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Strategic Incoherence and Taliban Resurgence in Afghanistan

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The recent attack on a military parade in central Kabul attended by President Karzai and Afghan and international dignitaries is a disturbing reminder that insurgents in Afghanistan are active, determined and dangerous. Unless the international community starts speaking with a single voice in pressing for an end to corruption and starts overcoming its own military command divisions, containing the insurgency is going to be even harder.

The Bush administration has increased the number of US troops to nearly 30,000, and NATO allies have deployed almost as many. But this is not just about numbers, too many countries have their own restrictions on where those troops can be deployed and what they can do once they get there. However, the idea that military might alone will turn back the tide of the Taliban -- the insurgent group in whose name most of the violence is carried out -- and their al Qaeda facilitators reflects the same false reading of the lessons of counter-insurgency that has persisted for the past six years.

Suicide bombings are up 600 per cent since 2005, a clear sign that the counter-insurgency strategy is failing. Even more critical, it is a sure sign that the state-building venture of the Karzai government is flawed. The reason? From the beginning there have been too few troops and too few resources to destroy al Qaeda at its roots and prevent Taliban remnants from reconstituting themselves. There has also been far too much corruption.

The U.S. instead opted for military and political "light" footprints, co-opting local -- and all too frequently corrupt -- factional leaders rather than deploying international troops. The Bush administration wanted to do Afghanistan reconstruction on the cheap while its leadership was obsessing with Iraq. And for six years, the failure of the Pakistan government to close down Taliban sanctuaries allowed them to recruit new cohorts, train them in terror tactics and provide weapons to attack in Afghanistan.

Security is critical to reconstruction -- but additional international military forces need to form part of a comprehensive civilian/military peacebuilding strategy that has both unity of command and unity of effort. U.S. military forces alone report to at least three different commands, in addition to NATO. The absence of a unified strategy with timetables, resource commitments and an end to caveats and conditions will simply lead to repeats of past errors.

The international civilian communities should stop sending conflicting messages about narcotics trafficking, police reform, and governance. While important initiatives such as replacing the corrupt police force have gotten underway, this must be ongoing with rigorous oversight if it is to be successful and sustainable. And nothing similar has been started for the judiciary or the prisons, which leaves the criminal justice system weak and dysfunctional. Nor has there been the kind of massive investment in rural infrastructure and reconstruction that is needed for a nation which is 70 per cent rural. The catch-22 in today's Afghanistan is that insecurity in the heartland of the insurgency means that reconstruction is haphazard and inconsistent. Outside the conflict zones, where reconstruction would be easier and help to prevent the spread of the insurgency, there has not been a comprehensive nationwide strategy for reconstruction. Hopefully, international donors will come together in Paris in a few weeks to review the record, and take the opportunity to make fundamental course corrections.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that those same insurgency battlegrounds produced the bulk of Afghanistan's 2007 poppy crops, which exported 93% of the world's opium. The UN found that nearly all poppy farmers in the southern and western regions were forced to pay taxes on opium to Taliban and local militia commanders.

Yet, the Afghan Government has not been held accountable to its own pledges on disarmament, transitional justice and anti-corruption. One example was the Special Consultative Board for Senior Government Appointments, which was created to vet senior level appointments to the central government, and judiciary, as well as provincial governors, chiefs of police, district administrators and provincial heads of security. Its members were appointed with much fanfare - as meeting the first benchmark of the Afghanistan Compact -- but the board has never properly functioned, has inadequate staff and is rarely consulted.

Despite the shortfalls, the courage and determination of many Afghans still give hope that stabilization and reconstruction can succeed. It will take time and it will take a new determination to require the Afghan government to show greater transparency, engage in institution-building and abide by the rule of law. The new democratic civilian Pakistan government, , is likely to be a better bet in the long term to keep Afghan Taliban command structures from operating quite so freely in Quetta and Peshawar. The international community must, however, ensure that military-led negotiations with militants in FATA do not empower home-grown extremists, and undermine efforts to place this region under state control. Long-term support for democratic institutions from the U.S. and the international community in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential.

The costs of failing to increase resources and invest new energy into rebuilding Afghanistan would be unacceptably high: a return to civil war with factions divided along regional and ethnic lines; a narco-state with institutions controlled by organized criminal gangs and terrorists; a Pashtun-dominated south largely abandoned to extremist lawlessness and increased intervention by regional powers

No one can afford any of those outcomes.

Mark Schneider is a senior vice president of the International Crisis Group.