As the Obama administration prepares to review its Afghanistan strategy in December, it is increasingly clear that while the U.S.-led NATO coalition has made some progress, large obstacles remain. Reflecting on their recent tours in eastern Afghanistan, Army Colonel Randy George and Dante Paradiso shared their experiences and observations from the frontlines. Both served with Task Force Mountain Warrior, where George was the military commander and Paradiso served as the senior civilian representative. Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis moderated the discussion.

Key Obstacles

The eastern provinces where Task Force Mountain Warrior operated presented several challenges for U.S. forces:

  • Geography: Mountain ranges separate the region into three distinct parts, and population centers range from highly isolated small villages to large cities, such as Jalalabad, George noted. The area also shares a porous border with Pakistan.
  • Tribal divisions: Tribal identities are strong throughout most of the region and multiple tribal groups live in the same areas, Paradiso stated. This can create tensions, especially when local governments are perceived to favor one tribe over another.
  • Coordination with Afghan forces: The Afghan National Police, Border Police, and National Army all operate in the same area and often share bases with coalition forces. George explained that, while local residents comprise the two police forces, the national army is primarily composed of non-locals, which sometimes inhibited cooperation.
  • Afghan government: Each province has a governor, with sub-governors for each district. Governors are appointed by Kabul but they vary in power and quality, and a disconnect often exists between formal decisions made in the capital and realities at the local level, Paradiso said. The Afghan government only has representatives at the regional and district level, meaning local villages are largely left to traditional sources of authority.
  • Enemies: The eastern provinces are not Taliban strongholds, but they still face violence from insurgents and a proliferation of criminal organizations and other groups that have not accepted the state’s authority, Paradiso explained.

Improving Local Governance

Afghans consider poor local governance and widespread corruption as their most significant problem, with the insurgency seen as less important, George said. U.S. forces have responded with a concerted effort to improve local governance.

  • Budget support: Local governments usually do not have the budget to provide basic services for the population. For instance, officials often lack a transportation budget to reach their constituents and as a result collect fees or bribes in exchange for services. The U.S. military has begun providing local governments with a supplemental budget. George argued that providing budget support to local governments is better than direct U.S.-financed projects because it enhances governance capacity, increases transparency, decreases waste, and ensures projects reflect the priorities of the local population.
  • Transparency: The nature and amount of U.S. budget support to the local government is announced over the radio, allowing local people to hear where the money is going and detect possible corruption.
  • Accountability: Once the people have access to budget information, it is crucial that a process exists to hold leaders accountable for their expenses, George noted. Otherwise, the population may become disillusioned with the system.

Enhancing Communication

Another major part of the U.S. strategy in eastern Afghanistan is to improve communication and cooperation with the local population.

  • Understanding local dynamics: It is crucial for coalition forces to determine who holds de facto power in local areas, and to ensure that the U.S. presence mitigates rather than creates internal tensions, Paradiso explained. For example, he argued that it is important for police recruitment to reflect the tribal makeup of a given area, so that all the tribes have a stake in the state.
  • Talking to the enemy: Many individuals and groups targeted as enemies by the United States and Kabul enjoy widespread local power and respect. For instance, the insurgent group Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) is considered a legitimate political party in most of eastern Afghanistan.  To win local support, Paradiso explained that U.S. forces have reached out to anyone willing to talk to them, including the HIG, and this strategy has often yielded positive responses. The only people the U.S. forces will not talk to are members of al-Qaeda or those involved in transnational terrorism, he noted.
  • Communicating successes: Foreign forces are usually blamed whenever something goes wrong, but U.S. forces are making an effort to work with Afghan partners to ensure they are also credited for their successes, Paradiso added.

Sustainable Progress?

Several questions remain as to whether micro-level efforts at improving local governance and building relationships with communities can positively influence Afghanistan’s broader national problems, and whether progress can be sustained after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Paradiso addressed some of the particular areas where progress has been made:  

  • Economic progress: Economic activity in the region has grown in recent years as a result of better infrastructure and increased trade. While much illicit economic activity benefits from continued conflict, Paradiso contended that the majority of new businesses profit from improved security; economic growth thus creates new stakeholders in peace.
  • Democratic ideas: Afghans have accepted the idea that government should be representative and responsive to the people, Paradiso argued, and they will not easily abandon this ideal in favor of the Taliban’s top-down ideology.
  • Relationships: As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, it will be much harder to maintain personal relationships with powerful local players, but Paradiso expressed hope that local partnerships could be leveraged to maintain these important ties.
  • Security: The main U.S. mission in Afghanistan is to prevent non-state actors from being able to strike the United States again, Paradiso pointed out. To achieve that goal, it is crucial to gain support from local actors as well as national authorities. Despite the continuing ability of non-state actors to create chaos, Paradiso argued that more local communities are rejecting the insurgency.
  • Beyond the local: While it is sometimes difficult to see the relationship between local reforms and broader national problems, George contended that lasting solutions can only come from a succession of small accomplishments, since large- scale national change is unlikely to be effective. Paradiso added that local efforts are being conducted in coordination with national and international actors, including Pakistan.