As the United States unveils a new Afghanistan strategy and announces an increase in troop levels, the prospects for finishing the job and ending the conflict remain unclear. In a new video Q&A, Gilles Dorronsoro analyzes the war in Afghanistan and outlines what a successful U.S. strategy should include.

“It’s the last call in Afghanistan,” says Dorronsoro. The United States still has an opportunity to avoid defeat, but it needs to reallocate troops out of the countryside and protect the cities. “If we don't get the right strategy, it will be over in the next two or three years.”


What is the impact of the recent elections on stability in Afghanistan?

The presidential election in Afghanistan was designed to reinforce the legitimacy of Karzai, and it has done exactly the contrary. The first round in August was a huge mess with a lot of faults. The turnout was quite low; the official figure is over 35 percent, but the real figure was probably 20 or 25 percent. At the same time, the Taliban was able to put a lot of pressure on the population, organizing around 400 attacks on the day of the election, August 20. For all these reasons, the election has been a fiasco. 

After a few weeks, the Electoral Commission, under the pressure of outsiders, decided to organize a second round between the two contenders, Abdullah and Hamid Karzai. But, Abdullah refused to participate in the second round because he said, with some reason, that the same amount of fraud would be found in the second round.

So right now, we have Karzai who has been “elected,” but he is not really recognized as legitimate by a lot of players in Afghanistan, lately by one of the most important political figures in Afghanistan, Ustad Atta, who is governor in Mazar-e-Sharif of Balkh Province. So, contrary to the initial idea, the legitimacy of Karzai is much weaker than what is was before the election, than six months ago.

This is going to be a major problem because any strategy in Afghanistan is based on the idea that after a few years, the Afghan army is going to be able to secure most of Afghanistan, or at least the cities, the strategic points, and allow us to exit Afghanistan, at least for the fighting troops. What we have seen is that Karzai is going to be extremely weak for the next few years. It is going to be payback time, because he has made a lot of alliances with warlords and local leaders, who are not exactly the kind we like. 

At the end of the day, it is going to be extremely difficult to build a state with a president like Hamid Karzai.

Who are the Taliban?

One of the major causes of the failure so far of the international coalition in Afghanistan is that the nature of the Taliban is not well understood. For years and years, the official discourse about Afghanistan was that the Taliban was a loosely-connected group of people who are not ideologically motivated and merely held local grievances against the government. For this reason, the overall strategy of the coalition was to deal case-by-case with the Taliban.

What happened in the last few years, is that more and more it became obvious that the Taliban are not that. It is a real political party, a political movement, with internal structure. They are not a local, but a national movement. There is a high level of coordination right now even in the provinces that are very far from the Pakistani bases of the Taliban. For example, in Kunduz right now, what has been apparent in the last few months is that it is directly coordinated from Quetta where the leadership of the Taliban is based. The general strategy of what people should do, should not do and the relationship between the Taliban and the civilians—all these questions are addressed directly from the leadership of the Taliban. 

We have discovered a little bit late that the Taliban are really serious, that they are tactically speaking good fighters, and are extremely courageous. We have seen that in Helmand, especially in 2008, 2009—they are fighting well. That’s a major problem because the idea that most of the Taliban are just “ten-dollar Taliban”—you pay them ten dollars a month and they are going to fight, so there is no political motivation—all that is deeply wrong. It’s dangerous because actually the Taliban are mostly illiterate and uneducated, but they have a worldview, they have values, and they deeply feel that the Western coalition is threatening these values and the Pashtun way of life. That’s very important—that’s a question we should address. So the idea that you can marginalize the hardcore Taliban from the rest has never worked and it is extremely dangerous because it means that you don’t understand the political dynamics of the war.
The second point concerns the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda. There is a relationship, but it’s very difficult to appreciate which one because the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not exactly open organizations. Right now, al-Qaeda doesn’t need the Taliban and the Taliban do not need al-Qaeda—they are separate organizations. Right now, al-Qaeda is not fighting in Afghanistan.

If you take al-Qaeda out of the picture, the insurgency in Afghanistan doesn’t change, it’s the same thing. On the other hand, al-Qaeda has no objective in Afghanistan. The Taliban are fighting the Americans and they are winning, so basically everything is alright. And the targets of al-Qaeda are much more in Pakistan, and marginal targets in Western countries. So, they have already dissociated their objectives and day-to-day operations.

At the same time, it is very clear that they are connected because they have the same enemies. And I would say the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is stronger than between the Afghani Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, who are very separate entities.

So what are they doing and what kind of help can they give each other? Mostly sanctuaries and technical advice from al-Qaeda, but it’s not going to change the dynamics of the war. The only problem that Western countries have with the Taliban is that if they win, al-Qaeda will probably use Afghanistan as a sanctuary.

Who are the most powerful international actors in Afghanistan, and who will do most to shape the country's future?

What’s interesting in Afghanistan is that plenty of outsiders are playing their games. First, the international coalition, and also, and probably more importantly, neighbor states and especially Pakistan. Right now, the trend is that the United Nations is less and less important. Lots of people have been evacuated and I’m not sure if they will come back. Politically, the United States has lost a large part of its credibility after the election.

The main players in Afghanistan right now are more and more the military and the U.S. military.  So there is a simplification of the map in Kabul—basically, the U.S military is in charge. For the outsiders, the second most important actor is Pakistan. Pakistan has a vital interest in Afghanistan, at least that’s what the Pakistani military is thinking. The Pakistani military supports the Taliban because it believes that the current situation in Afghanistan is threatening Pakistan’s national interest. Pakistan’s main enemy is India, so it wants to use Afghanistan as sort of a strategic depth, according to the documents we have from the Pakistani army. For that, it wants the Taliban back in Kabul. 

