Rethinking the Afghan Engagement: “We cannot reach the point we want to go.”

By Second Line of Defense

We are focusing on ending the endless war which Afghanistan has become.

In 2011, we interviewed a colleague of Massoud’s who fought the Taliban and as a former French Foreign Legion Officer, has significant experience in dealing with conflicts in remote locations with significant operational challenges.

In this interview, he underscored that if the United States did NOT change its strategy, it faced an endless war and defeat.

Unfortunately, he has been proven right.

He outlined his thinking about the conflict, the challenges and war termination.

We repost this article below, an article which we first published in March 2011 on Second Line of Defense.

It is rare that a voice with so much experience can provide understanding of a possible path to withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the endless mission.

We introduced our readers to this experienced Afghan hand late last year.

Our French correspondent in 2010-2011 Olivier Azpitarte interviewed Johan Freckhaus after a visit to Afghanistan.

According to Freckhaus:

“The truth is that the centralized and authoritarian system that we have put in place with the help of an emigrant, urban and progressive Afghan elite, is unsuited to the fundamentally rural, conservative and religious country.

“This system has no chance of survival and, by using force to impose itself, it only creates rejection, as indeed before him Prince Daoud’s “republic” in the ’70s and the Communists’ “democracy” in the 80′s.

The more resentment, the less hope and the more Afghans are in the moment, in search of quick profits. Today, there are foreigners and money; it’s time to fill their pockets for the future of the family, the future education of the children, even exile if the Taliban was to be back soon! ”

The senior SLD team interviewed Freckhaus in both Paris and Washington DC to get a better sense of his thinking about the past and the way out of the endless tunnel. How best to shape the future of Afghanistan and the Western engagement?

Freckhaus has a wide-ranging background and engagement with Afghanistan.

Freckhaus is a French citizen and graduate of St. Cyr. After serving as an officer in the French Infantry and in the Foreign Legion, he went to Afghanistan to join Ahmad Shah Massoud’s resistance fight and helped train his commandos.

After the strategically important and tragic murder of Massoud, Freckhaus has remained engaged in Afghanistan in various ways and  he has had over a decade of experience on the ground.

Providing consultancy services for several private companies or directly managing the projects, he has been involved in the rehabilitation of urban water supply network systems, the deployment of military satellite communication equipment, the construction of district centers and police district headquarters, as well as the supply of petrol, diesel and jet fuel for the International Security Assistance Force.

In addition, he served as a former team member of the political advisory group supporting the presidential campaign of the candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

In 2008, Freckhaus was captured by the Taliban and then released in a prisoner exchange and ordered to leave Afghanistan. He did so only to return shortly thereafter.

His kidnapping was described in Newsweek Magazine

In our interviews with Freckhaus he connects two broad points.

First, the light footprint followed by the Bush Administration after 9/11 was the right strategy.

The piling on of foreign troops has stirred up a hornets nest of Taliban activity who are using the large scale foreign presence as a recruiting issue.

The point simply put is that Afghans distrust foreign motives and the large number of troops.

And the foreign troops are backing a centralized government, which is out of sync of broader Afghan national aspirations and objectives.

Certainly, recent events in the Middle East suggest that building up the power of the Presidency, as a focus of Western activity might well be counterproductive for political progress.

In a recent speech to the Kuwait National Assembly, on 22 February 2011, the UK Prime Minister admitted: “For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes (…). [We] faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.”

Freckhaus also suggested an interesting lesson from history that might just work — a Swiss “neutrality” model from the time of Napoleon.

His observations in his own words are extremely interesting.

The West can work with Russia, Pakistan and others to shape a neutrality treaty and can assist where appropriate in countering foreign fighters like Al Qaeda and the Taliban seeking to penetrate Afghan territory.

But the West needs to leave security to the provinces, and work with a much smaller central government tasked with dispensing aid to the provinces, control of the Army and collecting taxes. But the provinces cannot, nor need, manage large police forces.

