Eight years after 9/11: America’s Afghan options

U.S. exit from Afghanistan to bring gains

Brahma Chellaney

An Afghan shopkeeper looks through his shop supplies as he waits for customers in the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

An American military exit from Afghanistan, far from boosting the global-jihad syndicate, is likely to trigger developments largely internal or regional in nature while aiding the global fight against terrorism.

The Hindu newspaper, September 11, 2009

America’s war in Afghanistan is approaching a tipping point, with doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy rising and three-quarters of the Democratic voters polled opposing continued U.S. combat operations there. Even the main war proponent — the Republican camp — seems split, with prominent conservative voices like George F. Will and Chuck Hagel now calling for an American pullout. Yet Mr. Obama, after dispatching 21,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan, is planning to send another 14,000 combat troops while outsourcing military-support jobs there to create an illusion of no new surge.

Mr. Obama, clearly, is in a major predicament over a war he inherited, with no workable options for him to stabilise Afghanistan by next year or even to pull out military forces while saving face. Still, he is deepening American involvement there, thereby spurring serious apprehensions at home. Eight years after 9/11, an American invasion that started with the objective of winning the war on terror is in danger of becoming Mr. Obama’s Vietnam — a quagmire with a confused political mission.

Vice-President Joe Biden has warned that “more loss” of U.S. lives is “inevitable,” while Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has admitted, “The enemy’s getting better and tougher. And we need to turn that around in the next 12 to 18 months.” That was exactly the timeframe Mr. Obama had in mind when he launched the military surge. But with every month now proving more deadly, a war-weary U.S. public and Congress may be reluctant to patiently wait that long for the promised turnaround. The Obama narrative — that this is the war of necessity, unlike Iraq — is coming under growing attack.

Put simply, Mr. Obama’s ambitious new war strategy, including doubling the number of American troops on the ground and replacing the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, isn’t working. Not only are more American soldiers dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq, but there has been a 1,000 per cent increase in IED attacks by Afghan militants since mid-2005. It is the alarming rise in the sophistication and frequency of roadside bomb attacks that has made the Afghan war increasingly bloody. Mr. Obama also has been locked in a losing battle in the other part of his Afpak strategy — to win hearts and minds in Pakistan through an unprecedented aid flow to that country.

Let’s be clear: America’s Afghan war is just not winnable for two main reasons. Firstly, Mr. Obama has redefined U.S. goals too narrowly. America’s primary goal now is not to defeat the Taliban but to prevent the al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base to launch an attack on the United States. Mr. Obama candidly told the Associated Press in a July 2 interview: “I have a very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests, and that is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack America.” But the al-Qaeda is not really a factor in the Afghan war, where the principal combatants are the American military and the Taliban, with its associated militias and private armies. Rather than seek to defeat the Taliban, Washington indeed has encouraged the Pakistani, Afghan and Saudi intelligence to hold proxy negotiations with the Taliban’s top leadership, holed up in Quetta.

Secondly, the U.S. is fighting the wrong war. Eight years after the American invasion drove the al-Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan has emerged as the main base and sanctuary for transnational terrorists. Support and sustenance for the Taliban and many other Afghan militants also come from inside Pakistan. Yet Mr. Obama pursues a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, to the extent that Islamabad is being made the single largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the world.

In that light, Mr. Obama’s war strategy is questionable. Given that he has abandoned his predecessor’s goal to defeat the Taliban and capture dead or alive its one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, his move to induct even more American troops stirs widespread concern.

To defeat the al-Qaeda, the U.S. doesn’t need a troop build-up — certainly not in Afghanistan. Without a large ground force in Afghanistan or even major ground operations, the U.S. can hold the al-Qaeda remnants at bay in their havens in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan through covert operations, Predator drones and cruise-missile attacks. Isn’t that precisely what the CIA already is doing, having killed more than a dozen suspected Qaeda figures in Pakistan in recent drone and missile attacks?

Actually, the U.S. intelligence believes that the al-Qaeda already is badly fragmented and weakened and thus is in no position to openly challenge American interests. According to the latest Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community, “Because of the pressure we and our allies have put on Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan … Al Qaeda today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago.”

Had the Obama goal been to rout the Taliban, a further military surge may have made sense because a resurgent Taliban can be defeated only through major ground operations, not by air-strikes and covert actions alone. Yet, having abandoned the international goal of institution-building in Afghanistan by equating it with nation-building, the Obama administration presses ahead with a “clear, hold, build” strategy. When the administration’s principal war target is not the Taliban but the al-Qaeda remnants on the run, why chase a troop-intensive strategy pivoted on protecting population centres to win grassroots support? In reality, what it calls a “clear, hold, build” strategy is actually a “surge, bribe, run” strategy, except that the muddled nature of the mission and the deepening U.S. involvement crimp the “run” option.

America’s quandary is a reminder that it is easier to get into a war than to get out. In fact, Mr. Obama undermined his own unfolding war strategy last March by publicly declaring, “There’s got to be an exit strategy.” The message it sent to the Taliban and its sponsor, the Pakistani military, was that they ought to simply outwait the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.

Before Afghanistan becomes a Vietnam-style quagmire for the U.S., Mr. Obama must rethink his plan for another troop surge. Gradually drawing down U.S. troop levels indeed makes more sense because what holds the disparate constituents of the Taliban syndicate together is a common opposition to foreign military presence.

An American military exit from Afghanistan will not come as a shot in the arm for the forces of global jihad, as many in Washington seem to fear. To the contrary, it will remove the common unifying element and unleash developments whose significance would be largely internal or regional. In Afghanistan, a vicious power struggle would break out along sectarian and ethnic lines.

The Taliban, with the active support of the Pakistani military, would certainly make a run for Kabul to replay the 1996 power grab. But it won’t be easy to repeat 1996. For one, the Taliban is too splintered today, with the tail (private armies and militias) wagging the dog. For another, the non-Taliban and non-Pashtun forces now are stronger, more organised and better prepared than in 1996 to resist the Taliban’s advance to Kabul, having been empowered by the autonomy they have enjoyed in provinces or by the offices they still hold in the Afghan federal government. By retaining Afghan bases to carry out covert operations and Predator missions and other air-strikes, the U.S. military would be able to unleash punitive air power to prevent a 1996 repeat. After all, it was the combination of American air power and Northern Alliance’s ground operations that ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

In fact, the most likely outcome of the Afghan power struggle triggered by an American decision to pull out would be the formalisation of the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. Iraq, too, is headed in the same direction. The Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities would be able to ensure self-governance in the Afghan areas they dominate, leaving the Pashtun lands on both sides of the Durand Line in ferment. Thanks to ethnic polarisation, the Durand Line today exists only in maps. On the ground, it has little political, ethnic and economic relevance, and it will be militarily impracticable to re-impose the line.

As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially let loose forces of Balkanisation in the Afpak belt. That may sound disturbing. But this would be an unintended and perhaps unstoppable consequence of the U.S. invasion.

An American pullout would also aid the fight against international terrorism. Instead of staying bogged down in Afghanistan and seeking to cajole and bribe the Pakistani military from continuing to provide succour to Islamic militants, Washington would become free to pursue a broader and more balanced counterterrorism strategy. Also, minus the Afghan-war burden, the U.S. would better appreciate the dangers to international security posed by Pakistani terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan comes not from the Taliban but from these groups that have long drawn support from the Pakistani army as part of a deep-rooted military-mullah alliance.

(Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.)

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