Afghanistan is clearly in a very difficult situation. There is a resurgent Taliban (actually a heterogeneous conglomeration of insurgents with varying motivations and loyalties) and a people tired of war and skeptical of the the US effort, a skepticism skillfully exploited by the Taliban. The central government is weak, corrupt, and now struggling to bring controversial elections to a close. Opium helps fuel the insurgency and greatly complicates stabilization efforts. The war is not going well, as numerous administration officials have told us (the latest just this week from Admiral Mullen), the elections are underlining the disarray there, the casualties are going up, the public is increasingly skeptical of the operation -- we are losing the support of the American people and of our allies. So the Taliban smell blood, a looming collapse of the US effort. Under these conditions, there is no incentive to negotiate with an ineffectual government; negotiation offers are bound to be seen more as a sign of weakness, or even desperation, than of reconciliation.
[Updated 4 Sep 09] There have been a number of thoughtful strategy reviews, including by the Center for American Progress, the Asia Society, the Center for International Policy Studies, and Center for Strategic and International Studies. All of these address the same well know issues and make parallel recommendations on how to win, achieve success, stabilize the situation, etc. The current strategy is straightforward: stabilize areas and build up the economy. The focus of activities is now in the south and east, areas where the Taliban have always maintained a presence. It is not clear that the"benefits" of a central government -- a corrupt central government propped up by the West -- hold much attraction to the Pashtun tribesmen in these areas. US troops are infidels and invaders to many, only superficially familiar with local language and customs. They have little awareness of which locals side with the Taliban, while the Taliban has a very good appreciation of which locals might side with the foreigners. One clear criterion is that the locals want to end up on the winning side. There is heavy pressure for the United States to reduce troop levels in the year or two ahead and little prospect that they can impose order before then. It is already obvious that troop levels are inadequate and questionable if they can even be much increased. One strategic review recommends flooding areas with civilian specialists to rapidly promote economic stabilization. But finding thousands of civilians with skills pertinent to Afghanistan and willing to work in a war zone, and then providing them the technical, logistic and translator support they would need, is simply an impossible task. So human resources alone, both military and civilian, are inadequate. Our troops are insufficient, our casualties are up. It is the perfect recipe for a forced troop withdrawal and the Taliban knows this. We simply do not have the resources to implement the strategy we are now committing to, clearing the south and east and building economic stability there.
We have re-focused to decrease Afghan civilian casualties. That is certainly a plus. But our very presence in the south is a minus. It increases our vulnerabilities without providing a decisive response. The population is cowed - they know the Taliban will be there long after we are gone and there is no effective government to remain behind and support them.
Our opium policy has been a total disaster. We have based it on the same poor preconceptions that we have used for our drug problem at home, with the same miserable results. The crop eradication program which we stubbornly held to for years was totally ineffective, impoverishing poor farmers without providing any viable alternative, but turning the countryside against the government. We have now replaced it with an effort to target dealers and processors. This is certainly preferable, but the results of similar efforts in our own country do not promote confidence that it will be very successful. We need to buy all the opium we can, at a good price, even if we burn it, though it could certainly be used for legitimate pharmaceuticals - the International Council on Security and Development (formerly the Senlis Council) among others has advocated exploring this option for years, and one of the strategic reviews also advocates simply buying the opium.
The challenge is daunting even within Afghanistan, and unfortunately that is where most of the strategic reviews focus. For context, they address the complication of the Pakistani border regions and the safe havens and support they provide the Taliban. The general conclusion is that the Pakistani army must be encouraged to fight there more resolutely.
But the major contexts are ignored. The strategic objective has now been clearly stated, "...our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals--to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies." It is a very narrow objective for the only global superpower to put our strategic focus on a ragtag band of misfits squirreled away somewhere in an obscure part of the world. The main reason al Qaeda has as much influence as it does is that we have given it to them by making them our strategic focus. The real challenge is the Clash of Civilizations, eloquently postulated by Samuel Huntington in 1993. There does not inherently have to be a clash, but we have turned the situation into a clash by focusing on the hole and not the doughnut. Our inept policies have disenchanted the Muslim world with the West in general and the United States in particular. We speak of democracy, yet support tyrants; that was the core problem with Iran and underlies our present difficulties there. The Muslim world also has a sense of being exploited by the West; its ancient heritage of scientific and cultural achievements smothered under poverty and autocracy for the sake of oil. This of course is a fertile breeding ground for fundamentalists like al Qaeda. Our strategic objective needs to be a strong positive goal that puts al Qaeda in the place it belongs, a peripheral nuisance which has to be addressed, but is hardly the center of our challenge.
In this context, Afghanistan now plays a major role, and a decidedly negative one. The West fights Muslims and kills many of them, as the Taliban widely report. Our heavy military footprint in strongly fundamentalist areas unavoidably produces cultural clashes. The whole world is watching. When the Taliban were first defeated, there was a grand opportunity to make at least parts of Afghanistan a showplace, but that would have been "nation building" and was carefully avoided. Now nation building is the core task, developing an effective central government - not a return to some status quo ante but really something new under the sun as there has never been an Afghan government capable of running the country. At best, earlier governments could coordinate some activities with regional leaders. It is all the more difficult if this government is expected to reflect Western democratic ideals and a more or less secular legal system, but any arrangement which strays too far from this will not get the support of the American people. If the United States can show how to build a thriving, prosperous, open Islamic society, then al Qaeda will collapse of its own weight. And if the United States cannot show that, then the spirit of al Qaeda will remain strong.
