The discussion on NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is defined by a dangerous gap between theory, however well intentioned, and the realities of the situation on the ground. This has kept the international coalition from asking difficult questions about the effectiveness of their strategy; especially in defining a strategic balance between available resources and attainable goals. In this presentation at a roundtable co-hosted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the European Council on Foreign Relations, Fabrice Pothier debunks five fallacies that obscure the discussion on strategy in Afghanistan.

Fallacy I: We need a comprehensive strategy combining military and civilian reconstruction to create political stability.

In their declarations, speeches and reports, all parties agree – including NATO and the EU – on the need for comprehensiveness. But there is little evidence so far that this concept has been put into operation on the ground. Firstly, how do you develop a comprehensive approach when the security and civilian actions are territorialised under 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) throughout Afghanistan? The word "comprehensive" has a different meaning when you are in Mons at SHAPE than in Schumann at the EU Commission HQ.

Secondly, there is still no strategic and operational coordination between NATO and the EU headquarters, nor their operational centres in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, the military and the aid community are still irreconcilable in terms of strategic and operational cultures – while the military seeks immediate results in high-risk environments, aid agencies and NGOs look for long-term improvement in low-risk environments. International partners still need to resolve the strategic and operational gaps if they want to deliver a comprehensive strategy  on the ground. Only then will they be able to ask themselves what elements of security and civilian reconstruction should fall under a comprehensive approach.

The last few years have shown that too many priorities results in no priorities and no change on the ground. For example, should ‘comprehensive’ include education and health? A more realistic way forward might be for the main players, especially NATO and EU, to agree on the few priorities comprehensive should integrate, and develop concrete, articulated ways to operationilise those priorities in the close future.

 Fallacy II: Drugs and Taliban are so intertwined that they should be targeted as one threat.

The maths are simple: 98% of Afghan opium is produced in 7 provinces – including Helmand – where the insurgency is most active. Geographic correlation is used to argue the existence of a symbiotic relationship: drugs finance the insurgency – between $50 to $150 million a year - whilst insurgents facilitate and even manage the trade from production to processing and smuggling. The policy conclusions are simple: attacking the drug trade will weaken the Taliban insurgency.

Under a new directive agreed by defense ministers in Budapest in October 2008, NATO – ISAF troops have the mandate to conduct interdiction operations against drugs facilities and facilitators. NATO is officially involved in the war on drugs, but the effectiveness this policy is highly disputable - how can restricted NATO interdiction operations put a dent in a US$3.5 billion industry? More importantly, the rationale behind the directive is flawed: historic precedents, including the ruthlessly effective ban on opium cultivation in 2000, have shown that the Taliban have an opportunitistic approach to opium.

Undoubtedly, drugs constitute one of the Taliban’s many sources of revenue, mostly by levying a tax on cultivation called Usher. The Taliban also use the lure of  protection for growing opium poppies as a psychological weapon against impoverished rural communities. But there is no clear evidence to date that proves that targeting the drugs business will weaken the Taliban insurgency.

This flawed rationale fails to understand that opium represents the most competitive commodity in a conflict environment like southern Afghanistan, where resources, capital and access to markets are serioulsy limited. The real drivers to the opium industry are economic: the price of wheat, access to water, market, credit and land. Because the driving forces are different, there is a need to de-couple insurgency from the drug problem. Repression, especially through military forces, only has marginal effect.

Drugs represent a structural threat, especially to Afghan governance through systemic corruption, but can only be addressed on the long-run as part of development and governance efforts. The threat will be contained and reduced by building the fundamentals for a working rural economy – especially access to credit and to markets- not by militarising our way out of it.

Fallacy III: A ‘Great Regional Bargain’ is the solution to Afghanistan’s instability

There is a broad consensus that Afghanistan is in the eye of a complex regional storm, and that stability might emerge from a new regional Compact. On its southern and eastern border, Pakistan’s tribal borders areas have become the main hub for the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, and their command and supply lines. Looking to the west, Iran is a key trading partner but also provides a high-traffic smuggling route for goods and people, especially illegal heroin. The seldom reported conflicts between customs guards and drug smugglers have cost thousands of lives over the last few years. In the north, Central Asian republics are also major smuggling routes for heroin and illegal goods. Further away, India has proven to play an active though ambiguous role in reconstruction, whilst China’s has busy trade relations but a low diplomatic and aid role.

Clearly, there is a need for major diplomatic offensive at a regional level with a coordinated approach between regional and international partners, which means the need for more incentives for regional powers to control their borders, lower tensions and contribute to stabilization. The appointment of a US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is a clear step in this direction.

However, we should be realistic. A ‘grand bargain’ may come too late for Afghanistan. More concrete, operational actions should be taken. For instance, border management is uncoordinated - still fragmented between too many actors (the German government, UNODC, NATO, the US and the EU) with their own projects. Central Asia expert George Gravilis proposes the establishment of a border management coordination centre ideally led by the EU along the model of the successful EU Border Management Programme for Central Asia.

