us strategy afghanistan

What Obama’s Troop Cuts Mean for Afghanistan

 

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

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.