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Refashioning Afghan Strategy

No one is satisfied with the current strategy in Afghanistan, but there is deep uncertainty on how to best address the challenge of a resurgent Taliban. Uncertainty over the importance of the struggle in Afghanistan and how it fits into overall US strategy is coupled with divergent assessments of prospects and potential outcomes. Widespread questioning of General McChrystal's proposals has demonstrated their inherent weaknesses without developing viable alternatives. Public opinion in the United States and allied nations is deeply skeptical of the entire effort; costs -- both monetary and in casualties -- not only undermine public support but also severely restrain the nation's ability to address other pressing challenges.

So, for example, Conn Hallinan analyzes General McCrystal's proposal in detail. Using numbers from the Army's own doctrine, he clearly demonstrates that the total projected forces will be woefully inadequate for the task before them - even assuming that the United States could actually surge 40,000 troops and somehow expand the Afghan army to 240,000 trained troops or more. He sees a political settlement as the only solution. Gilles Dorronsoro's Fixing a Failed Strategy provides a more detailed and equally pessimistic evaluation of prospects for defeating the Taliban in the Pashtun belt where it is woven into the fabric of a local society which intrinsically sees US troops as occupiers. In this area (the current focus of US efforts), there is no prospect of clearing the Taliban, much less building any local authority tied to the central government. But Dorronsoro is more optimistic that a realigned effort could stabilize the situation. However, he does not address the larger questions of how Afghanistan fits into an overall strategic effort and only briefly touches on the internal political situation and regional considerations.

As articulated by President Obama, there is "a clear mission and defined goals--to disrupt,dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies." Secretary of State Clinton has reiterated a sole objective of ousting al Qaeda and rejected any long-term interest. Everyone recognizes the weakness of the Karzai government, both its inability to provide services and its deeply ingrained corruption. But a US withdrawal would seriously undermine US strategic credibility, particularly in neighboring Pakistan which already is highly skeptical of any enduring US commitment.

Nevertheless, the Taliban has significant weaknesses. A high percentage of the Afghan population does not want a Taliban government. Its medieval ideology is rejected by the vast majority of modern Muslims and its essentially ethnic base in the Pashtun belt undermines its appeal in the rest of the country. It is in a race to seize power before modernization sweeps it aside as irrelevant.

Making sense of all this requires first of all setting it into a strategic context. Al Qaeda and more generally the radical Islamic threat to the United States is not centered in Afghanistan and will not be solved there. However, Afghanistan has become a central battlefield in this struggle and a loss there would be a significant setback in the overall struggle and would encourage radical Islam everywhere. This would be hugely detrimental in facing the core strategic challenge of the XXI century: promoting global stability in the face of looming food, water, and governance challenges, potentially exacerbated by global warming. Globalization insures that US prosperity cannot endure in a world of turmoil; a radicalized Muslim world would simply put global stability out of reach.

Afghanistan has become the central stage in this unfolding drama and the entire world, and in particular the entire Muslim world, is watching closely. Stabilizing Afghanistan does require a long-term commitment, not of forces but as partners in development. It is unexpected that nation building in such a faraway place should be of strategic importance to the United States, but globalization insures more than ever freedom is indeed indivisible. And radical Islam insures that a failure to address Taliban intimidation in Afghanistan would reverberate globally.

The task in Afghanistan is not primarily a military one, but rather a challenge of modernizing in the face of a medieval challenge. It is essential to address this while keeping costs to a minimum, both to maintain political support at home and to avoid having Afghanistan consume an inordinate share of national strategic resources. Maintaining support of the Afghan people also requires minimizing the military impact on Afghan society. More civilian casualties, cultural insults, and wrongful detentions are inevitable with large numbers of troops who are ignorant of the local languages and customs, frustrated by battling an elusive enemy, and present only for relatively short tours. Indeed, any surge will inevitably be short-term; there are negligible prospects of it producing any long-term results.