Fallacy IV: Karzai is the problem; 'Afghanisation' is the Solution

There is widespread criticism of President Karzai. He is viewed as a symbol and source of failing Afghan institutions, growing gap between the people and those new institutions, and poor governance. But the lack of strong leadership should not hide the more serious probleme of weak Afghan institutions. And this is where the blame goes to the international community.

Of the 12 billion USD in aid disbursed since 2001 by the international community, 90% is channelled to donor countries through NGOs, aid agencies, and each country’s own development programmes. By the summer of 2008, EUPOL Afghanistan had provided less than two hundred police trainers, even though the ANP required the deployment of 2,300 trainers/mentors.Those exemples signal gross under investment in Afghan capacity and institutions.

Furthermore, we have undermined 'Afghanisation' with our own tactical mistakes and strategic confusion: civilian casualties by over reliance on aerial bombing, or the US implementing its own counter narcotic strategy which bypassed the one of the Afghan government.

Afghanisation is the new buzz word, but it will require a sustained financial commitment by the international community for decades to come – Afghanistan’s meagre USD2.5 billion budget will not allow the achievement of the goal of 135,000 Afghan National Army troops by 2013, for exemple. The international community will have to continue to support capacity-building in a large and sustained way, and accept a certain level of risk and waste through Afghan institutions, which is always better than pursuing our own mistakes.

Fallacy V: Talking to the Taliban to Divide the Insurgency

Not very long ago, the idea of talking to the Taliban was viewed as heresy - now it is a widely accepted policy tenant. The idea is to encourage talk by and with Afghan authorities. There is some ambiguity among the international partners on what role they should play.

The problem is that this notion is based on the shaky rationale that talking to the Taliban is a way to divide them. It is thought that the Afghan authorities will be able to lure the so-called ‘economic warriors’ and opportunistic criminal actors, and dissatisfied tribal fighters away from the core Taliban, thereby isolating the central leadership and senior commanders. This is based on the understanding that there is a loose insurgency, made of different groups across southern Afghanistan with different types of insurgents – the impoverished foot-soldiers, the local commanders, and the hard-core Taliban led by Mullah Omar and Taliban-allied groups like those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

If the insurgency does operate as a loose network of local commanders and groups, it has shown a surprising capacity for well-coordinated attacks – like that against French troops in the Surobi District near Kabul in August and left 10 troops dead and 21 injured.

More importantly, the decentralised nature of Taliban operations, which was already the case in the 1990s, even when they were in power, should not preclude the fact that they are unified in their political aims: toppling the Afghan government and ousting the international presence. Under the current context where the Taliban see themselves as winning the political momentum – the recent postponing of the presidential elections representing a symbolic victory - it is hard to see what incentive they have in entering into serious power sharing talks with the Karzai admin whom they see as failing.

In this context, the best political card available to the US and its partners is to strengthen Afghan institutions and security apparatus to the extent where they will be treated as a credible opponent by the insurgents.

Realistic Hope for Stabilisation

There is a need for a realistic and focused stabilisation and reconstruction agenda that takes into account the limited military and aid resources available, the shrinking political capital for the Karzai administration and the mission in Europe, and building time pressures.

Such an agenda was proposed by Carnegie Visiting Scholar Gilles Dorronsoro, who argued that the effort should follow two-pronged path:

  1. Concentrate the international troop efforts on securing strategic areas like the main urban centres, the key roads, which constitute the backbone of a more stable Afghanistan;
  2. Concentrate civilian investment in building core Afghan institutions like National Police, National Army and centre government.

European partners will not be able to match in proportional number the likely 30,000-US combat troops surge in 2009. They should, however, show their readiness to share the risks by loosening some of the caveats restricting troops action and providing more logistic support especially to aerial mobility by filling the helicopter gap. The political room for manoeuvre in Europe, especially in Parliamentary democracies like Germany, Italy and the Netherlands is far too narrow to lead to any significant change. The core of Europe’s own surge should be in building institutions and infrastructure, especially civilian security through a relatively functional policy forces. The latter is where Europe can make a credible and long-lasting difference.

Finally, European governments should lessen rhetoric on the mission in Afghanistan, stop the empty promises of ‘success’, ‘victory’ and of eradication of the Taliban and the drugs scourge, and instead adopt a more realistic narrative. Europe is engaged in Afghanistan for different reasons: out of solidarity with its US ally; out of humanitarian concerns for the oppressed Afghans; and to prevent terrorist safe-heavens for its own security. However grounded, this rationale has fallen short of creating a sense among the European public that Afghanistan represents a deep and long-term strategic interest comparable to the Middle East. They might be right, and it is unlikely that any new narrative will manage to change this fundamental reality.