With the 2014 transition looming, some U.S. policymakers have developed lofty expectations that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police can defeat the Taliban on their own. The stark reality is that Afghan national-security forces have never been capable of stabilizing the country by themselves.
Afghanistan is not a Western country. Security has always required a delicate balance between the central government and tribes, subtribes and clans. After seizing control in 1929, Nadir Shah remarked, "I will not be the King but the servant of the tribes and the country." It was a wise approach: his reign marked the beginning of the country's last stable period, from 1929 to 1978.
The balance between urban and rural power centers, which has been critical to past periods of peace in Afghanistan, suggests that the success of the national army and police will hinge, in part, on their ability to reach out to local communities.
One of the most effective shifts in U.S. strategy over the past year has gone virtually unreported: the creation of the Village Stability Operations program. It involves the deployment of U.S. and Afghan special-operations forces to help key villages establish local police, enhance formal and informal governance and improve development. Senior Taliban leaders have expressed growing alarm at the program, which has undermined their control of territory and denied them uncontested access to rural populations. Unlike in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is a rural one. If the Afghan government is to have a chance of defeating the Taliban, its national-security forces must successfully leverage the country's many competing factions, village by village. They cannot succeed on their own.
Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., is the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan