Friday, December 15, 2006

A Wall, and more troops, for Afghanistan

I keep going back and forth on Afghanistan. On the one hand, I really don't want to see this all end with nothing of any permanence accomplished, which is the reasonable expectation of a Taliban revival across Afghanistan. On the other hand, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that a) "success" is possible, or b) NATO, including Harper, are willing to commit resources in the same way they commit rhetoric.

We all suspect that much of the support for the Taliban forces in Afghanistan is coming from Pakistan. Even if much of the manpower is indigenous, they're suspected of getting training from Pakistan's ISI, and a number of voices within Afghanistan have described the war there as essentially NATO vs. Pakistan.

So why not an Israeli- or Mexico-style wall? The Israeli experience, as controversial as it is, shows that walls can be effective at reducing, though not eliminating, illegal border incursions.

Well, a few obvious difficulties present themselves. The cost alone would certainly be prohibitive for Afghanistan alone - you're probably talking about $10 billion for the entire border, if that were necessary. (See some numbers in this story about the Mexican proposal.) The cost is probably why Musharraf has proposed land mines instead - cheap, effective, land mines. Oh, yeah, but it would also dramatically increase the region's stump-to-limb ratio. You don't expect a military autocrat to care about such trifles, do you?

The more fundamental problem is that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - created by the British foreign office in 1893 - is not accepted by the Afghan population as legitimate. The Durand Line permanently divided the Pashtuns of the region, something they see as a colonial-era injustice. So putting a permanent wall on the Durand Line would be seen as formalizing the division of this tribe, something the Pashtun won't abide.

This presents NATO with a problem. Musharraf may decide to mine the border with or without anyone's permission - drug smugglers, you understand - which probably won't do much to control the border. You can be sure that if the cooperation between the ISI and the Taliban is that close, they'll know exactly where the gaps in any minefield are.

(A question for the audience: What's Musharraf's game here? Is his willingness to mine the border an acknowledgment that the Taliban are getting support from Pakistan, and this is all he can do to stop it?)

So it's probably going to be in NATO's interests to control what kind of barrier gets made, and where. NATO could also easily afford the costs of even a wildly-expensive wall - hell, Canada could swing it if we needed to, but obviously it's best if the financial load is spread. If we see the same results in Afghanistan that the Israelis saw with the West Bank (and remember: controversial as the Durand Line is, it's far less controversial than the West Bank wall) we can expect a 90% reduction in illegal traffic.

If the Taliban forces in Afghanistan are dependent on Pakistan for support, that kind of reduction in support could cripple them, allowing NATO forces to calm down the southern provinces. But the obvious problem is this: formalizing the Durand Line with a wall would mark Karzai as a turncoat to his people in a tangible, visible way. He would have sold out the Pashtun for his NATO masters, or at least that's what will be said. There's no wonder, then, that Karzai is one of the most vocal opponents of a wall, minefield, or any kind of tangible barrier on the border.

Yet another one of the dilemmas for NATO in Afghanistan - one idea that could reduce the danger to NATO troops in the south, and allow them to focus more on construction and development, is totally politically unacceptable to Afghanistan's people.

The big worry in any plan for a wall is simply this: what if we're wrong? What if the forces we're fighting can be sustained domestically, without outside help? Then all we've done is exacerbate tensions with the Pashtun.

It's worth saying that even in the presence of a wall, there's very good reason to be skeptical of our troop levels in Afghanistan. Historical examples show that you want a soldier/civilian ratio of about 1:50. That kind of fraction implies a force of 20,000 for Kandahar province alone, with about double that for the other provinces on the southern border (from Kandahar to Khost.) So if the historical examples are any indication, the total would be 60,000-70,000 just for the south. Interestingly, 70,000 is the target goal Karzai has set for the size of the Afghan national Army. But until the warlords are finally pacified in the North (where there's been good progress) I'm not sure we can rely on the ANA in any numbers.

Meanwhile, you've got to wonder what the political effect would be of this kind of move. Permanently dividing the Pashtun people and flooding their community with alien invaders - not to mention alienating the current head of the Afghan state - would be an incredibly risky maneuver, even if you were confident the wall would work and you could smooth over relations with the Pashtun. Given the notorious xenophobia of the Pashtun, this sounds like you'd be asking for a lot of trouble.

But if we want to achieve some meaningful progress there we need to control the border, and we need to stabilize the security situation. Nobody can seriously argue those two points. Does anyone have a better idea?


Anonymous said...

A wall would be hugely expensive, much more than the mexican/us wall.

The mountains and other terrain obstacles are formidable. Lots of raw material true, but the cost of drilling/blasting the footings, moving of equipment, establishment of work camps, security arrangements, yikes!

Such a wall would probably have to completely surround the country, or at a minimum include the border with Iran. I'm sure insurgents could just walk around the wall into one of the neighboring 'stans and cross over from there.

john said...

I think "completely surrounding the country" is out, but I don't think it's necessary, either. Iran and the other stands generally have better border controls, and in any case the support from Pakistan is geographically concentrated in areas far away from the Iranian or other borders. Even if the wall simply made it much, much more difficult for the Taliban, we'd be better off.

As for the costs, we know the CIA has experience building on that terrain... maybe the bin Laden group can help with the wall.

john said...

oops - "stans", not "stands".

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about the border controls. However, I think Iran is more than willing to turn a blind eye. It serves their purpose to hinder Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Right now they can let Pakistan take the lead, and stay in the sidelines.

Why would Iran (or the 'Stans) stop insurgents from entering Afghanistan? Training can still happen in Pakistan, but the arms and fighters flow across Muslim state borders out of the reach of western control. Just a matter of logistics.

john said...

Neither Iran nor any of the 'stans have any interest in expanding the power of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. Iran is still dealing with refugees from the first Taliban era, when Mullah Omar et al launched what could politely be called ethnic cleansing against Afghanistan's Shia population.

Iran was probably the happiest country around when the Taliban fell, and while they'd love to keep the US tied down in Iraq, they absolutely do not want, under any circumstances, a return of any Taliban-like regime in Kabul.

Meanwhile, most of the post-Soviet states are scared to death of a Muslim resurgence in Afghanistan. Russia and China are especially concerned, and both have a great deal of influence in security matters, care of the SCO.