Afghanistan – Getting the Bare Bones Right

As the US and NATO forces prepare for a withdrawal from the active theater in Afghanistan in 2014, and as Afghanistan heads into a presidential election in the same year, there is heightened concern about how the situation will play out.
In a manner of simple-speak, there are players within the country, and proverbially saying, without the country, who are each maneuvering to either minimize or maximize their positioning and stakes in the post-2014 scenario.
That the outcome of the situation in Afghanistan has immense ramifications on the country itself, the region, and globally is not a matter of concentric circles – with global security least and last affected.
Each geographic construct is at an equal scale of vulnerability if dysfunction, violence, and hatred breed in Afghanistan. Be it the men, women, and children of Afghanistan , Pakistan, the United States, any country in Europe, India, China, or, you name it.
Minimization versus Maximization
The various summits, conclaves, seminars, bilateral, track 2 and such diplomacy, the covert and intelligence assets, and the development aid, civic society engagements, inter-faith and a plethora of capacity building are all circling around this issue – how to minimize the ripple effects of an explosive Afghanistan.
On the other hand, an equally intense dynamic strategy is in progress by varied stakeholders on how to maximize their strategic interests in the vacuous space that is expected to emerge post-2014 in Afghanistan.
The intent of this column is not to analyze the strategies of maximization, minimization or optimization that are being considered, or countered amongst the matrix of stakeholders. Those shall be, and what results we see, for the good or bad, shall be.
Rather the goal of this column is to bring focus on a tactical strategy that can have a significant impact on the ground while the mile-high grand strategies inter-play.
There is perhaps only fact which is assured in a post-2014 Afghanistan. That there shall be geographic nodes within Afghanistan where some residual U.S. and NATO forces shall maintain a presence – irrespective of the outcomes of known and unknown negotiations and the power-play that emerges post-withdrawal of the forces.
Of course, the first objective of these outposts shall be to ensure their own security. More so in the newer environment when the withdrawal is abdicating the once-upon-a-time objective of foreign forces to bring peace to the entire country.
Thus, in a realistic scenario what shall be any tactical strategy that is real, on the ground – and with at least some chances of a modicum of success – as the country hurtles towards chaos and violence?
The Skeleton Strategy
The physical nodes across the territory of Afghanistan where the few and remaining U.S. and NATO forces will entrench themselves (and some of the Afghan outposts that can contribute to this strategy) will be the only outposts of security in a most likely situation in 2014 – with their influence extending to a radius of perhaps no more than one to two kilometers around the base.
Is it conceivable that these outposts, tens or hundreds of miles apart, are at least connected to and with each other? Via secure road-links? In fact the very planning of where to locate these outposts must be done with this strategy in mind. More on that later.
The entire military and any developmental aid that outside governments and agencies give to Afghanistan must be focused only on these road-links to create a bare-bones skeleton which can give confidence to the people and writ of the state of Afghanistan.
These corridors of connectivity, security, and development are the bare bones that will give hope to the people and nationalists of Afghanistan that peace is possible and can endure in this country. If, as is expected, the U.S. and NATO forces will be withdrawing into these nodal cocoons and not undertake any combat roles, then any capacity building of the Afghan security forces must firstly be focused on establishing peace and security among these inter-connected nodes.
Scholars of history and civilizations will note the key role that roads and routes played in the development of any society, community, nation, or civilization. Sure, the jury is still out whether the cities emerged first and then the nomads and traders created these routes connecting these cities; or, these cities emerged because the hunters, nomads, and traders took to settling in these locations as they progressed on their journeys.
Where are the joints of the skeleton?
History is history. We are now in the 22nd century, and cities and towns may have emerged in Afghanistan but they are not connected for free flow and exchange of people, trade, and ideas.
Much as they tried, the U.S. and NATO failed to create this connectivity between the cities and trade routes of Afghanistan. Therefore it is now necessary to re-look into the routes in Afghanistan.
Military and development planners now need to think not about cities and trading centers, but rather think about military outposts, and connect them to create functional roads and routes. And this brings us to the issue we highlighted earlier – where should the U.S. and NATO military outposts be located post-2014?
The answer is simple – these military outposts should be located outside the main trading cities and towns of Afghanistan. These locations must not be chosen for military exigency, and laziness of thought about location. Rather, these must be carefully mapped out, with a skeleton strategy clearly in the mind. Just because an ISAF air-base in some remote location has been operating for last ten years is no reason to locate an Afghan police training institute at this location. Shut down that base – and create a strategic node outside a town or city. Connect this node with another military node outside some nearby town or city.
Development money must be channelized to stimulate social and economic development along the route of these potentially-to-be-connected-nodes. This is the meat around the bones of connectivity.
A bare-bones skeleton in Afghanistan must stand up post-withdrawal of U.S. and NATO in 2014 – even a minimalist exemplar. It can be a hub-spoke, with few radials of even 100 miles each; or it can be a linear model of a corridor of a few hundred miles; or it can be a matrix of nodes. As long as there is security at end of the connecting nodes, and development at least 100 meters to each side of the connectivity.
While each outside stakeholder, ranging from Pakistan to the ISI, Taliban, Al Qaeda, The United States, Iran, Russia, and India, are trying to maximize their own interests; and while each internal stakeholder in Afghanistan is also trying to maximize its own interests – can we commit ourselves and force a consensus on a minimalist, bare bones, and skeleton strategy?
If the Afghan people and the international community are together not able to stand-up or progress towards such a skeleton, then we can all be rest assured that blood and mayhem shall be what we get – in Afghanistan and across the world.

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