In the earlier interview, Olivier underscored the following:

There is indeed an insurgency in Afghanistan because you have 30 000 or 40 000 rebel fighters – according to allied military intelligence – backed by millions of Afghan civilians, in growing numbers, who feed them, house them, transport them, protect them, give them information and so on.

These civilians are doing it foremost to drive foreign troops out of the country and in rejection of the system we are trying to impose, but do not want the return to power of the mullahs either.

Withdrawing our troops is therefore the right strategy to effectively drive a wedge between the rebels and their supporters. This famous momentum, this magic moment where the power relationship can be reversed, will come from fair and complete withdrawal of foreign forces, because then the fate of the country will return to its population.

Then the Afghan security forces, as they exist today, would very well be capable, with the help of villagers, of chasing away those rebels on motorcycles mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, whose most lethal know-how is simply to trigger explosives remotely.

The strategy of “always more” prevalent until today for the Afghan security forces is a dangerous illusion: more troops, more money, more power to the central government, all of this is counter-productive, it fuels the insurgency! We are building oversized security forces in Afghanistan that the country is far from being able to afford.

We imagine a police state, supported from abroad, which would subject the population to the decisions of Kabul.

We imagine building in a few years, for one of the poorest countries in the world, an army that could successfully maintain in power a hyper-centralized system. This is not sustainable.”

Let’s remember, for the record, that the Afghan government, which now has 140, 000 military and 109, 000 police officers, aims at a 240,000 military and 240,000 police officers force. And that is for a country of about 20 million inhabitants.

In comparison, France, for a population three times larger, has fewer than 170,000 military personnel (ground and air) and 265 000 gendarmes and police officers.

SLD: In your view, why will the current strategy fail?    

Freckhaus: Because we part of the problem.

The political model is wrong.

We need to return to 2002 where we had more limited and realistic objectives in a certain sense.

We are seeking to build too large of an army and too large of a police force to support a model of government, which cannot be sustained.

By the way, who is going to invade Afghanistan after we leave? We are building unstable equilibrium, not stability.

It looks like it could stand but any kind of disturbances tend to bring the system down, and we need to spend a lot of energy – blood, toil, sweat and money – to maintain it.

SLD: So, we declare victory.

Freckhaus: We should have declared victory in Afghanistan at the end of 2001, after a regime that was oppressing its own people, lying to the world and supporting terrorism collapsed under our joint military action.

On the other hand, what was called the “war on terror” goes on and this is not a kind of struggle that ends with a statement.

On the Afghan battlefield, better than declaring victory we must acknowledge mistakes.

There is a Nation over there with several ethnic groups used to live together on the same land for centuries.

The so-called State building went wrong.

The central government should be no more than a clearinghouse for development.

We should not build up the power of the President to become a dictator for the country.

SLD: But we’re focusing on basically provincial police and security.

We can call it an American National Guard; the kind of people who belong to the states.

Freckhaus: We built the Afghan National Army, but they are dedicated to defend their country against foreign forces.

The ANA is reluctant for counterinsurgency, because they are Afghan insurgents.

There is no more.

Let’s consider insurgency like a part of your own people supporting armed and organized rebellion groups.

If you ask the Afghan Army to fight Afghan insurgents, they don’t want to; when you leave, they will stop fighting their own people, I’m sure.

They are likely to look for local deals or even recognize another leadership considered as more legitimate than a foreign-backed central government.

SLD: Could you discuss your concept about the relevance of the Swiss model and the relevance of bargained neutrality?

Freckhaus: We need to enforce neutrality of Afghanistan by making Pakistan become a signatory to an argument and an enforcer of the accord.

Making them part of a Western counter-insurgent strategy will not be considered legitimate by the Pakistani military.

Pakistan plays against Afghanistan because they don’t want Afghanistan to play with India against them. Iran plays the same dirty game because they don’t want Afghanistan to play with the U.S. against them.

