February 05, 2009

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Roundtable on Afghanistan: Panelist David Kilcullen

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Roundtable on Afghanistan

February 5, 2009 - SEN. KERRY: Well, this first roundtable of the round-rectangular table of the Foreign Relations Committee will come to order.

... Afghanistan is also well-suited for this format, I believe, because people inside and outside of government are wrestling with immensely complex challenges. We all recognize that the situation is not what we expected it to be or want it to be. And many assert that it has been deteriorating, for one reason or another, at a rapid rate. So the truth is we have some very fundamental questions to try to resolve, and I think this can help do it.

The questions are pretty obvious. What is the scope of the mission? Exactly how do you define the mission? Has there been mission creep or transformation of that mission beyond what it either ought to be or can be, should be? What can we realistically accomplish on the military and civilian front? What roles will the additional troops play when they are deployed, and what can be the real expectations for those troops?
If, as we all agree, there is no purely military solution, then how do we help the government of Afghanistan, both in Kabul and in the districts, be accountable to the people? What I have found in the recent visits I've made there is that governance is a huge issue on the minds of people who, a year and two ago, were 100 percent with us and supportive but who today, because of the failure of governance, not because of the Taliban necessarily, not because of an alternative ideology, are questioning our presence.

That has to be, obviously, turned around. And so we have to ask, what can we realistically expect from the Karzai government? And frankly, these questions need to be answered as we deploy further American troops and make whatever additional commitment we intend to make.

SEN. KERRY: -- Retired Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, a former Australian Special Forces commando, anthropologist, adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and General David Petraeus; he's one of our leading experts on counterinsurgency. I have spoken frequently in the last years about how we are involved not as much in a war on terror as in a global counterinsurgency effort, and Colonel Kilcullen is perhaps one of the leading thinkers who has helped develop that line of thinking, and he has recently joined the Center for New American Security, and we welcome him here.

COL. KILCULLEN: I thought where I can add value is talking a little bit, to start with, about American strategy in Afghanistan and just a little bit about Pakistan, to sort of round out the picture. You know, we're seven years into a very long war. We need to be honest with ourselves about the harsh strategic choices that we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And if I was writing these remarks I'm about to make as an op-ed, I would probably title it something like "It's Crunch Time in Afghanistan." We're reaching a critical point, and this could be the hinge of the campaign.

There's a strategic duality to what we're trying to do. We're both trying to rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan and we're trying to counter al Qaeda. And this has been, you know, a source of some -- (inaudible) -- in our strategic thinking today. I think we need to do four things if we're going to succeed in Afghanistan. Firstly, we've got to prevent the re-emergence of an al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11. Secondly, we've got to protect Afghanistan -- that is, the Afghan people -- from a variety of internal threats. And I would count the Taliban on that list, but it's not actually fundamentally about the Taliban. It's about protecting the people. I would call narcotics, misrule, corruption, and the insurgency as a variety of threats that we need to protect against.

The third thing we've got to do is we have to build sustainable state and civil society institutions. And then the final thing is, once we've done all that, we can begin a phased handoff to Afghan institutions that are now strong enough to be sustainable without a permanent international presence. So you could summarize that as prevent, protect, build, handoff.

And if you call that approach, you know, option A, which is the approach that we've tried to execute to date, I think it is valid. It's a workable approach. But we have to be honest with ourselves about how long it's going to take -- and I think it could take 10 to 15 years -- and how much it's going to cost. An additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will cost about $2 billion extra per month. And obviously if we add in additional governance and development spending, that's even more. Now, in the current economic climate, that's a big ask. There are also strategic opportunity costs.

SEN. KERRY: Two billion a month?
COL. KILCULLEN: Yeah, extra a month.
SEN. KERRY: Oh, extra. So that's on top of the current NATO $20 billion per month.
COL. KILCULLEN: That's roughly. I mean, it'll depend on precisely where they go and what --
SEN. KERRY: Assuming you make a decision that the current NATO expenditure is being intelligently used and distributed. And we have to examine that, don't we?

COL. KILCULLEN: I think we do, yeah. Now, there's also a strategic opportunity cost, which I know you're on record talking about. You know, we finally, through a lot of blood and effort, reached a point where we can start disengaging troops from Iraq.

