Last week American casualties in Afghanistan passed 2,000. But with the presidential campaign in full tilt and heavily focused on domestic issues, this milestone generated less interest than some that have gone before. A rash of attacks on NATO troops by their Afghan comrades gained rather more attention.

In a Q&A, Senior Associate Sarah Chayes, who lived for most of the past decade in Afghanistan and served as an adviser to senior U.S. military leadership, takes up these issues and their implications. She argues for a sober look at the time bombs U.S. policy may be planting in Afghanistan, and for rigorous planning to mitigate the potential damage. She also assesses candidates to replace General John Allen as commander of international troops.

How significant is the milestone of 2,000 US deaths in Afghanistan?

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
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What’s interesting is how subjective the reaction to numbers like this can be. Every death is a life snuffed out, a story aborted, devastating upheaval for those left behind. And deaths towards the end of a war are always particularly painful. How grotesque to be the one who gets shot after the armistice is signed, by somebody who didn’t hear that it’s over. I think it is sliding into that phase of this war.

Yet, the 2,000 mark did not seem to attract wide attention. It’s as though the American public has come to a kind of decision about Afghanistan: “We’re done.” And has simply turned the page.

The problem with this attitude is that Afghanistan―or whatever the crisis may be―has a life of its own. Men and women keep dying, and U.S. policies keep accelerating the centrifugal forces that are driving the country toward civil conflict, which may have profound implications for future regional and international security. Choosing to ignore problems is rarely a good way to solve them.

Why has there been a recent growth of insider attacks?

The tragedy of this war, as perhaps of every war, is the degree to which the rank and file, be they from the U.S. or New Zealand, or from Afghanistan itself, bear the brunt of poor policy decisions made far from the battlefield. The approaches of both the Afghan and the U.S. governments are so riddled with internal contradictions as to drive nearly anyone distracted.

I have watched frustration rising among Afghans since at least 2005. They see government officials make a killing in contract kick-backs as a gaping hole opens up in a just-paved road. They see judges sell decisions, or police captains imprison people for ransom in stinking jail cells in the precinct house basement. Aware that the United States provides substantial aid to Pakistan, Afghan (and American) soldiers watch the insurgents they’re fighting attack from across Pakistan’s border. To the soldiers, it seems the U.S. is playing both ends against the middle―and they’re in the middle.

Meanwhile, international troops cut roads through their vineyards, drive a Humvee into their retaining wall, or sometimes kill their neighbors by accident or desecrate their devotional materials. All to support a government that robs and abuses them. In this context, to an angry male just leaving adolescence, Taliban arguments, and fantasies of violence, can have some allure.

There have been efforts to quantify how many insider attacks to ascribe to “Taliban infiltrators.” I’ve heard ten percent and twenty-five percent. I’m not sure how such numbers are derived. Who qualifies as an infiltrator? Someone carrying a Taliban identity card? Someone who stated ahead of time that he intended to sneak into the ranks? While the number of “sleepers” planted in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) units with malice aforethought―that is, vetted, trained, and trusted Taliban fighters who are directed to join up under false pretenses with the aim of committing an attack―may indeed be relatively low, life in Afghanistan is rarely so delineated.

Army and police officers are young Afghan men. As such, many are exposed to Taliban thinking. Three years ago, the men with whom I worked in Kandahar came to see me aghast, after holiday visits to family and friends. “I used to know ten Taliban,” said one. “Now I know a hundred.” What he meant was that more and more members of his extended circle were expressing sympathy with Taliban ideas. I doubt I can name a single person in Kandahar who isn’t personally acquainted with some Taliban fighters, who doesn’t find him- or herself sitting with Taliban sympathizers over tea after dinner and debating the merits of jihad. It’s just demographics. And, while these boundaries may be less permeable for young men who wear the Afghan uniform, they, too, are part of the demographic.

A way to address some of the immediate triggers for these attacks might be to establish a joint Afghan-ISAF redress of grievances mechanism, an “ombudsman committee” of sorts, in each unit, where personal conflicts that tap into the underlying frustrations might be aired. Such public and collective settling of disputes is deeply rooted in Afghan culture, and this kind of mechanism could help defuse many of these situations. It could also identify systemic problems in security force development and more clearly distinguish legitimate frustration from pre-planned infiltration.

All that said, the Taliban leadership has been explicit about its intention to infiltrate the ANSF. When, less than a year after the tactic was announced, attacks are visibly increasing, it seems odd not to ascribe at least part of the change to effective implementation of orders.

What are the biggest difficulties in building the capacity of Afghan security forces?

Ironically, the greatest challenge in building the capacity of Afghan security forces has nothing to do with military capacity. It’s not about training, or personnel management, or equipment, or logistics, or air support, or enablers. Afghans, after all, are not famous for being lousy fighters. The biggest difficulty lies in the government of which the security forces can only be an arm.

What makes people willing to fight and die for their country? Pride. Patriotism. A soldier has to see himself reflected in his government and what it stands for, feel it is worthy of his sacrifice. But many Afghans are ashamed of their government, its dysfunction and rampant corruption, or they actively resent it. Without a viable body, what good can an arm do?

