Brian Stewart: Ready or not, it is Afghanistan's turn to carry the fight

The decision to withdraw NATO troops from Afghanistan by 2014 is a daring gamble, Brian Stewart writes. But it is time to aim for "good enough" and leave the fighting to the Afghans.

When NATO formally decided earlier this week to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, no less a global realist than Henry Kissinger grumbled that the exit strategy is now "all exit and no strategy."

Still, that's preferable to the reverse — strategy without any end in sight.

Personally, after a decade of listening to the endless debate between generals and diplomats over how best to deal with Afghanistan, I've long felt that NATO was never going to find a clear-cut way to end the insurgency no matter how many bright minds were thrown at the quest.

Three years ago I wrote about Afghanistan as a "bits-and-pieces war" and that's how I still view it.

The international coalition was always trying a little of this and a little of that in the 10 years since it initially ousted the Taliban regime.

First there was an attempt at nation building by both military and civilian reform efforts, then counterterrorism, later replaced in a near frenzy by the doctrine of counter-insurgency, or COIN to the initiated.

Years of military spin and optimistic updates were dumped on the media and politicians to sell each new phase, but all were found wanting.

In reality there were far too many hostile factions within the country, as well as too many foreign nations with differing objectives, too many interfering neighbours with their own agendas, and, above all, too many unknowns in every region of this war-ravaged and corrupted land to fit cleanly into anyone's big-picture solution.

What now?

So, what are we left with?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the NATO conference in Chicago on May 21, said Canada would be leaving Afghanistan as soon as feasible. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Well, for starters, the exit isn't actually far off the one that had been planned for a few years now.

Certainly, U.S. President Barack Obama had always talked of 2014 as the end point for full U.S. combat support, and almost all NATO allies planned to be gone even sooner if possible.

That year will bring an uncertain finale for NATO, far short of any "victory." But, in fairness, no sane person had ever promised such an outcome.

What's striking about the new timetable, daringly so to some critics, is the make-or-break responsibility now being thrown to the still rather wobbly Afghan security forces.

By September, the Afghan National Army is supposed to hit its target of 352,000 soldiers. Then by next summer it is to take over leadership of the whole combat mission nationwide.

Just a year and a bit after that it will bid farewell to NATO and take over the civil war against a ruthless and formidably rugged insurgency.

It won't be entirely alone at that point. For it's already clear that small groups of U.S. and British special force "advisers" will stay past 2014, along with CIA field experts and private military contractors, including mercenaries, from other countries.

Also, Washington recently signed a strategic partnership with the Karzai government in Kabul promising training and financial assistance to 2024, and Canada is chipping in $110 million a year for at least three years for the ANA.

'Only security'

Still, this handover is a pretty tall order. Stabilizing Afghanistan now comes down to a national army formed only over the last decade from an overwhelmingly illiterate rural population and which is often sharply divided on hostile ethnic lines.

It's also an army prone to drug use, ill health, remarkably high desertion rates and, increasingly it is feared, infiltration by Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.

At the same time, thanks to intensive training by Canadian and other NATO soldiers, this is an army that has made some impressive gains of late.

Today, half of all ground operations are Afghan-led, including all night operations, and 65 per cent of populated areas is largely under ANA control.

But as the months until 2014 tick by, the scramble to prepare Afghan forces has taken on a desperate urgency.

NATO commanders are increasingly putting to one side concerns about economic development, education and civil-society reform in order to throw everything into getting Afghan forces ready for the ultimate showdown.

"Now, it's only security," a senior military commander told the New York Times this week. "How much security can we bring before we go home. And how quickly can we train up Afghan forces to take over."

Targeting the trainers

The Taliban are well aware of the stakes here, which is why they've been increasing their efforts to kill NATO trainers whenever possible — expecting that just the fear of such attacks will cripple the production of new soldiers.

That's a huge concern for NATO. An even bigger one is the state of the Afghan officer corps, from top generals right down to new lieutenants, who are taking over commands ready or not.

Here the greatest single weakness is the shortage of technical skills and of enough qualified, even just literate, candidates to take modern war training.

A Canadian officer, struggling to teach modern signalling to recruits and using word pictures and hand signals, likened the challenge to "building a plane while flying it."

At this juncture, Taliban commanders have the advantage of just having to know the traditional basics of guerrilla wars, such as ambush planning, field communications and laying bombs, which haven't changed much since the 1930s.

Afghan army officers have to absorb a dizzying array of technical skills, including command and control digital communications, air-ground co-ordination, computer networking, maintenance and large-scale logistics.

Afghanistan has an impressive looking National Military Training Academy, modelled on West Point, no less.

The main challenge though is that young and educated Afghans are inclined to shun the military for much higher-paying jobs with foreign firms or diplomatic and aid organizations.

Aiming for 'good enough'

The outcome of this struggle, of course, may not only depend on the military alone.

International diplomatic efforts to stabilize the region may yet have some effect, particularly if Pakistan's meddling security agencies can be brought to heel.

Despite much scoffing, there are serious, ongoing attempts involving a half-dozen countries to tempt insurgent forces into peace negotiations.

At the moment, however, NATO is focused on what's the best that can be hoped for, and a new expression is emerging.

It was coined by probably the most prominent military analyst of the war, Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who has just written a paper called "Time to Focus on 'Afghan Good Enough.'"

A frequent critic of past military optimism, Cordesman suggests that the Afghans, on their own, won't be able to hold all that NATO fought to keep, but they may be able to retain key parts of the whole.

"The real question for everyone now is, can you hold this thing together to the point where, yes, the Pakistanis will have some influence, and Iran will have major influence in the northwest, and we'll lose influence in the south and the east but we might be able to hold onto Kandahar."

For him, "that would be Afghan good enough."

At this point, for both Obama and NATO, they must feel they'll be lucky to get even that much.