We need to ask ourselves whether the best use for those troops is to send them straight to Afghanistan or whether we might be better off creating a strategic reserve in the Central Command area, restoring our strategic freedom of action, and giving ourselves more of a measure of diplomatic credibility. You know, having finally unbogged ourselves from Iraq, do we really want to rebog ourselves in Afghanistan?

Is there an alternative? Well, some people have talked about what you might call option B, which is we forget all that stuff about protect, build and handoff, and we just focus on al Qaeda; we just do the prevent task. You know, there's been some talk about that in the last week or two.
And under that model, what we would do is we'd basically do counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda while doing the absolute minimum of development and population protection that we would need to do to enable those operations. And we would essentially shelve our long-term nation-building aspirations. And you might say, "Well, after all, we actually went into Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda, not to build a model state in the Hindu Kush."

The problem with option A -- that's the big option -- is that we might not be able to afford it. The problem with option B is it just won't work. You know, Afghanistan is a sovereign state. Why would it tolerate an approach that treated its country as little more than a launch pad for attacks on al Qaeda while doing nothing to alleviate poverty or institute the rule of law or improve health and education? What would be in it for the Afghans? And moreover, why would the Taliban just obligingly put their insurgency on hold so that we could focus on al Qaeda?

I think that if we took option B, the Taliban would be even more likely to overthrow the government than they are now. And I think the other big question, which I'm sure Ashraf will bring up, is how would you finesse the promises that you made to the Afghan people and to the international community in the Bonn agreement if you were to just walk away from all those commitments?

I guess a third option might be sort of option A-lite, where you say, you know, we'll do what we can afford to do and as much of the nation-build as we can manage, but not worry about it too much. I think that's the worst of both worlds. It costs almost as much as option A and it's as little likely to work as option B. You know, so I'd say your choices are escalate and development spend and more troops and the money that's going to be involved, or go the counterterrorism option. But I think really the counterterrorism option just won't work.

Having said that, all those are questions for 2010 and beyond. This year we have a crisis in Afghanistan. We're on the brink of failure. Violence is up 543 percent in the last five years. Narcotics production is up dramatically in that same time. As Sarah just talked about, government legitimacy is collapsing. Food and water are also critically short. There's a food shortage of about 2 million metric tons this year and a water shortage as well.

The insurgency's spreading. It's getting worse. And the Afghan presidential elections, which are now scheduled for August, which, of course, is the peak of the fighting season, are going to bring all of that to a head. So whatever our long-term strategy, if we don't stabilize the country this year, stop the riot -- regain the initiative, there is no long term. It doesn't really matter what our long-term strategy is.

I think once the situation is stabilized, there will be time for the government -- that is, the government of Afghanistan -- and for ourselves to think through the long-term strategy. But what we have to do now is to stabilize a collapsing situation. To do that, I think we need to surge political effort, which is fundamentally a matter of legitimacy in governance.
We need to refocus the military and the police on a single critical task, which is protecting the population in advance of the elections. Our aim should be to deliver an election result that restores the government's legitimacy, and by so doing, recreates the credibility that we need for the international effort. Which candidate gets elected matters a lot less than ensuring that the outcome meets international standards for fairness and transparency and builds Afghan institutions.

Now, that's a huge task. To do that, we would have to stop chasing the Taliban around, which is what we've been doing today, and start basically focusing on protecting Afghans where they live, partnering with the Afghans to develop a well-founded feeling of security in the population, and that includes security against their own government as well as against the insurgency, and ensuring fair elections.
That's all I want to say on Afghanistan to start with. I have some other comments on Pakistan, but I might hold them until --

...COL. KILCULLEN: Just to add to that, we need to recognize how the current situation, you know, arose -- and I want to refer to something that Ashraf said about legitimate local governance being the most important thing. One of the promises that we made was that we were going to hold district elections. We never did that. We said the environment is too dangerous and so we're not going to have district elections. That's a grievance that I hear from people that I talk to at the tribal level who say, you know, what's happened is the government has come in here and appointed some guy from Kabul to run our affairs. And, in fact, because the Karzai government doesn't have a very strong tribal base, they've often tended to appoint leaders who are from minority tribes, and so -- particularly in the south. In the east the terrain is different and so you tend to get more people from majority tribes.