And actually, we are there because we don’t want Afghanistan to play again with a terrorist organization against us.

That is the great game.

But to end it, to neutralize Afghanistan, let’s come back to the old story.

There is no sustainable way but make Afghanistan neutral and give up on this idea of “strategic partnership”.

No Afghanistan against us or with our enemies; that is all what we need.

SLD: Please explain the Swiss model.

Freckhaus: The history of Europe can help to understand what happens now in central Asia.

If we compare Afghanistan to Switzerland, at the beginning of the 19th century or the end of the 18th century, we can see a way ahead.

You have the problem of the cities and the countryside. Switzerland is a rural country at that time, conservative, religious with many proud people living in remote valleys.

Like Afghans now are really conservative and religious and rejects the modernizing initiatives of the cities and the central government when it comes to cultural values and morality.

In 18th century Switzerland, the cities and urban elites supported the French revolution; the countryside did not.

The urban elites even asked the French troops to come in to enforce the revolution, the same way that the Afghan urban elites have heavily solicited for decades the Soviets and the West to help empowering a new generation for the progress of their own country.

The French did an organized Switzerland in a centralized way with appointed governors.

This failed.

For four years, the French troops occupied Switzerland and enforced centralization.

Eventually Napoleon got the point. A group of French senators were sent to Switzerland to see what they could do to do solve the issue there.

The group of senators came back to Napoleon, to the emperor, and said okay, we have a problem because the political model is not correct; it’s wrong for this country.

We have to come back to what was Switzerland before the centralization and to give back the power for people to sort their problems at the village level, with an arbitrator chosen by themselves, sitting at an upper level, and who can solve most issues without necessarily referring to a central authority.

There is a famous speech of Napoleon in 1802, in which he said that it’s not for a wise man to try to change the nature of the country in Switzerland.

So, we came back to a more decentralized power in Switzerland.

And I think it is reversed, this acknowledgement of mistake from Napoleon at that time, must inspire us for Afghanistan.

The model we put in 2002 to have a centralized country, actually, the idea is to control the president who controls the government, to control the governor who is supposed to control the province.

This is a flawed organization.

The power in Afghanistan is not culturally centralized and people want to be involved in any decision…

Of course, we have to think about the structure of the government.

Should the district and provincial governors be selected by the president?

Or elected by the people? Where is the limit between the people organizing themselves at the local level, and the central leadership?

How is it that the experts who say that the solution is political only propose to deal with the enemy?

Politics is the way you organize the power and we did it wrongly in Afghanistan.

Let’s do real politics before asking the Taliban to sign any paper.

How is it that we keep consulting historians of guerilla warfare, experts in counter-insurgency, psychological operations or information warfare, but don’t ask any help from specialists in decentralization, federalism and constitution?

How is it that the people who studied at the Kennedy School of Government only rely on West Point graduates to find a solution?

I strongly believe that the keys are not in the military toolbox.

SLD: Could you discuss the significance of the rural population in your thinking?

Freckhaus: Afghanistan is a rural country, it’s a conservative country, and it’s a religious country.

But the West is talking with urban or emigrated elites who are not too much religious and does not really represent what their country is.

I know many of them who think that a dictatorship is the way to bring progress to the mass of illiterate and ignorant farmers.

But you will not find a good dictator in Afghanistan and if you concentrate the power in Kabul you will never have enough seats of power for each community to be represented there.

Better to send the money to the provinces – I mean to provide them with a budget – and rely on the people, than to ask all the communities to send representatives for request to the ministries in the capital city.

Then, you have the Pashtuns who say they are 65% of the population, the Tajiks say they are 40%, the Hazaras 25%, the Uzbeks 15%, etc.

Every community pretends that they are the least advantaged by the government.

The relationship between Kabul and the provinces must be reinvented.

The central government provides development whereas the provinces should provide security.

