The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘us afghanistan

Stop the Childish Afghanistan Debate

leave a comment »

Following the fallout from the Quran burnings in Afghanistan, the voices calling for America to abandon the country are growing louder. Fareed Zakaria thinks it is time for the US “to get real in Afghanistan” and abandon its nation-building hopes:

As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with this nation-building approach. First, it is extremely difficult to modernize a country in a few years.Second, even if this were possible, the fundamental characteristics of that society – its ethnicity, religion, and national and geopolitical orientation – persist despite modernization.

The current approach, in his view, also “bets on the success of not one but two large nation-building projects” – creating an effective national government in Kabul and economy in Afghanistan loved by the Afghans, and to alter Pakistan’s basic character.

Zakaria is using a strawman to prove his argument, which I find quite silly and sad. Anyone watching the news, as I assume Zakaria does, would realize that the Obama administration’s modest goal has not been ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan, but ensuring an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its teritory with little international assistance before the US withdraws. In other words, as I’ve put it before, preventing national collapse rather than promoting nation-building.You can’t nation-build with the paltry number of troops the US has in Afghanistan now, and the administration knows this. Obama himself was reluctant to even give his generals the troop numbers they wanted last year to secure Afghanistan, so I doubt he harbors any illusions about ‘nation-building’, especially now with around 70 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

Instead of quoting administration officials or policy documents, Zakaria quotes a 2010 speech by Newt Gingrich to make a point about what the US goal in Afghanistan is before challenging it. Gingrich goes on about how “flooding the country with highays” and “guaranteeing every Afghan has a cellphone” is the way to succeed. Never mind that Zakaria is quoting the same guy who called Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings “embarrassing” to represent US policy. I’d challenge Zakaria to find just one single recent quote by an administration official along those ‘nation-building’ lines. Obama and his advisers have been saying consistently that they are charting a ‘responsible withdrawal’ in Afghanistan, and that while troops withdrawals will be “conditions-based”, the main objective is to build Afghan capacity to provide for their own security just like in Iraq. Here’s Obama himself a few days ago:

War is a tough business, and never goes in a perfectly good path. But because of the stick-to-it-ness of our teams, I feel confident that we can stay on a path that, by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role, and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country.

That doesn’t sound like nation-building to me. So let’s get away from this childishness and have a serious debate as to what the US role should be, rather than irresponsibly misrepresenting what it is right now.

A more serious argument would be that the Afghan outrage at the Koran-burning means hearts and minds cannot be won, which will doom any US counterinsurgency effort.

But as Michael Gerson over at the Washington Post has noted, the fallout from the Koran burnings may be overstated. He quotes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution who, with his repeated trips to Afghanistan, is hardly an armchair commentator:

The current crisis, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is “far more than a blip, but less than a catastrophe.” According to O’Hanlon, the United States is consistently more popular in Afghanistan than elsewhere in the Islamic world. Betrayal by Afghan soldiers and officials is disturbing and damaging but not generalized or dramatically growing. Many Afghans fear a hurried U.S. departure far more than they resent America’s presence. And Karzai’s reaction to the Koran incident has been measured, particularly when compared with past tantrums.

Gerson goes on about the modest but often overlooked successes of Obama’s Afghan strategy:

Obama’s Afghan strategy — including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces — is more successful than some credit. In the south — the Taliban homeland — insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011, compared with the previous year. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are deployed across the country. More than half of U.S. military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts. While conditions in Afghanistan’s north and west have deteriorated the past few years — complicating the work of relief organizations — the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east, in contrast, has serious and growing challenges. Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be gradually shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive (but still substantial) role.

To all this must be added the cost of failure in Afghanistan. As I wrote almost three years ago:

The United States must not forget that the seeds of 9/11 were planted when it decided to disengage from Afghanistan instead of rebuilding it after the US-trained Afghan mujahideen defeated the USSR. Washington’s failure to construct a centrist government transformed Afghanistan into a cradle of Taliban fundamentalism in the mid 1990s and a sanctuary for Al Qaeda thereafter. Neglecting this war-ravaged and battered country once again would not only display an ignorance of history, but an utter disregard for long-term national security.

Of course, there are significant obstacles to achieving the modest goal the administration has set as well. There’s the corrupt and unpopular Karzai government, the less than helpful Pakistan, and the grim structural realities including rugged terrain and a low literacy rate. Obama did not help things when he gave his commanders less troops than he wanted.

But let’s have an honest debate about the pros and cons of the war, instead of listening to those building strawmen.


