The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘us war in afghanistan

Stop the Childish Afghanistan Debate

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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

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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.

STRATFOR’s George Friedman on the Endgame in Afghanistan

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STRATFOR’s George Friedman reads the tea leaves on the Afghanistan endgame and US-Pakistan relations:

In the end, the United States will leave Afghanistan (with the possible exception of some residual special operations forces). Pakistan will draw Afghanistan back into its sphere of influence. Pakistan will need American support against India (since China doese navy to protect Pakistan’s coast). The United States will need Pakistan to do the basic work of preventing an intercontinental al Qaeda from forming again. Reflecting on the past 10 years, Pakistan will see that as being in its national interest. The United States will use Pakistan to balance India while retaining close ties to India.

A play will be acted out like the New Zealand Haka, with both sides making terrible sounds and frightening gestures at each other. But now that the counter-insurgency concept is being discarded, from all indications, and a fresh military analysis is under way, the script is being rewritten and we can begin to see the end shaping up. The United States is furious at Pakistan for its willingness to protect American enemies. Pakistan is furious at the United States for conducting attacks on its sovereign territory. In the end it doesn’t matter. They need each other. In the affairs of nations, like and dislike are not meaningful categories, and bullying and treachery are not blocks to cooperation. The two countries need each other more than they need to punish each other. Great friendships among nations are built on less.

Read the full thing here. And get The Asianist’s take on US-Pakistan relations here and here.

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