America’s Afghan war is just not winnable

This column has been syndicated globally by Project Syndicate http://www.project-syndicate.org/
Last Exit from Kabul?

Brahma Chellaney

America’s war in Afghanistan is approaching a tipping point, with doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy growing. Yet, after dispatching 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Obama is considering sending another 14,000.

Let’s be clear: America’s Afghan war is not winnable, even though Obama has redefined American goals from defeating the Taliban to preventing Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks on the United States. But Al Qaeda is no longer a serious factor in the Afghan war, where the principal combatants are now the American military and the Taliban, with its associated militias and private armies. Rather than seeking to defeat the Taliban, the US has encouraged the Pakistani, Afghan, and Saudi intelligence services to hold proxy negotiations with the Taliban’s top leadership, holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

The US is fighting the wrong war. After America’s invasion drove Al Qaeda’s leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan emerged as the main base and sanctuary for transnational terrorists. Support and sustenance for the Taliban and many other Afghan militants also comes from inside Pakistan. Despite this, Obama is pursuing a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, which is now the single largest recipient of US assistance in the world.

To defeat Al Qaeda, the US doesn’t need a troop buildup – certainly not in Afghanistan. Without a large ground force in Afghanistan or even major ground operations, the US can hold Al Qaeda’s remnants at bay in their havens in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan through covert operations, Predator drones, and cruise-missile attacks. And isn’t that what the CIA is doing already?

Indeed, US intelligence experts believe that Al Qaeda already is badly fragmented and in no position to openly challenge American interests. According to the latest Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community released last February, “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 Obama’s 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 airstrikes and covert action alone. But if the US administration’s principal war target is not the Taliban but Al Qaeda remnants, why use a troop-intensive strategy based on protecting population centers to win grassroots support? In reality, what the Obama administration calls a “clear, hold, build” strategy is actually a “surge, bribe, run” strategy – except that the muddled nature of the mission and deepening US involvement undermine the “run” component.

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

An American military exit from Afghanistan would not be a shot in the arm for the forces of global jihad, as many in the US seem to fear. On the contrary, it would remove the Taliban’s unifying element and unleash developments – a vicious power struggle in Afghanistan along sectarian and ethnic lines – whose significance would be largely internal or regional.

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 wouldn’t be easy, owing in part to the Taliban’s fragmentation, with the tail (private armies and militias) wagging the dog.

Moreover, the non-Taliban and non-Pashtun forces are now stronger, more organized, and better prepared than in 1996 to resist any advance on Kabul, having been empowered by provincial autonomy or by the offices they still hold in the Afghan federal government. And, by retaining Afghan bases to carry out covert operations, Predator missions, and other airstrikes, the US would be able to unleash punitive power to prevent a Taliban takeover. After all, it was American air power, combined with the Northern Alliance’s ground operations, which ousted the Taliban in 2001.

In fact, the most likely outcome of any Afghan power struggle triggered by an American withdrawal would be to formalize the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines – the direction in which Iraq, too, is headed.

In this scenario, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other ethnic minorities would be able to ensure self-governance in the Afghan areas that they dominate, leaving the Pashtun lands on both sides of the British-drawn Durand Line in ferment. Thanks to ethnic polarization, the Durand Line, or the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, exists today only on maps. On the ground, it has little political and economic relevance, and it would be militarily impracticable to re-impose the line.

As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially unleash forces of Balkanization. That may sound disturbing, but it is probably an unstoppable consequence of the initial US invasion.

An American pullout actually would aid the fight against international terrorism. Instead of remaining bogged down in Afghanistan and seeking to cajole and bribe the Pakistani military into ending their support for Islamic militants, the US would become free to pursue a broader, more balanced counterterrorism strategy. For example, the US would better appreciate the dangers to international security posed by Pakistani terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan comes not from the Taliban, but from groups that have long drawn support from the Pakistani army as part of a long-standing military-mullah alliance. That is where the focus of the fight should be.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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