Obama’s Afghan War

By: Greg C. Reeson

With security gains made over the past 18 months holding and slow-but-steady political accommodation taking root in Baghdad, it appears the United States is growing closer to the end of its active combat role in Iraq. President-elect Barack Obama, who has consistently expressed his opposition to the Iraq War and his desire to end it, has promised to refocus America’s attention on Afghanistan, a conflict he likes to refer to as the “right” war.

In Afghanistan, Obama is inheriting a war that we are, by every measure available, losing. Violence has been increasing at alarming rates since 2004, with nearly 300 U.S. and NATO fatalities this year alone. Significant portions of the country are under insurgent control, and a complex, evolving enemy is becoming more effective and more deadly. And it’s not just the enemy in Afghanistan that’s the problem. A lack of Afghan confidence in a weak and corrupt Karzai government, a flourishing drug trade that finances insurgent attacks, safe havens across the border in Pakistan that facilitate enemy operations, and an inadequate international commitment that has provided too few troops and too little economic assistance likely mean that the situation in Afghanistan will continue to deteriorate over the next few years.

Everyone is frustrated. The Afghan people are discouraged by the lack of progress that has been made over the past seven years. Our NATO allies are struggling to maintain domestic support for a peacekeeping and reconstruction operation that has evolved into a full-blown war. The Pakistanis are increasingly upset over violations of their sovereignty and the destabilizing effect on Pakistan of U.S. actions in Afghanistan. And the United States is finding it more and more difficult to muster the resources required to take on a growing share of the Afghanistan burden. Obama has vowed to take a new approach. Here is what we can expect.

The centerpiece of Obama’s plan is an infusion of additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan coupled with a request to NATO members for an increase in their military commitments. Commanders on the ground have asked for up to 25,000 more troops to supplement the approximately 60,000 coalition forces currently in Afghanistan, as well as additional helicopters, engineers, intelligence and reconnaissance assets, and military police forces. Obama has vowed to send 7,000 to 8,000 U.S. troops, while Canada has reiterated its commitment to withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan by 2011. Germany offered President Bush about 1,000 more soldiers, although national caveats on their use severely restrict their usefulness in fighting insurgent forces. Great Britain has said additional troop requests will be given a “hard look,” and the rest of NATO has remained largely silent on the issue.

It is unclear where the forces necessary to meet the requests of coalition commanders will come from. There simply are not enough assets available. Despite the recent progress in Iraq, American troops will be tied up there for the foreseeable future. It will take considerable time to draw down our forces in Iraq responsibly and in a manner that preserves recent progress, and those forces that are withdrawn will need time to rest and reconstitute before being sent back into battle. In addition, Obama has promised to leave a “residual force” of unspecified size in Iraq to train domestic security forces, target al Qaeda, and protect U.S. personnel. Some analysts have estimated that this force could number anywhere from 30,000 to 75,000, depending on the amount of support required by the Iraqi government. Any residual force in Iraq reduces the amount of resources available for deployment to Afghanistan.

Other parts of Obama’s plan include a new effort to find Osama bin Laden, talks with the Taliban, and more support to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Getting bin Laden would provide some satisfaction that justice had finally been served for the 9/11 attacks, but would mean little to the larger struggle. Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have essentially been marginalized. They command and control little to nothing and likely spend the majority of their time avoiding capture or death at the hands of U.S. forces. Negotiating with the Taliban might yield some results, but any benefits we realize are likely to be limited. The Taliban are not the only enemy in Afghanistan. Coalition forces also face drug traffickers, warlords, remnants of al Qaeda, and various criminal elements spread throughout the country. Some of these groups may be willing to strike a deal, while others will not. There will be no clear-cut diplomatic solution to the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Here it is useful to recall for a moment that the goal of our action in Afghanistan was to eliminate a base of operations for terrorists with global reach. We have done that, and now is the time to consolidate our gains and cut our losses. We will not transform Afghanistan into a functioning democracy, and we will not, in all likelihood, be able to establish a strong central government in Kabul or elsewhere that is capable of exercising control over the entire Afghan nation. The terrain, culture, tradition, and ethnic differences in Afghanistan are all working against us.

A continued focus on a Western defeat of insurgent forces is going to result in a bloody stalemate that will endure for years to come. Additional U.S. or NATO forces will undoubtedly produce some short-term security gains. But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and a “surge” of combat power will not produce the results seen in Baghdad and Anbar Province. The operating environment in Afghanistan is just too different. In the end, all the enemy has to do to win in Afghanistan is survive. If we fight a war of attrition, we lose. The New York Times recently quoted Ali Jalali, a former interior minister in Afghanistan, as saying it would take another 10 years to bring stability to the country. It is doubtful that America, or NATO, is prepared for another decade of bleeding and dying in a country of little strategic value.

That brings us to support for the governments in Kabul and Islamabad.

In Afghanistan, Obama should work within the traditional tribal power structure to reduce the fighting to a manageable level. It is unlikely that the central government is going survive, at least in the long-term, and a decentralized effort with focused assistance to key Afghan players seems to be the approach with the greatest potential benefit. Shifting the burden of Afghanistan to the Afghan people allows the United States and NATO to refocus their energy on the real threat from South Asia: Pakistan.

Pakistan is the center of gravity in the region, and it is where the President-elect should concentrate his efforts. A weak government, a failing economy, an intelligence service allied with terrorists, and an Islamist insurgency spreading from the tribal areas to the cities all threaten to bring Pakistan down. The chaos resulting from a failed, nuclear-armed Pakistani state would pose a grave danger to the region and to the West.

Obama should undertake efforts to strengthen the government of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani by working behind the scenes to avoid the “puppet master” label applied to the U.S. when Musharraf was in power. Focused military assistance that improves the counterinsurgency capabilities of the Pakistani Army and targeted economic aid that builds infrastructure and improves the quality of life in the Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Area will do more to reduce the appeal of radical Islamists than will cross-border raids and air strikes conducted by U.S. forces.

Obama should direct an approach to Pakistan that relies on the soft elements of national power favored by our allies, but backed by the hard elements that will sometimes be necessary to employ to ensure the survival of the Pakistani government, the protection of U.S. personnel, and the safeguarding of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If our strategic goals in South Asia are stability and preventing the emergence of another terrorist safe haven, then Pakistan must be our target.

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