalition forces officially established that some fifteen thousand “infiltrators” had been eliminated. It was announced in the provinces of Kandahar, Urōzgān, and Kabul that the adversary’s offensive capacity had been significantly curbed. Field investigations showed that neither in Kandahar nor in Urōzgān was there any security, and that living in Afghanistan was made of illusions that had been deliberately spread. There were sporadic terrorist activities. Kabul was essentially secure (particularly compared in the same period with Baghdad, which had been changed into a bunker for foreigners and was otherwise in the midst of a civil war). The Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen regions in the north of the country were calm. The Hazara area even more so.

The Minister of Defense complained, rightly so, that he had only thirty-five thousand men. The United States had decreed that seventy thousand would be needed, while the ministry estimated that at least twice that many were needed. But obviously the United States did not seem to have the capacity to wage two wars at once. As for the police force, badly paid and corrupt, many a time reorganized, it added to the mayhem instead of contributing to reduce it. After suffering one hundred ninety-one casualties in 2006, NATO troops had to face the brutal facts: the return of the Taliban, discreet in 2003, had become a threat stretching over the entire southernmost part of the conflict.

Under the shelter of Pakistani sanctuary, the Taliban had not just reorganized, as could be seen in the combatants’ qualitative improvement. For those who had known the Mujahedeen in the very early 1980s, the contrast was striking. The lessons of the Iraqi insurrection had obviously been learned: suicide bombings were escalated in the cities in order to establish continuous presence; and propaganda for outside consumption was in Arabic and in English. The most singular paradox cutting across the entire war was US aid to Pakistan, part of which was transferred to the Taliban to kill US troops and foil their goals.

Equipped with a sanctuary, receiving logistic assistance, and having, in Pakistan, an inexhaustible pool of recruits, the Taliban could not be crushed. For the Pakistani services, the Taliban served their purpose, which was to establish Afghanistan as an allied state in view of countering India.

An ambiguous ally to say the least, throughout the war Pakistan will have behaved as de facto protector of the enemy of the international coalition.

Chapter 8 – The Afghan deadlock

While the Iraq War started in 2003 was regarded as central, Afghanistan was considered a sort of consequence, a secondary theater to be dealt with militarily, and frugally. For a country of about two hundred fifty thousand square miles, mainly mountainous, the coalition troops at the end of 2003 did not even number thirty thousand; moreover, administrative control of the ground had never been achieved, or even tried. Hamid Karzai ruled Kabul and his close family ruled Kandahar. Economically speaking, corruption and subcontracting consumed part of the aid, which for that matter, was modest compared to the military expenditure. This latter had amounted to ten billion dollars since 2004, whereas the Agency for International Development Reconstruction budget was of one billion dollars. The supposed democratization will have only amounted to the decentralization of corruption.
In addition, the feeling that the situation was basically stable in 2002-2003 through to the beginning of 2004 was largely shared. All the more so that very few observers went out into the provinces, save for a few cities. And yet nearly twenty thousand villages were considered damaged or destroyed. No drinking water or electricity was supplied in the south and the east of the country. The irrigation system had become practically unusable and nothing was done to restore it.

During those two years, US troops strove, in vain, to find Osama bin Laden while Hamid Karzai endeavored to control the country and reined in the Northern Alliance, too prevalent in his view. Warlords who controlled strongholds, like the Uzbek Abdul Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif and Ismail Khan in Herat, were gradually neutralized by being handed ministerial posts, which were attributed based on co-option in order to avoid conflict.

Meanwhile, rural-urban migration and the return of refugees quadrupled the population of Kabul in two years. Of course there was no employment for the overwhelming majority of them. In October 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected president with fifty-five percent of the votes. While ninety-five percent of the national budget came from foreign aid, seventy percent of public expenditure, excluding wages, was allocated to Kabul. Corruption was facilitated by the fact that aid was not coordinated (International Monetary Fund and World Bank). Notwithstanding, officially, the situation was declared to be on the right track, well on the way, and the adversary’s offensive capacity to be essentially broken. It was only by going out on the field oneself, like to Wardak for example, that one learned what in Kabul was only known by a few.