An Afghanistan ‘Surge’ Is a Losing Battle
So why is Mr. Obama betting on it?
By BRAHMA CHELLANEY | From Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2009
Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s visit to Afghanistan this month — even before President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration — will underscore the new administration’s priority to ending the war there. But their planned "surge first, then negotiate" strategy isn’t likely to work.
The Obama-Biden team wants to weaken the Taliban militarily then strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. This echoes what the Bush administration did in Iraq, where it used a surge largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains. Current Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen has already announced a near-doubling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to up to 63,000, by mid-2009.
Sending more forces into Afghanistan is a losing strategy. The Soviets couldn’t tame the country with more than 100,000 troops. With the backing of Robert Gates, whom Mr. Obama will keep on as defense secretary, Central Command Commander General David Petraeus is thus looking for ways to win over local commanders and warlords — the mainstay of the Taliban. General Petraeus wants to explore truces and alliances with local tribal chieftains and guerrilla leaders and set up lightly trained local militias in every provincial district.
This idea turns a blind eye to the danger that such militias could terrorize local populations. It is also naïve to expect an Iraq-style surge-and-bribe experiment to work in Afghanistan, whose mountainous terrain, myriad tribes, patterns of shifting tribal and ethnic loyalties, special status as the global hub of poppy trade and history of internecine conflict set it apart from any other Muslim country. In a land with a long tradition of humbling foreign armies, payoffs won’t buy peace.
Even if the Obama administration could tame the Taliban enough to get them to the bargaining table, inking a political deal would only strengthen their cause. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba now constitute a difficult-to-separate mix of jihad-spouting soulmates with safe havens in Pakistan. The only difference is that Al Qaeda operates out of mountain caves in the Pakistani-Afghan frontier region while the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba agitate more openly across the borders. A deal with any one such group will only strengthen the global jihadists’ cause.
Mr. Biden contends the U.S. must focus on securing Afghanistan because if it "fails, Pakistan could follow." This is exactly backward. The U.S. can never win in Afghanistan without first dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Taliban. The proposed surge could help the already-entrenched Taliban sharpen its claws while strengthening U.S. logistics dependence on the Pakistani military, which fathered that Islamist militia and Lashkar-e-Taiba. As outgoing National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has pointed out, "You can’t really solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan."
If America is to reclaim the global fight against terror, it must face up to the lessons from its past policies that gave rise to Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and "the state within the Pakistani state" — the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, made powerful in the 1980s as a conduit of covert U.S. aid for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas. In other words, the U.S. needs to keep the focus on its long-term interests and not be carried away by political expediency. That means encouraging a truly democratic Pakistan that doesn’t support terror groups in any form.
In seeking short-term success, the Obama team is falling prey to a long-standing U.S. policy weakness: The pursuit of narrow objectives without much regard for the security of friends. Perhaps India, America’s strategic partner, could be of help. After all, as the recent Mumbai terrorist assaults show, it’s India that is bearing the brunt of the blowback from failed U.S. policies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. Perhaps New Delhi should be on Mr. Biden’s next travel itinerary.
Mr. Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.