Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Drugs, Terrorists, Pipelines and Afghanistan
Today I testified in the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the interconnectedness of terrorist and criminal organizations, especially the truly transnational groups. (You can access the testimony of the rest of the panel here.)

The central point we all drove home, from different perspectives, was that of the pipeline, or recombinant chains that increasingly allow criminal to co-mingle different types of activity while merging with terrorist organizations that are becoming more criminalized.

At the root of many of the reasons for this is the absence, ineffectiveness or grossly corrupt governments in the regions where these pipelines operate. Without some ability of the government-usually after decades or centuries of absence-to convince people there is a reason to support it, the insurgencies/drug traffickers/non-state actors win by default.

The timing was interesting because the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was reiterating the need to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to fight the growing Taliban-led insurgency. The Obama administration is in the beginning of a crucial debate on Afghanistan policy.

What McChrystal's strategy cannot address is the mass corruption that has so thoroughly discredited the Karzai government and turned hope to dispair in much of Afghanistan. The perception of massive fraud (even if the fraud was only significant) in the elections may have been the final straw in the ability to generate the necessary trust in the government to make any difference.

As my fellow panelist David Mansfield noted in the hearing, while the Taliban is undoubtedly heavily involved in opium trafficking, so is the government. People expect the Taliban or other non-state actors to engage in criminal activity, in part because they are not the government.

But when the government acts as the enemy while claiming legitimacy for its actions, the population is not fooled. Rebuilding lost credibility is an enormous and time consuming enterprise.

I remember in the late 1980s, when the war in El Salvador was in full bloom, spending time on patrol with an army unit in northeastern Morazan province. The colonel in charge said the biggest change, after 10 years of war and intense efforts to rein in the official abuses of the civilian population, was that, finally, the people had lost their fear of the military.

Not that they loved the government forces, which had for decades carried out summary executions and other abuses. But, after a decade of modified behavior, people were just beginning to move away from their fear.

In Afghanistan, the process of rebuilding that trust has not yet begun, and government behavior is getting worse, not better. Trying to build a serious counterinsurgency effort in those circumstances is simply not viable, no matter how attractive or necessary such an effort seems to be.

One thing is clear. The United States cannot and will not stay in Afghanistan forever. Our troops, even with significant civilian support to help in the nation building process and deployed at the levels McChrystal asks, can still only have a limited impact if the country's own government is viewed by the enemy by much of the population.

I am not arguing that McChrystal's request should be dismissed. I am arguing that, unless we significantly work on the non-military side with credible allies in the government of Afghanistan there is little reason to think that strategy can be successful.

Gen. McChrystal knows what he needs militarily to take on the military side of the Taliban. The other half of the equation is beyond his control, and perhaps the control of the NATO alliance. Unless we think through what we can realistically expect as a counterpart from Afghanistan's government, the military action will be ephemeral at best.
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