And this puts us in a very strange situation where every year the U.S. Congress sends a few billion dollars to Pakistan, at the same time we know very well that Pakistan is supporting the Afghani Taliban. The Pakistani military is perhaps an even more important actor than the U.S. military in this crisis because if it stops supporting the Taliban, the dynamic of the war will change dramatically. However, there is no sign of such change. Currently, the focus of the operation in Waziristan is strictly on the Pakistani Taliban, and not on the Afghani Taliban. This is why the long-term interest of Pakistan is going to be a major factor for the regional scene.

How does the war in Afghanistan relate to U.S. national security?

The war in Afghanistan is extremely difficult to explain to the public in Europe or the United States. It’s related to U.S. national interest, but the relationship is very indirect. What we have now in Afghanistan is a civil war, plus an insurgency against foreigners. The Taliban have very local objectives. So in a way, a lot of people are saying, “If the Taliban are winning in Afghanistan what’s the problem if they are not going to invade New York or organize large-scale offensives against other countries?” 

But we still have two major problems. First, is a Taliban victory in Afghanistan going to impact Pakistan? The answer is yes. We risk the destabilization of Pakistan with a Taliban victory. That’s not the point of view of the Pakistani military who is supporting the Taliban; this is more of an outsider’s point of view. 

The second problem we have is that if there is a Taliban victory, al-Qaeda will probably use Afghanistan as a sanctuary. It will not use the countryside since the countryside is open to counterterrorism operations, but it will use the cities. It is difficult to pinpoint an al-Qaeda operative if the Taliban are in charge of a city. 

For these reasons, it seems that if the cost is reasonable—and that is a big if—it is better to secure the cities and secure an Afghan state that is able to survive after the coalition troops exit the country.

What should U.S. strategy be in Afghanistan?

We are now in a very important moment for the United States and Afghanistan. It’s a choice. The real choice is not about sending 20,000 or 40,000 or 80,000 additional troops. The real decision is about the strategy—what are these troops going to do? 

We have two options. The first option is to go into the countryside and do what has been called the clear-hold-build counterinsurgency strategy. You enter a concentration of villages and “clean” them by pushing the Taliban out of the area. Then, you stay in the villages and build long-term stability. The problem with this option is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in Helmand, where the level of casualties is high, and it’s not going to work in other places.

Why? First, the Taliban, even if they are pushed out of one area, can always do hit-and-run attacks, especially because they have a sanctuary in Pakistan. Second, there is no local Afghan state that can help the coalition forces to secure an area. So it is very difficult to tell farmers and the Taliban apart—both have a Kalashnikov (rifle) by the way. So how do you do it? Also, U.S. troops are not trained for counterinsurgency. Contrary to the narrative of Iraq—Iraq was won because there was a deal with tribes, not because there was a discovery of the counterinsurgency strategy. What worked in Iraq was a deal with the tribes, and we don't have tribes in Afghanistan.

We are going to stay in places where people are extremely wary of foreign presence. We are going to patrol the villages with a high level of casualties. We won’t be able to connect to the local population since we don’t speak the language and don’t know their way of life. All these factors make this strategy extremely risky. And this was the initial McChrystal strategy in the so-called “leaked” report. 

The other option is to secure the cities in Afghanistan. We will not go back to the countryside in the South and East where the insurgency is very strong, because this strategy will not work. If the Taliban are fully in control of one place, we leave it. We concentrate on the cities and around the cities to have a buffer. Then, we put money, which is now used in the countryside, in cities to secure them. We can then rebuild the state, since states are always built from the cities, not from the countryside. Afterwards, we can work with the Afghan army who will then be in a more defensive position, it is easier for them to work.  

With a low level of casualties, we can still be in Afghanistan in five years. To build an Afghan army of a reasonable size, say 150,000, we need at least five years. We are not going to stay in Afghanistan with seven or eight hundred casualties per year. It’s five hundred this year, and implementing the McChrystal strategy will bring it up to 700 or 800 casualties. This number is not politically sustainable.

So, if we have a small, defensive, city-centered strategy, we can stay for five years in Afghanistan, because we will have a low level of casualties. In the North where this is possible (there are a few provinces where this is possible), we can work harder to stop the Taliban. This probably means some European countries that are working in the North right now should leave and work more on the training of the Afghan army and leave the place to troops trying to do counterinsurgency work.

What are the prospects for success?

It’s the last call in Afghanistan. If we don’t get the right strategy, if we don’t do the right thing right now, it will be over in the next two or three years.

The level of casualties is politically unsustainable. What we’ve seen between 2008 and 2009 is an increase of more than 50 percent in casualties. Less than 300 in 2008 for the coalition, almost 500 right now, and probably at the end of 2009 it will be over 500. This kind of increase in number of casualties with no result on the ground is not sustainable

Public opinion in Europe now is strongly against the war. Two-thirds of the British public are against the war. The Canadians are out in 2011. We need to take this into account—if the European allies are leaving, the United States will need to send more troop just to compensate. This will be a heavy burden for the United States. I don’t think it is doable, that’s why if we have the wrong strategy right now, it will be over in two years. But if we have the right strategy, the one I described before, it’s fifty-fifty.

It’s doable, but we have two main problems. Karzai is very weak so it’s going to take a lot of effort to train an Afghan army and it’s going to take a lot of effort to try to make the coalition work together better than now. If everything goes right, in five years we can have a situation where the troops gradually withdraw and the Afghan army will be able to secure the cities. Although this is doable, if we take the wrong strategy now, everything is lost.