So what the Taliban have done, their political strategy has been to go to the tribes and to other groups of people who are dispossessed and say you've been cut out of the loop; we're going to work with you to get you back in the game. The way to do that is to just have local elections.

SEN. KERRY: That seems to argue that the tribalism is still very much at play.
COL. KILCULLEN: If you ask an Afghan, they will say that it's much less tribal than it used to be -- and that is undoubtedly true. And the tribal structure has eroded in different ways --
SEN. KERRY: But you're talking about --
COL. KILCULLEN: -- but tribes are still an important part of people's identity.
SEN. KERRY: I beg your pardon?
COL. KILCULLEN: Tribes are still an important part of people's identity.
SEN. KERRY: And is it a --

MR. GHANI: They're not corporate identities. They do not have fixed decision-making, class ownership is not based on tribe; land has been a commodity; wealth erodes. So the competition -- as a point of reference of identity, as Sarah was saying, it's very real. When one is asked who one is, the answer is depending on who asks and where one is.
SEN. KERRY: But in terms of the old maxim all politics is local and you're dealing with day-to-day choices about feeding your family and being protected -- mostly being safe -- isn't there still a tribal component to that statement?
MR. GHANI: It depends on the part --

COL. KILCULLEN: I think the word "tribe" is getting us in trouble here. Tribe doesn't mean the same thing, say, in Iraq as it does in Afghanistan, for example. In Iraq, tribes were centrally- ordered hierarchies and you could make a deal with the sheikh and the tribe would carry out the deal; that's not how a Pashtun tribe works. It's a what we call a segmentary kinship system -- I don't want to get into the anthropology of it but basically, as Ashraf and Sarah had been saying, tribe identity is what anthropologists call contingent identity.

If you're talking to somebody from another state, then, you're from Massachusetts; if you're talking to somebody from another country, you're an American, you know. And it depends on who you're talking to what your identity is. I think that, assuming the tribes that I have worked with, which is mainly in the east, tribe identity is very important. There are business networks, there are patronage networks; there are networks that help and support and they're your last resort to fall back on if the government doesn't step up and deliver services. But they don't replace government.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): Mr. Chairman, first thanks for this format and I think this kind of thing can work very well to really get into these subjects and thank you.
But on this -- related to this, the issue of these army militias, the Pentagon has recently begun an Afghanistan social outreach program -- apparently it's a pilot program supporting local militias in an effort to improve security throughout the country. Now, ven if these militias are vetted and subject to existing security structures -- and in light of some of the things you were just saying about some of the local issues and tribes and those issues -- does this really make sense?

COL. KILCULLEN: I might pick that one up -- noting that we all have opinions on it so I won't sort of monopolize. Actually what the tribes are asking for in a lot of cases is not that we arm them, it's that we allow them to carry arms openly. They already have weapons. And I think the danger is that in these kinds of circumstances, power tends to flow to local armed groups and away from central or unarmed groups and that's a danger -- that we might sort of recreate a warlordism kind of a structure. The positive side to it strategically is -- as I outlined in my opening remarks, we just may not have the money to do this all ourselves and we may need a strategic game- changer that, if you like, changes the strategic arithmetic.

I'm going to give you an example. It costs $100,000 per year to put a U.S. soldier into Afghanistan, minimum; it costs about one-tenth of that to run an Afghan soldier on the ground. We should ideally be putting our effort into the Afghan army and Afghan police, but it takes a long time to train those guys. The strategic arithmetic of it is pretty straightforward.

If we were to put an extra 50,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan -- and we don't have them -- but if we were to put them in, our total benefit by the time you guard your bases and run your headquarters and run your lines of communication and do all the non-combat functions, you get about 10,000 troops out on the ground at any one time.

If, instead of doing that we were to get 50,000 Afghans to work for us, the benefit that you get is not 10,000, but it's not 50,000, it's 100,000, because you've taken 50,000 out of the enemy's orbit and but them into ours.