What Obama’s Troop Cuts Mean for Afghanistan

leave a comment »


Last week, US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops this year from Afghanistan, and 23,000 more by the end of summer in 2012. While the speedy pullout is not as catastrophic as doomsayers suggest and the overall strategy remains the same, it nonetheless makes a challenging task even more difficult.

To some degree, Mr. Obama’s timetable is hardly surprising. Since he first took office, he has wavered back and forth between doing what the realities on the ground demand and what America can afford. And, as with the limited surge into Afghanistan he authorized last year, he has once again ended up somewhere in between where popular sentiment lies and what his generals advocated. The fact that a majority of Americans oppose the US involvement there (which amounts to over $100 billion a year) amid spiralling debt and high unemployment at home so close to his re-election obviously featured prominently in his mind, and understandably so.

But, as others have pointed out, there is also growing evidence that the US military strategy in Afghanistan is working to a certain extent, and that its modest goal – an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its territory with little international assistance – is still achievable. The strategy from 2011-2014, roughly speaking, centers around first consolidating gains in the south in 2011, then increasing the turnover of responsibility to Afghan security forces in that region and boosting efforts in the east in 2012, and, finally, once the insurgency weakens substantially in 2013 and 2014, accelerating troop withdrawals. Of course, the strategy will be pursued alongside other dimensions such as economic development and political reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

It is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, and many are quick to point out the negatives, such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s inept and corrupt regime and America’s increasingly fraught relationship with Pakistan. But the military strategy in the south has shown good results – in terms of security, political development, education and the involvement of Afghan security forces. The logic of counterinsurgency: that ensuring the safety of the population first can then lead to civilian and political gains later, has largely held true. If these gains can be solidified and the ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy is replicated in the east, that could at least put Afghan forces in control of a significant parts of its territory and thwart a potential Taliban takeover.  

While there are no guarantees that this strategy will work over the next few years, the goal is extremely modest and the implementation has proven effective thus far. Doing it right will no doubt mean more blood and treasure. But that needs to be weighed against the cost of defeat – which could involve Taliban takeover of large parts of Afghanistan and the re-emergence of a sanctuary to either attack America at home or undermine its interests abroad in a region rife with rivalry, extremism, and nuclear weapons. To be clear, no one expects Washington to occupy every country where terrorists roam; the objective is to help shape an environment in Afghanistan where the security forces are able to independently avert the return of a brutal group that endangers US interests. In other words, not nation-building, but preventing national collapse.  

Mr. Obama’s current withdrawal plan makes accomplishing this task, which had a reasonable chance of success, significantly more difficult both in terms of numbers and timing. In terms of numbers, as Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, it will require taking at least one of two key risks: either reducing US and NATO presence in the south and making Afghan forces do more than they are capable of, which could lead to more Taliban counterattacks; or reducing the troop build-up in the east, which would provide the insurgents with sanctuaries from which to launch future attacks. Those risks, however, could be amplified further if some coalition partners follow suit and draw down their forces as well.

The timing of the withdrawal is also important: if the drawdown must occur by the end of summer 2012, a third of American troops will not be able to stay through the critical “fighting season” of that year, in contrast to the plan favoured by Mr. Obama’s military commanders. Withdrawals during this time of the year might help Mr. Obama win an election, but could undercut US chances of averting defeat in Afghanistan. Additionally, if he adheres to his troop drawdown plan with little regard for conditions on the ground, that could adversely affect his chances in other realms – such as political reconciliation with the Taliban. Insurgents are less likely to negotiate when they feel they have the upper hand, or if they perceive that America’s grip is weakening significantly.

Yet, all is not lost. Mr. Obama still has control over which type of forces he can choose to withdraw, and he could try to push the troop withdrawal from the end of summer 2012 to the end of the year, so that most US troops will still be there during the fighting season. But all that assumes he will let ground realities take precedence over political calculations during an election year. Given what we have seen so far, that might not be the best bet.

Thinking About US Strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan

with 2 comments

Following the siege on Pakistan’s naval airbase in Karachi, the voices calling for isolating or punishing Pakistan are growing ever louder. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

From what has been revealed thus far, it is probably true that the militants penetrated the high-security naval facility with insider information; and perhaps even assistance from ex-servicemen or serving military personnel. This pattern of jihadist activity supported by elements of the Pakistani state is deeply troubling and all too familiar, given the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces less than two miles from a prestigious military academy and sixty miles from the capital. The incident is also worrying because it illustrates that jihadists seem increasingly bent on targeting crucial parts of the Pakistani state, which raises questions about the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Despite all this, those calling for the United States to isolate Pakistan, cut off assistance, or strong-arm Pakistan into ‘neutralizing’ its nuclear arsenal (whatever that means), are wrong. Like it or not, history has shown us that sanctions and isolation towards Pakistan only exacerbate mistrust, increase anti-Americanism and deepen Islamabad’s insecurity and consequent reliance on jihadist groups.

