Afghanistan: The Missing Strategy

An Afghan security officer standing guard during the burning of over 2,000 kilograms of confiscated heroin, opium, and hashish, Herat province, Afghanistan, March 18, 2009 (Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP Images)

After all the talk about how many different audiences President Barack Obama had to satisfy when he finally outlined his strategy for Afghanistan on Tuesday night, he probably satisfied no more than one—the American audience who will support a continued US war effort only if there is a fixed deadline for starting to pull out US troops. Those who feel the war is futile were bound to be disappointed. But the reaction in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been equally skeptical.

Obama has given General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO commander in Kabul, more or less the numbers he wanted to beat back the Taliban from major population centers. However he has given the general only eighteen months to do the job. Although the president said “we will execute the transition responsibly, taking account of conditions on the ground,” he announced that US forces will begin withdrawing in July of 2011, a Herculean if not impossible task in view of the gains the Taliban have made in the past few years and the feeble state of the Afghan government and army.

US hopes rest on the Afghan National Army (ANA), which today numbers some 90,000 soldiers. Yet after eight years of US intervention in Afghanistan, not a single brigade is self sufficient or combat-ready. The only area the Afghan army has under its control is Kabul city, where thousands of Western troops are available for backup. Unlike in Iraq, where a literate, professional standing army existed under Saddam Hussein, in Afghanistan what remained of the military had largely disbanded or deserted by the time of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Since then there has only been warlordism.

Seventy percent of today’s ANA recruits are illiterate and do not have the skills to carry out even the simplest orders. The army has neither a fully trained officer class nor any logistical support or medical supply lines that can function without American support. The 93,000 police recruits are in even worse shape. Any expectation that the Karzai government will improve its performance—in the aftermath of a fraudulent election and amid continual reports of corruption and incompetence—is just hope.

As for how the Taliban may respond to Obama’s announcement, the president has given them just one more full fighting season—the spring and summer of 2010 (although fighting could resume in the spring of 2011)—before US troops begin withdrawing. The Taliban may well decide to sit it out, avoiding military confrontation, and then try to capture power once the Americans start to leave. Moreover, Taliban fighters have penetrated the army, the police, and the bureaucracy—a problem that may well get worse in the months ahead as the US calls on Afghan forces to take more responsibility—and the Taliban has already extended its influence to the formerly peaceful north and west of the country.

Many in the region will ignore Obama’s promise of a long-term commitment to Pakistan and Afghanistan beyond 2011—after all the Americans have made similar commitments to both countries in the past and not kept them. Even for some liberal Pakistanis and Afghans, Obama’s speech seemed to be a declaration of “cut and run,” although that is probably grossly unfair. Cynics are already saying that Obama wants most US troops out before he stands for reelection in 2012.

More troubling, however, was the lack of detail in Obama’s speech. He did not explain what strategy the additional US troops will be carrying out. There was no mention of the regional approach he had outlined in his March 2009 speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan that would bring together Afghanistan’s neighbors into a compact to help stabilize the country. Nor did he say how the “civilian surge” he mentioned would work. There was nothing in his speech about reforming the US aid and development process itself, which is rife with waste, corruption, and mismanagement, and which the Obama team promised to clean up last spring.

Obama’s call for reconciliation with the so-called moderate Taliban is conceivable but he needs a clear plan and political strategy, including incentives, to make it work. And although British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has loudly proclaimed a list of benchmarks that the West would set for Karzai to fulfill, Obama didn’t mention them.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari; drawing by John Springs

Clearly addressing the Pakistanis, Obama said that “a safe haven for those high-level terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear, cannot be tolerated.” This is a stern warning to the Pakistani government that will be repeated in European capitals in coming days; Pakistan’s current state of denial about the festering presence of Afghan Taliban on its soil is clearly no longer acceptable or believable.

One key reason the Afghan Taliban have become more powerful is the attitude of the Pakistan military, which has allowed them a largely undisturbed sanctuary in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2002. Will Pakistan’s infamous Inter Services Intelligence also sit out the next eighteen months so that it can help bring the Afghan Taliban back to power in Kabul, even as it continues its recent offensive against the Pakistani Taliban? And with the Americans beginning to leave in eighteen months, does it suit Pakistan’s interests to abandon the Afghan Taliban now, when it could result in a future civil war in Afghanistan and enormous unrest and violence in Pakistan’s border region? Does the Pakistan military really have an interest in obliging the Americans after eight years of war and increasing violence in Pakistan itself? The answers are currently unclear, even to the Americans.


Obama is trying to change the strategic calculations of the Pakistan military by promising a package of desperately needed development aid for Islamabad and a long-term US commitment to Pakistan’s security. On the other hand he is also offering a number of unstated threats. According to The New York Times, these could include extending the number of US drone missile attacks to new areas deep inside Pakistan and even launching US commando actions on Pakistani soil with or without Pakistan’s permission.

However if the US really hopes to change the attitude of the Pakistan military, it must be willing to put pressure on India to restart its stalled dialogue with Pakistan and ease tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan justifies its policies in Afghanistan by citing the Indian threat, not only along its eastern border in Kashmir, but also in Afghanistan, where there is a growing Indian presence. So far there are no signs that Obama has taken up this concern, although much will depend on what Obama was able to extract from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when the two met in Washington in late November.

When Obama took office less than a year ago, there were only 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan. By next spring there could be 100,000. Those troops will be called on to eliminate al-Qaeda, reduce the influence of the Taliban, radically reform the ANA and the police, provide secure space for civilian development and delivery of services to the Afghan people, and then get out. It’s a tall order and I am less than enthusiastic that it will work.

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