What role can the Afghan local police play? Is there an alternative approach?

The argument for establishing the Afghan Local Police (ALP) was that if villagers don’t like the central government, at least they can be helped to defend their own farms and families. But the underlying rationale was numbers. It was impossible to adequately train and equip enough Afghan National Security Forces and provide them with competent officers fast enough, so ALP and its predecessors were seen as a way to expand the anti-Taliban ranks more rapidly. Oversight by village elders and teams of U.S. Special Operations forces was supposed to make up for the lack of more formal structure.

The problem with this approach is that it exacerbates the centrifugal tendencies of a country splintered by decades of war. Every time I go to Kandahar, I hear stories about the ALP unit from one village shaking down residents of another, about the gun-battle between ALP members and their neighbors over a piece of land, about the residents of a whole district who fled to Kandahar city rather than be enrolled by force into ALP. As highlighted by Refugees International among others, 2011 saw record numbers of internally displaced people in Afghanistan, and many of those interviewed said they were fleeing local militias. Perhaps of equal concern is that the geographic distribution of authorized ALP units in the north is beginning to look like a preparation for civil war.

Clearly, well-structured and supervised ALP units tailored to specific contexts could help some beleaguered villages protect themselves from limited extremist incursions. But the notion that such a model could be massively scaled up without destabilizing whole areas displays ignorance of Afghan realities.

What are the implications of the forthcoming change in ISAF leadership?

President Obama is about to choose between two fantastic officers to succeed General John Allen as commander of ISAF. General Joe Dunford is number two in the Marine Corps, and earned his nickname “Fighting Joe” during the invasion of Iraq, where he served for twenty-two months. But he has never deployed to Afghanistan. General David Rodriguez commanded a division in the challenging Afghan east, then stood up the current operational headquarters and ran it for more than a year. In that capacity, he had constant dealings with top Afghan officials, as well as overseeing the day-to-day operations of ISAF troops.

Of all the U.S. officials I encountered in Afghanistan, military or civilian, Rodriguez had the most intuitive and imaginative grasp of the country, its people, its issues, and how to address them. So the choice is a stark one. If Rodriguez is appointed, he will, within the constraints provided by his civilian leadership, draw and quarter himself to craft ways of leaving something viable behind. A choice for Dunford, as terrific as he is, would imply a decision to further reduce the level of investment in Afghanistan, intellectual and emotional as well as material, and let the consequences be what they may.

How can the US most effectively foster positive engagement from regional actors?

That is a long-answer question. But a way to begin responding is to think about perspective. U.S. officials would ideally, through the din of their talking points, pay more attention to the perspectives of those who live on Afghanistan’s borders. Discerning their real aspirations and motivations may require tracking actions as much as parsing words―and the desires of those neighbors also need to be weighed against Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.

In the case of Pakistan and Iran, the U.S. should at least try to avoid empowering negative engagement. It is now recognized, for example, that the Pakistani military has been deliberately fostering violent extremism in Afghanistan in order to advance public policy objectives. So the obvious question is why? What is it that the Pakistani leadership is trying to achieve? Which of those aspirations are legitimate? How could the U.S. help Pakistan address legitimate concerns by responsible means? Which aspirations―such as some type of control of Afghanistan by proxy―are not legitimate? How should the U.S. tailor its strategy so as to discourage use of violent means to attain illegitimate objectives? What smart leverage is available? Financial sanctions? Selective visa denials? It turns out the toolbox is rather well stocked.

It is difficult for the U.S. to get any accurate read on the Iranian perspective, since no contacts exist with the regime―a source of potentially dangerous misapprehension. However, across Afghanistan, the density of Iran’s activities on the cultural front is striking. TV and radio stations, cultural seminars, paid travel for journalists and athletes, gaudy decorations during Shi’a holidays, mosque-building and restoration―all of these manifestations speak to a remarkable Iranian penetration into Afghan society.

Central Asia is usually an afterthought―and it shouldn’t be. From the perspective of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors, the potential implosion of Afghanistan poses a significant national security threat. Not only does a country like Tajikistan face being deluged with refugees, but given the close ties Afghanistan’s northern leaders maintain within neighboring countries, an Afghan civil war would almost certainly draw several of them into some kind of supporting role. In general, as they watch U.S. preparations for withdrawal, many Central Asian leaders voice concerns about being left holding the bag.

The first thing the U.S. could do to help them avoid inadvertently bringing their own worst prophesies to fruition would be to engage in joint planning exercises against the contingencies they predict. Doing so would expand American thinking about potential post-2014 scenarios, and would help reassure Central Asian countries that the U.S is prepared to help them handle a crisis, should one arise.

Some U.S. support for border security measures would also be helpful. And finally, there is a great store of experience and sophistication north of the Amu Darya River, regarding Afghanistan and its cast of characters, its challenges and potentials. It would seem particularly worthwhile, in these days of shrinking resources, to tap into it.