Last week President Barack Obama approved a surprise mini-surge of 1,600 fresh Marines to Afghanistan ostensibly to sustain our tactical gains. But the real reason for sending more troops is the administration’s anxiety that time is running out on its failing Afghan strategy which jeopardizes its ultimate goal – denying al Qaeda “more space to plan their attacks.”
U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the commander in Helmand Province, where fighting remains most intense, said the fresh Marines will help him overwhelm the Taliban “with an increased operational tempo.” The surge Marines are part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit currently deployed in the Indian Ocean.
The more compelling reason for sending fresh troops is the administration’s anxiety that time is running out on Obama’s strategy to transform Afghanistan into a viable state. “If wider insurgency were to engulf Afghanistan, that would give al Qaeda even more space to plan these attacks,” Obama warned.
Obama’s strategy won’t fail because of our troops. The 2010 surge of 30,000 fresh troops to the current 97,000 under the expert leadership of Gen. David Petraeus is making considerable progress against al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Al Qaeda is under severe pressure – finding it harder to recruit, travel, train and plot attacks. The Taliban insurgents are losing fighters and ground to our combat-hardened troops.
But the crux of Obama’s Afghan vulnerability is his dwindling time commitment to an over- ambitious three-part war strategy: break the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan forces to take the lead, promote effective governance and development, and earn Pakistan’s aggressive participation in the fight.
Obama announced his latest timeline commitment at the November 2010 NATO summit: “We agreed that early 2011 will mark the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility” with the intent to complete the hand-off by 2014. But Obama’s timeline promises probable failure, according to a 2008 Rand Corp. study of 90 insurgencies. The study found “it takes an average of 14 years to defeat insurgents once an insurgency develops.”
Consider why the administration’s unrealistic timeline combined with its three-part strategy creates anxiety for Obama.
Obama’s first focus area — break the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan forces to take the lead – is the most promising of the three areas.
We are breaking the Taliban’s momentum for now, but our enemy is resilient and smart. His strength has not diminished despite our battlefield successes and our 12-to-1 fighter advantage. He survives by hiding in the population, emerging at a time and place of his choosing and enjoys sanctuary in nearby Pakistan. He also has the psychological advantage of knowing we are leaving beginning this summer, which he uses to maintain Afghan loyalty.
Fighting a hardened, resilient and smart enemy creates anxiety for the administration because it fears losing its hard-won momentum could force Obama to consider sending significantly more troops. That would be politically difficult, given the president’s commitment to begin withdrawing this summer.
There is also anxiety about the readiness of the Afghan security forces to assume overall responsibility by 2014. Our mutual goal with the Afghan government is to train and equip up to 400,000 soldiers and police while overcoming significant obstacles: illiteracy, drug use, high desertion rates and corruption. U.S. Government reports indicate the Afghan army is developing faster than the police, but given the aforementioned problems, the reports express considerable doubt either force will be fully ready by 2014.
Obama’s second focus area – promote effective governance and development – creates considerable anxiety for the administration because guerrilla war is political rather than military in nature. Afghan politics, which overshadows all government and development efforts, is incredibly corrupt — and that must be curbed before Afghanistan can emerge as a viable state.
Transparency International’s (TI) 2010 annual rankings identifies Afghanistan as the third most corrupt country in the world behind Myanmar and Somalia. TI defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” which “constitutes a major obstacle to democracy and the rule of law” and “results in a weak civil society.”
A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable from Kabul illegally released by WikiLeaks confirms widespread Afghan corruption. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry assets in the cable, “One of our major challenges in Afghanistan [is] how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt.”
Another 2009 cable illustrates the problem. One of Afghanistan’s vice presidents, according to the cable, was reportedly found in possession of $52 million in cash while visiting a foreign country. And another Kabul cable claimed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the chief of the Kandahar Provincial Council, “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”
After a series of corruption-plagued elections, the United States pressured Karzai to set up a High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, but the Afghan president gave that office virtually no power, a move which reflects Karzai’s negative view of efforts to curb corruption. He said in a speech that anti-corruption units in his government are “destroying the national sovereignty of Afghanistan, and we will not allow it.”
Obama’s third focus area is Pakistan, which shares a 1,500 mile border with Afghanistan. The president’s strategy calls for regional cooperation “especially with Pakistan, because our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border.” But Pakistan has not fully cooperated with Washington even though, according to Obama, Pakistan “recognizes that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries.”
Pakistan makes Washington anxious because it is an unreliable partner plagued with serious problems. It is engaged in a civil war with Muslim extremists, and its government under President Asif Ali Zardari is ineffectual in managing the country’s economy and responding to disasters like last summer’s massive floods. Besides, Pakistanis are more concerned about the threat from archrival India than its terrorist-infested frontier with Afghanistan.
But Obama hasn’t given up on the nuclear-armed Pakistan. Recently the president promised to “deepen trust and cooperation” with Pakistan and to “support the economic and political development that is critical to Pakistan’s future” even though officials in Islamabad are unreliable partners.
Obama’s surprise surge of 1,600 fresh Marines to Afghanistan is an indication of his anxiety about a failing war strategy. He must either abandon his counterinsurgency strategy for one exclusively targeting our real enemy – al Qaeda — or adjust his strategy’s timeline and find a new approach that prevents what appears to be Afghanistan’s inevitable demise.