Below this global context is a regional one much more complex than simply defeating radicals in the Pakistani border region. Pakistan itself is now the center of gravity, the actual haven for al Qaeda and an unstable Islamic nuclear power. Pakistan hardly has any more national tradition that Afghanistan; it is a state that was cobbled together by Western powers. The now troublesome border areas accepted inclusion with the express provision that they would retain their own independent ways, a provision now haunting the entire country. Civilian governments, nearly as corrupt and inefficient as the Afgani one, have managed the country with the sufferance of the only cohesive political power in the country - the army. And the army has based its legitimacy on its core mission of protecting the country from India. In doing that it has long supported radical groups both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan, which provided strategic depth vis-a-vis India.
In 60 years of independence, Pakistan's relations with the United States have been purely transactional; when the United States wanted Pakistani help, it was a gracious patron and provided major military equipment to the army to confront India. And when help was not needed, Pakistan was dumped. So Pakistanis have no illusion that the United States has their own interests at heart. Seeing the United States increasingly bogged down in Afghanistan and the radicals increasingly emboldened, there is little incentive for the army to undermine its own position by coming to terms with India.
India, with decades of confrontation in Kashmir and the recent slaughter in Mumbai, is rightfully skeptical of the Pakistanis. But it is China that is the real concern for India. There is still tension on an unsettled border and open concern about a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean -- partly due to Chinese development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar. So India reinforces its military to address China and Pakistan sees this as a growing threat, exacerbated by an increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan.
And now the prospect of renewed nuclear testing has been raised in India, certainly to the dismay of the Pakistanis who have already been seeing the United States offer India various types of nuclear support. Against the present troubling situations in North Korea and Iran, such developments could threaten to undermine the entire global nonproliferation effort.
Pakistan, perhaps even more than Afghanistan, needs to develop and implement a vision of a prosperous society to stem the appeal of radicals and fundamentalists. Recent Pakistani government action to take back control of the Swat Valley from radical elements has raised another opportunity (as after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake) for the United States to provide critical economic support to a very distressed population. But there has been no obvious effort to take advantage of this opening.
And yet another critical context is the primary need to build the support of the US population, as well as populations in the UK, France, Italy & Germany. Canada has already opted out. None of our operational efforts can come to pass without the support of the American people and that has simply been ignored. One of the reviews raised the issue up front of the declining support among the American people and then did not address it again until the closing sentences where it blithely assumes that the American people will support operations if there is a sustainable strategy convincingly conveyed. But there is not the slightest attempt to discuss how that could actually be done. NATO allies have been assisting in Afghanistan and their citizens are asking more and more insistently what there is to show for this effort. The US population is also watching, and it is not a causal outside observer, but a critical element in the entire effort. Without US popular support, there can be no long term effort in Afghanistan. And the US populace is clearly disenchanted, reluctant to spend more resources and watch more soldiers die while facing the prospect of an interminable, open ended effort. This means it is critical that now, right now, the effort be re-structured so that it makes sense to US voters.
So while a major push in the south and east to Clear-Hold-Build may make sense from an internal military point of view, it makes no sense in the larger context. The essence of a Clear-Hold-Build strategy is to stabilize one area at a time, not the whole country at once. It is already using too many resources and they are still inadequate; from the point of view of the civilian assets necessary to support a Clear-Hold-Build strategy, they are not just inadequate but practically nonexistent. We are trying to do everything at once and simply do not have the resources for such an approach.
The need to conserve resources, minimize casualties, and still have something to show for it requires a fundamentally new approach - to use a Clear-Hold-Build strategy not in the whole country, but rather in the relatively peaceful northern and western areas, where security can indeed be provided and areas can be built up economically. We have cleared and held these areas, but then moved on before we built, and that is where our real opportunities are; there are already a number of little publicized programs, such as the creation of local jobs. Local governments there will be around long after we are gone, and we can strengthen them to the point that they can actually control their own territory. There are provincial governors who do work hard to support their people. These local governments are the ones which deserve support. They can demand a more open and effective central government, which can establish its legitimacy and effectiveness province by province. This is unavoidably a long term effort, but one that is positive at its core and has a much smaller military footprint. Some provinces doing well would help to showcase what a more modern Islamic society could be and could both garner real US support at home as well as global recognition. We need to broadly publicize the good news on what is happening in Afghanistan. It is doubly important for us to show the entire Muslim world what US support can mean to a Muslim area. We aren't doing that, neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan.
We need to build up the areas we have control of, support the local governments and their ties to the central government, build up the legitimacy of the central government province by province, demonstrate what the United States and our allies can do to improve the lives of average Afghanis. We must create a stark contrast between vibrant and developing areas which we control and miserable, backward, dead end areas the Taliban controls. We need to have something clearly positive we can show for our efforts, show to our own citizens, show to the Muslim world, show to the entire globe. We need to minimize our casualties, and Afghan casualties as well. This demands that we reverse operations in the south, instead of us trying to control the areas and be picked away at by the Taliban, let the Taliban control them and be picked away at by us. Above all, we need to match resources to an achievable objective, to have a credible strategy to show to the American people and results we can display to them and the world. If we can't convince the American people that this is worth it, no amount of thoughtful strategy will matter.