Furthermore, as others have argued, the jihadist strategy in Pakistan is designed to create the perception that the country’s security forces are unable to protect an increasingly failed state, thereby prompting the United States to increase its own military footprint in the country and increase pressure on Islamabad. This would further fan the flames of anti-Americanism, fill the ranks of jihadist groups and commit Washington to yet another quagmire. The United States should not take the bait, even if some hotheads inadvertently are.

A more nuanced strategy for the US in Pakistan needs to begin with a firm grasp of Washington’s interests in Pakistan and South Asia more generally. Washington not only wants to avoid Pakistan serving as a base for terrorist groups to attack the US or an actor in further illicit WMD proliferation, but sees its future economic and political development and further cooperation with India as a crucial part of a stable South Asian region. Realizing these interests requires an approach that achieves balance in geographic focus, time horizon and dimension. If the elements of the strategy outlined below seem trite, that is because they are. Most reports on US-Pakistan relations (see for example here and here) contain roughly the same recommendations, and there is a risk that they oversimplify complex policy problems and complicated ground realities. They are nonetheless worth noting to ensure the right mindset moving forward.

Simply put, the strategy the US should pursue in Pakistan has three parts: contain extremism; construct a long-term relationship with Pakistan; and create the space for regional peace and development.

First, the US should help Pakistan contain extremism to ensure that it does not act as a breeding ground for terrorist attacks in the US, cause a collapse or severe disruption of the Pakistani state, undermine the security of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal, or stoke tensions and potential conflict with India. Given the divisions within the Pakistani state, divergent interests and deep distrust between the US and Pakistan, and the dominance of anti-Americanism in the country, this will likely be pursued through a range of alternatives, including military assistance, information-sharing, targeted drone strikes and and other covert or clandestine operations.

Second, the seeds must be sown for a broader long-term partnership between the US and Pakistan to promote trust and to further the interests of both countries. Potential avenues for cooperation should include new initiatives such as an agreement in US Congress to grant preferential market access to Pakistani textiles, increasing IMET program opportunities for Pakistani military officers, and reforming the way US assistance is disbursed and the programs it targets so that is is more transparent and effective.

Third, since the roots of jihadist extremism lie in Pakistan’s insecurities vis-a-vis other countries in its neighborhood (eg. the potential threat of a two front war with India and Afghanistan), any sustainable solution needs to have a strong regional component. That includes trying to foster peace between India and Pakistan, continuing to forge a strong partnership with India, and encouraging greater regional economic cooperation.

Perhaps most critically, even as it draws down from Afghanistan, Washington must ensure that the Afghan security forces are adequately equipped, and that political reform is sufficiently broad-based, in order to prevent civil war or the return of a Taliban-dominated state that could further destabilize Pakistan and lead to conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad. While policymakers are quick to point out that spending billions of dollars a month in Afghanistan is not sustainable for the United States, they should also remember that neglecting Afghanistan is not a sustainable solution either, since that approach in the 1980s turned the country into a breeding ground for terrorism and led to September 11. And while it is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, there is growing evidence that pursuing negotiation may be a workable option, and that Afghans are feeling more positive about their country than they did in past.

In David Ignatius’ new work of fiction, Bloodmoney, the director general of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General Mohammed Malik, muses about how Americans’ specialty is lying to themselves. The seething resentment toward Pakistan and the knee-jerk aversion to further resource commitments in the AfPak region in Washington may prevent the United States from pursuing a multi-dimensional, long-term strategy in Pakistan today. But US policymakers should not mislead themselves into thinking that anything short of such an approach will fix a fraught US-Pakistan relationship and lead to a more stable South Asia tomorrow.

Bruce Riedel on US-Pakistan Relations and Afghanistan

leave a comment »

Last week, ex-CIA officer and current Brookings Institution fellow Bruce Riedel paid a visit to the Fletcher school to deliver a talk on US-Pakistan relations and promote his latest book.

Most of his remarks was boilerplate. The history of US-Pakistani ties have been a soap opera shrouded in mystery and distrust; the relationship is currently in crisis with a great potential for disaster in the future; and global jihadist groups are becoming more radicalized and coordinated operationally.

His recommendations weren’t new and were a little idealistic. The United States should mitigate Pakistan’s insecurities by creating a “regional diplomatic environment” (whatever that means) that encourages rapprochement with India, particularly on Kashmir. Washington should support civilian leaders and the democratic process instead of resorting to generals, even if the generals have proven more effective at governing and US presidents are often motivated by short-term goals like getting elected rather than promoting freedom.

