One Month After Kunduz: Still Drifting without a Strategy

It has been said that the multi-ethnic city of Kunduz is a microcosm for Afghanistan. It is also proving to be a microcosm for the wars the United States and its allies have fought this century. With the fall and recapture of the city now passing into memory, the usual suspects in ThinkTankistan are cautioning steadfastness to “buy time.” That logic is dubious, as Michael Van Wyk noted last week when comparing the striking similarities sunk cost fallacy shares with our policies.

The notion of buying time would only make sense if additional measures were undertaken to address the significant challenges our strategies have clearly failed to overcome. Despite clear failures in addressing national, regional, and local grievances in the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States seems determined to expend resources without actually addressing those issues. The war on terror has become Groundhog Day.

I do not wish to make light of the sacrifices made during these wars. I know a number of veterans who I respect who fought in Kunduz and other areas now under Taliban threat. The province I was in drifted out of the orbit of Kabul long ago — we knew that when we were there. Last week, a US operator of unquestioned professionalism lost his life facilitating a hostage rescue mission. Veterans and the families of those left behind can correctly say that these efforts have helped some people, have made some situations less terrible. But, valor and sacrifice will never overcome long-term strategic incompetence.

I am not advocating, yet, that we pack up and go home. But, something more needs to be done about Baghdad, Damascus, and Kabul. Something more needs to be done concerning state sponsorship (or ambivalence) toward insurgents and terrorists. The Bridge recently hosted several posts on the exploitation of children in Afghanistan and the impact these events has on service-members as well as our strategic objectives. For much of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria social and political life is lived under the gun. Absent measures to correct this, equipping militias and conducting kill/capture raids will accomplish little of any enduring substance. In fact, our activities have partially enabled this reality.

In the mean time, our opponents seem to be getting much better at insurgency than we or our local partners are at counterinsurgency. About 18 months ago, our president identified the local partner as the key to US strategy. For our opponents, corrupt and ineffective local partners are also a key component. Their abuses make the populace more willing to side with the insurgent. Kunduz is an example of this, and the Taliban’s insurgency campaign there has been ripped from the pages of the best insurgent theoreticians.

Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter authored a report more than four years ago and identified Taliban justice compared to government malfeasance as exploitable areas for the insurgents. The response to Taliban infiltration was to fight back with militias. As Anand Gopal notes, this echoed the Sahwa movement in Iraq, but also enabled local power-brokers to extract what they wished from the communities in the region. US kill/capture raids did undermine the Taliban, but these operations also created more opportunities for militias to rape and pillage. Gopal also notes that militias fought among themselves over such unsavory matters as kidnapping other group’s adolescent sex slaves.

Some locals began to view the Taliban as a preferable option for exercising the monopoly of force in the region — there would only be one harvest tax, limited checkpoints, and maybe less molestation. There are some indications that the Taliban sought to lessen their strict and brutal interpretations of Sharia — at least in some areas around the city — to attract more support. The Taliban also sought non-Pashtun recruits, promoted ethnically diverse commanders, liaised with Uzbek militants, and shifted additional forces into the region this year from the south and Pakistan. At the national level, as Jason Campbell has pointed out, politicians were more focused in the pursuit of their own interests instead of governing or the fight against the Taliban.

Gary Owen notes that the Taliban will not return to party like it’s 1999. But a return to civil war is growing increasingly likely. None of the political or social issues outlined above have been adequately addressed. The president’s commitment to a slower drawdown, in itself, is unlikely to force a change either. “Buying time” is nothing but a lazy cliche with a somewhat better ring than kicking the can.

Kunduz will continue to see pressure from the insurgency, which will pose threats to other states in Central Asia. It is likely that elements of Pakistan’s security apparatus are also at play here. Militia leaders are quickly evolving into warlords of a similar ilk that gave the Taliban social and political strength in the late 1990s. Ineffective US polices — an over reliance on kill/capture, dubious militias, and ignoring the significant social and political issues at the heart of these conflicts — are not improving the situation. They may, in fact, be making things much worse.

Chris Zeitz is a former member of the U.S. Army who served in military intelligence. He deployed to Kunar during the surge in Afghanistan. While in the Army, he also attended the Defense Language School in Monterey and studied Arabic. He has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University and is a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.