It is not reconstruction before security or security before reconstruction, it should be an exchange of reconstruction for security and security for reconstruction, from two different entities and not all coming from a foreign supported central government.

Like the Soviets and the British, we want to talk with modern elites.

We want to change the society to fit our objectives; we want to adapt the people to the system.

And we are wrong.

We believe that it is a question of commitment, of resources, of time. “It will take one generation”; “it will take time as it takes”.

I myself believe that it is not going to work…

This idea of change and progress are not understood nor believed by the population.

We may have some hidden agenda… And this hidden agenda of the West drives the Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

I thought it was interesting about the communists in Afghanistan was that they were in alliance with the Russians for kind of modernization agenda.

Which in a certain sense, we’re doing the same thing.

SLD: Could you discuss your views on the light footprint role in 2002?

Freckhaus: I was in Afghanistan before 2001, after 9/11, Secretary Rumsfeld organized a strategy, and he came out with a light footprint strategy.

It was because there was only a small group of experts on Afghanistan and they told him, well… it is complicated. We must not do what the British or Russians did before. So let’s add very light footprint.

And there were two objectives; to destroy Al Qaida, and to neutralize the Taliban. Actually, the first idea was not to remove the Taliban from history but to “attack the military capability of the Taliban regime”, as President Bush said.

The first, to destroy Al Qaida could not have been achieved, but the neutralization of the Taliban was completed quite quickly because as we say in French “the fruit was ready”.

But then, in the months in 2002, we changed; there were many new experts of Afghanistan coming with an experience of Africa, with an experience of the Balkans, with an experience of South-East Asia, etc. All these people came with new ideas, new experiences, and the big machinery… They knew little about the real nature of the country and wanted to make a nation building, state building and organize the country like we would like.

So, we lost the main first ideas, and we went to the wrong direction.

And because things went badly we just added more resources to deepen our commitment and engagement.

So we say okay, we need more.

We need more troops; we need more money, we need more commitment.

We need more time.

And to me, that we are going the wrong way, and we’re going there faster.

We cannot reach the point we want to go.

SLD: The final thing we just want to go back on one of the things we were talking about, which is the notion of the transition we need to do now.

We put the Swiss model on the table; we have a Congress of Vienna, kind of concept of getting folks in the region to accept the neutrality of Afghanistan as the legitimate objective for the country.

We can then transition militarily out of this situation. And really, focus on the central government as really the development center for the country, not so much the governing and national army kind of focus. Beginning to focus more as a partner for international institutions to build development acceptable to the Afghan people.

And underlying that is that you reminded us of the rural/urban divide, in that most Afghans are rural.

So, probably the development that they would value would reinforce the rural existence, not impose a new urban existence on them.

So, just your final thoughts on that.

Freckhaus: And I believe the rural people of Afghanistan can provide the security. They are their own masters in their village and in their house. And if they want to keep the Taliban away, they can do it.

But now the Taliban are their guests, and it’s our big problem. They are living with the people, because the people open their door to the Taliban. Doing so, they do what they think has to be done: fighting the foreigners and the hidden agenda.

But we cannot get back the people with counter insurgency model. Building the wrong political model, and actually occupying the country with more and more troops. We have to send a very strong message, like we tried to do, actually.

But in the last year, there were two messages. One message from the political side, like Secretary Clinton. You hear the diplomats say we are not here to occupy the country. The Afghan people must understand that we are not occupiers. So, this speech and the other one where the military will say we are here as long as necessary. We are very committed, and we have to stay until the job is done. So, the Afghan are faced with these two speeches, and which one do you think they believe is the true one?

When he does the surge in Afghanistan, President Obama focuses on counter-insurgency, not constitutional reform.

America must acknowledge its mistake and focus now on giving back the power to the Afghan people, as well as building the neutrality of the country.

One of the consequences is a foreign withdrawal with commitment by the international community to closely monitor the neutrality.