As outlined by Dorronsoro, we simply do not have the assets to do everything at once. Efforts must focus on development in the relatively stable major cities and the north. This can minimize costs and casualties while producing visible results. Working with local and tribal leaders can develop government legitimacy from below, while continuing international pressure on the Karzai government can help to re-build its own tarnished legitimacy. Development efforts have to concentrate on the grass roots level; larger projects have inevitably been a source of major corruption and even protection money to the Taliban. Such local projects have to incorporate the entire spectrum of available assets, not only government resources, but also nongovernmental organizations, commercial ties, and whatever other connections can be developed. Jalalabad, for example, is a Sister City with San Diego.

Security is obviously a critical consideration, which is why efforts have to focus on relatively stable areas where available troops can provide protection. Taliban intimidation has been a major challenge. Blunting it requires developing integrated local security networks, involving not only the Afghan National Army and local police but also the broad cooperation of local citizens determined to protect their own freedom, families, and properties. This can make local areas actively inhospitable to the Taliban. Indeed, there are already a number of such areas. This is where we need to focus, to stay where they want us.

Parallel with this, there needs to be systematic efforts to challenge the Taliban directly. On the one hand to publicize the Taliban's own excesses, as well as efforts and opinions of local religious figures who reject the Taliban's medieval tenets. This can and should include publicity and if possible presence from such moderate Muslim nations as Morocco and Indonesia. Taliban claims to legitimacy need to be actively challenged. At the same time, there have to be efforts to reach out to groups allied with the Taliban who do not share their fanatic dedication to repressive measures. Obviously such efforts will be aided by long-term commitments to support Afghan development as well as by successes in building up local projects and developments.

Involvement of other regional governments is also important. Pakistan, in particular, is directly involved in this struggle. But the situation reaches beyond Pakistan to also involve India and China. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban have differing objectives, and recent Pakistan government actions against radical elements in the border area have significantly degraded their capabilities. The long-run outcome remains uncertain and depends, much as in Afghanistan, on modernization in areas challenged by the Taliban. The Swat Valley is an obvious place to start as the Taliban have generally been cleared and the local population is clearly unhappy with the turmoil they caused. Development, however, remains problematical. The United States is beginning to offer broader support to Pakistani development efforts, but suffers from a hugely negative image. Successful projects in Afghanistan coupled with lower levels of military activity would support US development efforts in Pakistan and help stabilize the entire region.

In summary, we need to reduce military actions and increase development ones, so it is necessary to focus in areas where they want us - larger cities and the north and west. A long-term commitment to development is critical to demonstrate US resolve to both the Afghanis and the Pakistanis, as well at the entire Muslim world, and at the same time to undermine any Taliban expectations that the Americans will soon disappear. Building governmental legitimacy has to start at the bottom and include efforts to reconcile with groups presently allied with the Taliban but not sharing their fanatic ideology.

Comments (2)


You people are finally "getting it", but it has to come from a white European non-Muslim to be accepted by those in power and the intelligentsia. Muslims have been calling for a similar strategy since before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their recommendations were outright ignored, and have continued to be ignored. After billions of wasted tax-payer money, and over one million lost lives in the Muslim world (Iraq plus Afghanistan), Western hubris has nothing to show except it's failure. After all this, the "think" tanks say that Al Qaeda should be "criminalized". This was what should have been done in the beginning, and by now we would have been far ahead.


Asking for a strategy in Afghanistan completly miss the point, which is that Afghanistan today is the strategy. The original strategy was to avoid another 9/11 by denying the AQ the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven (and of course revenge). A few years ago that changed from denying the enemy the use of a resource to securing that same resource for our own use. Afghanistan is the strategy for avoiding Pakistani nukes in the hands of radical muslims. Afghanistan is the only place where US/NATO military forces may be placed in order to have an impact on the outcome of the internal struggles in Pakistan.

Afghanistan is not something you win. It is just something you keep on doing for as long as its cost-benefit tells you it is the right strategy. When you find that the costs are higher than the benefits, you stop spending resources on controlling the territory, it has lost its strategic value.

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