Peter Bergen has an article on Afghanistan in the Washington Monthly. It's very sunny stuff, for the most part. If you've been looking for an analysis of the situation there by an expert that offers a positive picture of our chances, this is an interesting one.
The bulk of the article is spent explaining why the perceived dangers are not so dangerous, and the negatives not so negative as many believe, even what he calls "the one skunk at this garden party": nuclear-armed Pakistan as a haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
That may be the only skunk at the party, but -- to extend the metaphor -- there is a grizzly bear sitting on the snack table. Mr. Bergen leaves out what strikes me as the single biggest problem with Afghanistan: its physical disconnection from the rest of the world.
Our COIN models are built around virtuous action: soldiers and Marines putting their lives on the line to guard the population from insurgent pressure, developing local security forces that can sustain that security, then building up essential services to improve peoples' lives so that they don't want to fight and have alternative means of making a living.
In Iraq, that worked very well because Iraq was well-suited to the model. Iraq is physically close to markets for its products -- especially its oil, but also its meats, which are famous and desired. Building the economy is mostly a matter of providing the security and then a few essential services, such as electricity to run plants or water pumps for irrigation. Once you do that, Baghdad is connected by roads and railways to the rest of the Middle East, has a seaport, and access to other shipping ports via its railroads. For the oil, there are pipelines. The population is reasonably well-educated, and so if you help them build a powerplant (say), they can go to work at it when it is done.
Afghanistan's sheer distances are the chief problem. It is not just that there is no factory. It is not just that the factory has no electricity. It is not just that the worker has no education that would make him able to take a job in the factory if you built one and provided it with energy. What could rural Afghanistan produce that is worth enough to make it worthwhile to export -- by donkey, over mountains, in many cases?
Well, illegal goods offer that kind of profit margin -- opium, for instance. Timber smuggling. Drugs. Gems. Weapons. Such crime is problematic for COIN, since it creates a culture and networks that are easy for insurgents to exploit and difficult to infiltrate; and, since it provides the only 'industry' with real cash potential, you have to replace the funding even if you are successful at fighting the crime. Otherwise poverty increases, which works against your COIN efforts.
Aside from illegal goods, the development picture is somewhat bleak. We discussed this here at BLACKFIVE once, and some of us thought it might be workable to legalize the poppy industry -- perhaps a treaty by NATO countries to source our medicinal opium from the Afghan population would be useful. That would allow poppy cultivation to be brought out of the shadow of crime, create pools of cash in the community, and so on.
Still, even that is not a complete solution. What Afghanistan needs is better roads, railroads, and other means of connection to the world's markets. That's where the real money is, the kind of wealth that can end an insurgency by raising the people up enough that they have too much at stake to break the system. Such things are massive capital investments. We could subsidize them by flying their goods to market on C-130s, at our expense; but that provides only a temporary solution that leaves the day we do.
Without them, though, that rural insurgency Mr. Bergen describes will remain very difficult to address. Our models require us to improve people's lives by connecting them with wealth and freedom. Rural Afghanistan is among the most remote and difficult places on earth to reach. "Bringing it closer" is what will finally end the insurgency. How to do that?