Seven years after U.S. troops and their Afghan allies ousted the Taliban, the Islamist militia is far from beaten. This five-part series explores the state, and future, of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban.
Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Retired Lt. General David Barno, who was the top commander in Afghanistan until 2005, says counterinsurgency efforts focused on the country's political, social and economic sectors are stalling.
Retired Lt. General David Barno, who was the top commander in Afghanistan until 2005, says counterinsurgency efforts focused on the country's political, social and economic sectors are stalling. Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Both NATO and the United Nations settled on Britain's Paddy Ashdown's as an international envoy for Afghanistan, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected the selection.
Both NATO and the United Nations settled on Britain's Paddy Ashdown's as an international envoy for Afghanistan, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected the selection. AFP/Getty Images
The past year in Afghanistan has been the bloodiest since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Now the United States is dispatching reinforcements — 3,200 Marines are being sent to Afghanistan in the coming weeks to help in the fight. And there are calls for more NATO forces. But military muscle is the least important answer to the troubles in Afghanistan.
Several weeks ago, a large team of highly trained American soldiers quietly slipped into the area around Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Their specialty? Farming.
Ten members of the 50-man unit are farmers, says Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughan, the No. 2 officer in the National Guard. Like him, all those soldiers came from Missouri and their mission is to lend a hand to fellow Afghan farmers with improved seed, irrigation, storage — even butchering technique.
"The tribal chieftains that we were with [said], 'Look, we've lost a generation of farmers and we're worried about our youngsters. And we have better than 70 percent of the country that live on these farms, so how about helping us out?'"
Making Life Better
Military officials say the only way to turn Afghanistan around is with programs like this that make life better for the Afghan people. They say tangible results will separate them from the Taliban insurgents, who are mounting more attacks and making inroads in the countryside against the Afghan government.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was the top commander in Afghanistan until 2005, says those who focus too much on combat power miss the point.
"The common view from most thoughtful people on counterinsurgencies is that only 20 percent of a counterinsurgency effort is military," Barno says. "Eighty percent is other sectors: It's the political sector, the social sector, maybe the health sector. Certainly the economic sector."
But it's that 80 percent of the effort that is stalling in Afghanistan — maybe falling behind, Barno and others say. Militarily, the Taliban militants are losing battles and have lost many top and mid-level commanders.
An Ineffective Government
"So I would say that while we have been successful militarily ... the other aspects of development in Afghanistan have not proceeded as well," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress recently.
He said that rebuilding Afghanistan suffers from two problems. One is with the Afghan government.
"Clearly the counternarcotics is a problem, corruption is a problem," Gates said. "The ability of the government to get services to countryside is a problem. Effectiveness of government ministries in many cases is a problem."
The other problem, Gates says, is a lack of coordination for the billions of dollars in international aid meant to get down to the village level.
"There are some 40 partner nations active in Afghanistan, not to mention hundreds of nongovernmental organizations," he said. "There is no overarching strategy. There is no coordinating body that looks at what's working best and what's not working and shares those experiences. Or that coordinates and says, 'You need to focus on electricity,' and 'You need to focus on roads.""
Both NATO and the United Nations in recent weeks settled on an international envoy to do just that. Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former British Parliament member who won praise for a similar job: international high representative for Bosnia.
But Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected Ashdown's selection.
Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones served as the top commander of NATO and was a strong supporter of Ashdown. Jones has just written a report saying the future of Afghanistan will be determined by progress or failure in the civil sector.
Wider International Involvement Lacking
The problem goes far beyond just a coordinator for international aid or a more effective Afghan government, Jones says. It's also about other governments living up to their commitments. The European Union tapped Great Britain to take the lead on dealing with Afghanistan's ever-growing narcotics trade. Italy was to lead on creating a judiciary, Germany with a police force.
"The countries, what they signed up to do was to take ... the strategic lead," Jones says. "But the rest of the international community just walked away from it."
He says that lack of interest has an immediate effect in Afghanistan.
"And so as a result every year we hear of record poppy harvests," Jones says. "Every year we hear of corruption in the judicial system and drug lords who are arrested, tried, put in jail and three months later, the convictions are overturned. And with the police it's a question of just not enough capacity [and] not enough training."
Gates will set out for a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania, next month, trying to get the allies to do more in Afghanistan. And additional names for an international aid coordinator are being submitted to Karzai.
Meanwhile, another National Guard team is gearing up to head to Afghanistan — soldier farmers from Texas.