Obama’s All Action, No Strategy in Afghanistan
An international conference, thousands of fresh US troops, even possible talks with the Taliban—Obama’s in a diplomatic frenzy. But what’s his Afghan policy?
President Obama has ordered 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and an international conference, but there’s no strategy yet in place as his National Security Council review prepares to report to him this month for his moment of decision.
The Obama administration announced last week it will lead a conference on Afghanistan and has even invited Iran, its western neighbor, to the table. Obama has also opened the door to reaching out to the Taliban. But the diplomacy is running ahead of the policy, which so far is unknown.
An acceptable outcome would be a regional political accord in which moderate Taliban and their tribal allies disavowed Al Qaeda, as the Sunni chiefs did in Iraq.
The president’s determination to shift US military resources to Afghanistan from Iraq has stirred up a sustained chorus of second thoughts, especially from his left. Voices of caution and dissent have recalled the Soviet army’s flight in 1989, the US quagmire in Vietnam, and even the British military fiasco in Afghanistan a century ago.
Nobody involved in Obama’s policymaking, including top US military commanders, believes there can be a purely military solution. Yet Obama’s recent order sending 17,000 fresh US troops to Afghanistan and his decision last week to withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq by September 2010 signal his seriousness about ending the Iraq war and turning his focus to Afghanistan.
Obama’s national security team, led by CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who reports to National Security Adviser James Jones, is currently engaged in a strategic review of several existing official assessments, including a full regional work-up commissioned last October by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus.
The administration’s policy will be unveiled before the NATO summit in early April. The president will reportedly travel to a Muslim capital—he announced plans Saturday to travel to Turkey in the next month—to give a major address intended to mark a sharp break between his war and the Bush war on terror. Then, presumably, the international conference on Afghanistan will be held.
A shift de-emphasizing military force in favor of high-level regional diplomacy is the centerpiece of the emerging Obama policy. The mission will focus on containing and isolating Al Qaeda and Taliban militants by denying them bases in their frontier sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid, the distinguished Pakistani author and member of Petraeus’ strategy review, and Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University who has briefed Vice President Joe Biden, envision a contact group authorized by the UN Security Council that will provide a forum to defuse Pakistani-Indian conflicts over their competing interests in Afghanistan, seek a solution to the Kashmir conflict, and provide guarantees to Pakistan against hostile encroachments of its borders by India.
The president’s team has already debriefed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, among others. The review group will work closely with State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who recently returned from the region. An Obama policy in southwest Asia is beginning to take shape, though critical details have yet to come into focus, according to military and political advisers involved in the assessment process.
Afghanistan, entangled with nuclear-armed Pakistan by a porous border and tribal loyalties, is an impossibly complex military challenge. Those who detect a 21st-century hubris in the military’s new faith in counterinsurgency doctrine are not entirely off base. Current US strategy in the region is fundamentally incoherent. Security in Kabul and in rural areas is deteriorating at a frightening clip. The Taliban now control 70 percent of the country, including the Khyber Pass, a choke point for US military convoys. As their power increases, their attacks on US forces grow bolder.
Despite the bad karma, there is an even more unsavory prospect. Further political and military deterioration could bring about the collapse of the corrupt Karzai government. A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan ruled by provincial warlords would leave Al Qaeda terrorists and other Islamic militants free to establish bases in the Texas-sized country.
These militants, among them the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which planned the Mumbai attacks, have been tacitly supported by elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services as a buffer against Indian influence. They could catalyze a real nightmare scenario: disintegration of the teetering Islamabad government and a Pakistani nuclear weapon falling into the hands of Al Qaeda.
Obama, suggest advisers involved in the process, is likely to take a broad regional approach that combines well-defined security and nation-building operations in Afghanistan with an ambitious new diplomatic initiative that will engage India, Iran, and even Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia in a US-led effort to stabilize the region. Obama’s strategic objective will almost certainly be to seek accords that rid both countries of Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists with the global reach to launch attacks against US interests.
No one believes that stopping Al Qaeda militarily is possible as long as the terrorists can operate freely from Pakistan. Debate inside the administration simmers about the utility of the CIA’s well-publicized Predator attacks against Al Qaeda and other jihadist leaders in Pakistani territory. Like the frequent US bombing raids in Afghanistan, these missile attacks have indiscriminately killed scores of civilians and caused an intense anti-American backlash.
Some advisers also have also questioned whether US pressure on the Pakistani military to mount attacks on insurgents within its own borders is a realistic solution to the sanctuary problem. The Pakistani army and intelligence services have long believed, not unreasonably, that support of the Taliban is Pakistan’s only leverage to stem India’s influence in Kabul.
As long as the Taliban remains its only defense against an Indian presence on its long western border, these advisers say, the Pakistani military will continue its duplicitous double game with the US. Obama’s diplomatic initiative is designed to give the Pakistanis a way to quell their fears of encirclement by their giant nuclear-armed rival.
Despite the Taliban’s advances, advisers including Rashid and counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, who now heads Washington’s influential Center for a New American Security, which has provided officials to the top echelon of Obama’s Pentagon, believe there is still enough of a reservoir of pro-US feeling among Afghans to warrant carefully targeted military operations. The urgent goals: to bring Afghanistan’s Taliban-dominated southern and eastern Pashtun belt under control and provide security to the Afghan elections, now scheduled for August.
A narrowly focused US counterinsurgency campaign would aim to protect Afghan civilians and strengthen local and provincial governments, while culling out Al Qaeda jihadists and Taliban extremists. The campaign’s effectiveness, advisers believe, depends on the ability of non-military US government agencies to mount the economic and political development required to stabilize Afghanistan and wean it away from its multibillion-dollar drug industry. Holbrooke reportedly has been appalled at how badly prepared the State Department is to mount such a civilian effort.
The military effort will also include training to enable Afghan troops eventually to take over counterinsurgency operations, assuming that the Kabul government will be able to sustain a 250,000-member Afghan National Army over the long haul. Whether a U.S. counterinsurgency force can win over “reconcilable” Taliban tribesmen, some advisers say, also may hinge on Obama scaling back draconian Bush-era detention and interrogation policies.
An acceptable outcome would be a regional political accord in which moderate Taliban and their tribal allies disavowed Al Qaeda, as the Sunni chiefs did in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, and agreed to a ban on international terrorist activities in Afghan or Pakistani territory. In return, US and NATO forces would end hostile operations.
Such an outcome is at best five years down the road. The prospects ahead are daunting. “Afghanistan is more dangerous than ever,” Nagl, a former Army commander, wrote recently. In the meantime, the Riedel review continues its work under a tight deadline.
Russ Hoyle is the author of Going to War (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2008), a detailed account of the18-month run-up to the Iraq war. He is a former senior editor at the New York Daily News, Time, and The New Republic. Hoyle is at work on a new book about counterinsurgency and the U.S. military.