All this, of course, assumes a long-term U.S. presence – a shaky assumption at the very least given the fact that Washington has twice taken its eye off the Af-Pak ball (once in the 1980s and another after the Iraq War in 2003). It also assumes that Pakistan would believe in this sustainability and change its policies accordingly away from short-term, self-help policies after a legacy of distrust and in an environment of insecurity.

I asked Mr. Riedel what his thoughts were on the sustainability of the U.S. presence. On the American side, he seemed to believe that U.S. President Barack Obama had his heart in the right place because he had twice rejected his own vice-president’s idea of ‘counter-terrorism lite’ in favor of a more muscular option. Furthermore, although announcing the July 2011 deadline in late 2009 was in his view “a mistake”, the Obama administration had subsequently walked back on it by first suggesting a 2014 deadline and then backing away even from that recently.

He admitted, though, that getting Pakistan and other actors to believe that the U.S. was in the region to stay was another question altogether:

My suspicion is that Rawilpindi still doesn’t get it, and they won’t get it until they wake up on July or August 2011 and see that we are still there.

That is an important distinction, I told Mr. Riedel, since key players need to be convinced before their policies shift enough to transform the “regional diplomatic environment”. And it’s not like things will get any easier has we move further into 2011. Combat will be much more difficult for US troops in Afghanistan as the winter ends and fighting escalates. Furthermore, I said I worried that the Af-Pak issue would become caught up in the 2012 pre-election hysteria, and that rhetoric might obscure what U.S. policy might actually be thereafter.

“Oh, you can count on it,” Mr. Riedel responded wryly before flashing a wide smile.

About Those Trillion-Dollar Afghan Minerals

leave a comment »

James Risen of the New York Times writes:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government official.


Others have noted that the timing of the article is rather suspect. It makes it seem like Washington just happened upon these minerals, when in fact geologists have known about the country’s mineral wealth for decades, the U.S. Geological Survey had already made this trillion dollar estimate in 2007, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai himself has cited the figure previously. So why all the brouhaha now? As Bonita Chamberlin, a geologist who spent 25 years working in Afghanistan who has co-written a book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan”, put it:

I am quite surprised that the military is announcing this as some ‘new’ and ’surprising” discovery…this is NOT new.

Some speculate this is because it has been a rough couple of weeks for the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy (see, for instance, here, here, and here). Military operations in southern Afghanistan are progressing slower than anticipated, Afghan security forces remain poorly trained, and president Hamid Karzai seems to have lost faith in the U.S. strategy. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), according to a recent report, continues to “provide sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency”.

That does seem quite ‘coincidental’, though the Pentagon has subsequently insisted that more detailed field work has been done since the 2007 data to warrant the release of this new information. Besides, even if the timing is somewhat suspect, is this not a significant development nonetheless?

But even if we forget the speculative, there are substantive reasons to doubt the potential of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to be the ‘game-changer’ the article suggests it might. Formidable security and logistical challenges exist in exploiting these minerals (see here and here). Most of the country’s resource-rich provinces are also its least secure, and there is the key question of how to move tons of minerals from the landlocked nation into major ocean ports.

Mining experts also say developing the mines itself will take ten or more years and billions of dollars, assuming that a country already has a stable government and basic infrastructure (a big assumption in Afghanistan, given the shape of the country now).  Afghanistan’s ministry of mines is also corrupt and incompetent — the last minister was accused of accepting bribes from members of the Karzai family and a Chinese mining firm.

Stan Coats, former Principal Geologist at the British Geographical Society who carried out exploration work in Afghanistan for four years, says:

Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit…Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked.

Of course, should these huge obstacles be overcome, rosier scenarios of Afghanistan’s development could well materialize. As Michael O’Hanlon writes:

First, it [the mineral wealth] could provide a long-term funding source that could gradually replace foreign aid. It could pay for Afghanistan’s army and police force, schools, health clinics and infrastructure, like the irrigation systems and roads needed by farmers. Lack of such prospective funding is partly why Afghanistan’s government has not been able to build adequate security forces or infrastructure. Second, with the money from natural wealth, Kabul could increase salaries of key ministers and other government employees. This would, in turn, deprive these officials of the excuse to take bribes to compensate for unacceptably low paychecks. Combined with improved means of ferreting out corrupt officials — which has already led to arrest or indictment of as many as 20 officials this year — the new funding source could help address corruption over the long term.

I hope Mr. O’Hanlon is right. But it is important to inject some perspective into this trillion-dollar statistic so we can all get a clear view of what is and is not possible in Afghanistan, regardless of one’s view about the U.S. presence there.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers