On March 27, President Obama laid out his new strategy for Afghanistan. In addition to disrupting the terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new strategy calls for an increase of 21, 000 troops, a renewed focus on Pakistan’s role in the war, and a sustained civilian effort to go along with the military aspect to develop a self-sufficient security force as well as the political and economic infrastructure of the country. The new strategy works to raise Afghanistan to the same level of importance as Iraq, something President Obama has promised to do since his campaign days.
One of the first things that must be done in Afghanistan before anything else can be accomplished is to provide security for the country. “That’s what [it] is all going to come down to, whether or not we can protect the people,” said Col. Ken Backes, a Hoover National Security Affairs fellow with extensive experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the world of counter-insurgency, security means bringing down the level of violence against the Afghan people as well as driving Al Qaeda and the Taliban from their safe havens. Taking a cue from the success of the Iraqi “surge” of 30,000+ troops, which succeeded in significantly reducing sectarian violence, the Afghan version of the surge will add 17,000 Marines and soldiers, along with 4,000 Army trainers to focus on the Afghan security forces, to the 38,000 American troops already stationed there.
If the US is going to have success establishing a stable level of security, the specific tactical initiatives will play a large role. Col. Joseph Felter, a career special forces officer in the Army and another Hoover National Security Affairs Fellow with experience in Afghanistan, reminds us that the so-called “Anbar Awakening” was not just a result of increasing troops, but also a major shift in the tactics used for battling the Sunni and Shiite militias. It was General David Petraeus, he says, who stated that “you cannot commute to the war,” who pushed for more combat outposts, thereby showing the people that we are there and providing security. “All insurgency is local, all counter-insurgency is local,” says Felter. Col. Backes also adds that the increased capability of the Iraqi government, as well as the pullback of both Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces and Iranian operations also contributed to the surge’s success. Without this shift in tactics to accompany the increase in troops, as well as these other factors, the surge would not have been quite as successful.
The hope is that once the Afghan security forces are trained, they will be able to assume the security duties that the US forces are currently carrying out. This is a central tenet of the Obama plan, which aims at having levels of Afghan soldiers and police up to 134,000 and 82,000 respectively.
Both scholars caution against drawing a direct comparison between what a surge in Iraq has done versus the possibilities of such results in Afghanistan. Felter warns that “we should not expect a situation in Afghanistan analogous to the ‘Anbar awakening’ in Iraq.” Afghanistan is a country with no history of central government, which makes establishing a centralized power with control over the military and tribes a particularly difficult task. Also, Iraq does not have an equivalent of the Pakistani mountain areas where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have fled.
Pakistan has been described as the most difficult country in the world to govern, and is another central element to success in the Afghanistan theatre. Perpetually threatened by its archenemy, India, Pakistan is also subject to the threat of fundamentalist Islamic radicalism. Also included within Pakistan’s arbitrary, British-drawn border, lies tribal regions that the government in Islamabad has never really had control over. These regions include some of the most rugged terrain in the world. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said on Meet the Press that he was glad that the U.S. had access to the sanctuary of the Pakistani mountains when the United States was helping the mujahedeen fight the Soviets in the 80’s. It is in this environment that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have set up shop.
Pakistan is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Felter said that “the Bush and Obama administrations are right in acknowledging Pakistan as an integral player in the outcome of our mission in Afghanistan, and sending Ambassador Holbrooke to the region sends a signal that the two countries fates are closely linked.”
The problem lies in Islamabad’s inability to bring order and wrest control from the Taliban in the Northwest Provinces. The Pakistani military has made many attempts to establish governmental control in these regions and has repeatedly failed. On April 13, President Zardari signed legislation establishing fundamentalist Sharia law in the Swat Valley of the Northwest Provinces rather than continue the fight in the region. In light of the repeated defeats of Pakistani forces in the region, Felter cautions against the temptation to assume that “if the Pakistanis wanted to root out the terrorists in these regions they could”.
To say that the American relationship with Pakistan is complicated is an understatement. On the one hand, the Pakistani government is threatened by radical Islamic fundamentalism (the Taliban) but on the other hand, they recognize that keeping the Taliban on retainer could prove very useful to prevent its long-time rival, India, from gaining an ally in Afghanistan or should another Indian invasion ever occur╤which cannot entirely be ruled out since the two countries have gone to war on three occasions. Nevertheless, the United States has given billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan and recognizes Pakistan as a central ally in the “War on Terror.” Pakistan remains the most feasible way for the US to get supplies to American forces in Afghanistan. It is with these issues in mind that the United States must consider how it deals with this very tenuous and complex ally.
Another key to achieving success in Afghanistan lies in the non-military sector, a combination of economic and bureaucratic support for the new Afghan government. This renewed focus on the non-military sector is a change from the previous strategy in Afghanistan. As the author Ahmed Rashid stated in a talk at Stanford, the American inability to reach the threshold of victory in Afghanistan “can be summed up in one word: Iraq.” Had the US devoted as much manpower and resources to Afghanistan as it has done in Iraq, Afghanistan would be in a much different situation from what it is now.
The new Obama plan calls for a “civilian surge” to strengthen the bureaucracy and government infrastructure in Afghanistan as well as for a renewed focus on economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A major problem with achieving this goal is the pre-modern state of affairs in Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with opium being the primary cash crop in some parts of the country. There are reports of American soldiers being mistaken for Soviets when they entered certain villages. Felter says that the definition of victory is not “turning Afghanistan into a 21st century democracy.” Rather, it is denying Al Qaeda a safe-haven, building state institutions that govern by the rule of law, and providing economic opportunities for the people.
Col. Backes also supports the civilian surge, and says that the key to establishing a successful Afghan state with US civilian help is a comprehensive push by all facets of government, and one that properly incentivizes those civilians to take part in such an effort. The goal of this development initiative is to provide economic opportunities to the Afghan people and give them, as Felter says, “another wagon to hitch to” other than the drug trade and fighting for the Taliban, an important objective if the US is going to win the “battle for hearts and minds” in Afghanistan.
Another objective of the Obama strategy is to gather more international support for the war effort in Afghanistan. At present time, it does not seem that our NATO allies will be sending anymore substantive support. The international support at the moment consists mainly of troops in support roles with very constrained rules of engagement. During President Obama’s recent trip to the G20 summit, our European allies appeared no less willing to commit combat troops to an Obama-led war than a Bush-led war. It appears that the US is going to have to shoulder the majority of the burden in leaving Afghanistan a functioning, peaceful state.
So the million-dollar question remains: can America succeed in providing security in Afghanistan and establishing a functioning government in a country that is one of the poorest in the world, has never had a tradition of a central authority, and a rampant drug problem? “It is not impossible,” says Backes, “but it is going to be hard.”
The situation in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas remains a very significant threat to US national security. Felter says that when it comes to attacks against the United States, “all roads lead back to Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.” Only when we deny Al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts a sanctuary in Afghanistan, and prevent them from coming back can we declare victory, although even that term is vague and elusive, as our experience in Iraq has demonstrated.