Obama's Afghanistan Strategy

This week, President Obama is expected to unveil his Afghanistan war strategy.  After a 60-day top-to-bottom policy review, Obama’s national security team is expected to paint a gloomy picture of the challenges ahead and lower expectations about the realm of the possible in Central Asia.

America and her allies have battled Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan since 2001, but over the past few years events have not gone our way.  Foreign troop deaths have increased, as have civilian casualties. Our favorability rating among the locals has steadily declined, as has support for the central government in Kabul.  

Our allies are on the ropes.  NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan are finding it difficult to sustain their commitment because of the increasing violence and lack of confidence in our strategy.  

Pakistan — a putative ally — is the core problem.  Islamabad has a weak democracy that is slowly being consumed by Islamic extremists.  It provides sanctuary to our enemies who use the border region with Afghanistan to stage ground attacks.  

Pakistan’s relationship with “ally” Saudi Arabia also undercuts our efforts in Afghanistan.  The Saudis secretly fund the Taliban enemy indirectly and via the Pakistani intelligence services, which complicates our frigid relationship with neighbor Iran.    

“For the Saudis, the Pakistani military has always been a vital ally,” states Haroun Mir, co-director of a Kabul-based think tank.  Mir explains the Saudis also support the Taliban because it serves “…as a natural foe in the region against Shiite Iran.”  

Understandably, Tehran is upset with Saudi support of the Sunni extremists and the prospect Obama might negotiate a Taliban role in Afghanistan’s government.  That’s why Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki recently visited the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif to revive the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.  That group will counter the rise of the Taliban further complicating Obama’s plans.  
Obama promises to “…recast our [Afghanistan] policy so that our military, diplomatic and development goals are all aligned…”  His strategy must attend to four challenges.

First, Obama admits “…at the heart of a new Afghanistan policy … [will] be a smarter Pakistan policy.”  Primarily, he must eliminate the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan, a very tall order.  

But Pakistan must stabilize itself before it can deny the extremists sanctuary.  The U.S. will help by conducting intense engagement to keep Islamabad’s civilian rule intact and inject funds into that economy to pull it back from the brink of collapse.  In 2008, the U.S. provided $800 million of non-military aid to Pakistan, and there is pending Congressional legislation for annual non-military aid of $1.5 billion that could last 10 years.

Obama will provide Pakistan’s military more aid like training and helicopters.  Even though the U.S. has provided Pakistan $12 billion in military aid since 2001, its forces still lack the means to conduct effective counter-insurgency operations.  

Obama’s strategy will also address Taliban attacks inside Pakistan against our critical resupply routes.  Insurgents have repeatedly struck transport depots near Peshawar and the Khyber Pass border crossing to Afghanistan, which has resulted in temporary closures.

A major challenge for Obama will be to persuade Islamabad to purge its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.  The ISI created the Taliban and continues to aid the insurgents according to Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for Kabul’s National Security Directorate.  

Second, the Afghan government must be taken off life support.  That government is corrupt, lacks grass-roots support and is unable to provide basic services.  Even though the standard of living for the average Afghan has improved since 2001, the country remains locked in the Middle Ages in terms of infrastructure, and its economy is dependent on the production of illegal opium, the ingredient for heroin.

The Obama strategy will expand U.S. reconstruction efforts by increasing the civilian capacity to conduct humanitarian and development efforts.  This is what some have labeled a “civilian surge.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates endorses a “civilian surge” that harnesses the resources of the entire U.S. government, not just the overstretched military.  But a 2008 National Defense University report pessimistically states the U.S. “…lacks adequate civilian capacity to conduct complex operations — those operations that require close civil-military planning and cooperation in the field.”

The Obama strategy will significantly expand Afghanistan’s security forces, hoping it will do more to promote stability.  The goal is 400,000 troops and national police, doubling the current size at a cost of $20 billion over seven years.

Third, the Obama strategy will seek to reconcile with the Taliban.  The administration’s thinking is that reconciliation could emerge as an important initiative, mirroring the strategy used by General David Petraeus in Iraq.  

But at this point, the Taliban appear to believe they can outlast the allies and thus lack any incentive to talk.  This must be changed by pressuring their leadership inside Pakistan and by luring foot soldiers away from the insurgency.  

Obama will pressure Taliban leaders inside Pakistan with more drone attacks especially in the vicinity of the city of Quetta — the enemy’s new command and control center and the capital of Pakistan’s largest province, Baluchistan — and more joint operations with the Pakistani military.  

But the U.S. risks a blowback from strikes in Baluchistan.  Drones will kill some Taliban leaders, and those strikes could fuel the jihadist insurgency inside Pakistan, further destabilizing the wobbly government and further jeopardizing the West’s resupply lines.  

The strategy will also seek to erode the power of militant leaders by drawing away low-level fighters who sign up for financial reasons.  This can be done by strengthening Afghan village elders by offering small-scale economic projects and training local security.  The elders would then convince Taliban foot soldiers to lay down their weapons.

Drawing the Taliban to negotiations is a tall order.  But Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, believes the majority of Afghans and all but the most extremist Taliban are ready for peace.  And Afghan President Karzai, who has been urging talks with the Taliban for some time, insists so-called “moderate” Taliban representatives must accept three pre-conditions for talks: embrace the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and seek peace.  

Finally, military operations will refocus, and there will be more allied troops on the ground.  Military operations in Afghanistan will focus in two areas: along the border to blunt the flow of insurgents and inside the cities and villages to create a stable environment for development.  The U.S. is expected to add 17,000 troops this spring, increasing the American force to about 55,000.

Will Obama’s strategy work?  His security team will define a “win” in Central Asia as something short of the conditions in present day Iraq — an elected government that includes all factions, a domestic security establishment that controls the populated areas and a self sustaining economy.

But Obama’s “win” can’t be achieved without overcoming daunting challenges.  There’s the real chance a Kabul government that includes the Taliban will revert back to the pre-invasion Islamic extremism.  The security situation in the Texas-sized country will require support for decades, but outside help will decline as Western attention drifts elsewhere.  Most challenging is reconfiguring the opium-based economy.  Creating sufficient alternative long-term jobs will take decades and billions of dollars in aid which may never materialize.

No matter what happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan holds the key to long-term regional stability, and, at this point, that country is dangerously close to imploding.  Pulling it back from the precipice to resolve its many crises must be the center piece of Obama’s strategy.  Only then does America have any hope of leaving Afghanistan with the expectation that country and the region won’t fall into extremist hands.