Why the U.S. must re-frame its Afghanistan strategy

An Unwinnable Battle

Brahma Chellaney The Times of India 3 November 2009

With no viable option in sight to salvage America’s faltering Afghan war, Barack Obama faces a critical test in his young presidency. Sending tens of thousands of more troops into battle, as the top US general in Afghanistan wants, risks a Vietnam-style quagmire. Slashing troop levels to concentrate on counterterrorist operations through air power and special ground forces will expose Obama to political attacks at home. Obama thus is searching for the illusory middle ground. 

Going big and going long in Afghanistan will serve no country’s interests other than Pakistan’s. Indeed, as long as NATO’s Afghan war rages, US policy will stay hostage to Islamabad, even though it is Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of aiding militants while pretending to be on America’s side that has resulted in the Taliban gaining the momentum. Only a military exit can help free US policy. After all, with US supply lines to Afghanistan running through Pakistan, waging the Afghan war has entailed supporting Pakistan through multibillion-dollar US aid, to the extent that Islamabad this year has emerged as the largest recipient of American assistance in the world. 

In that light, is it any surprise that top Pakistanis have lined up to plead against a US withdrawal? Munificent aid to Pakistan traditionally has flown only when the US has been involved in war – hot or cold. Absence of war usually has fostered US neglect of Pakistan. If the US decides to draw down forces in Afghanistan, it will not only stop raining dollars in Islamabad, but also Pakistani sanctuaries for the top Afghan Taliban leaders and other terrorist figures are likely to become US targets. 

An Obama decision not to get deeper involved in Afghanistan won’t be an admission of defeat but a course correction on a war that presently is just not winnable. Obama has limited the US goal narrowly "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda". But the US military’s real foe in Afghanistan is not the badly fragmented and enfeebled al-Qaeda, but a resurgent Taliban. Instead of seeking to rout the Taliban, Washington has encouraged the Pakistani, Afghan and Saudi intelligence services to hold proxy negotiations with the Taliban shura members, holed up in Quetta, Pakistan. 

In fact, the US is fighting the wrong war. How can the Afghan war be won when America has limited its ground military campaign to just one side of the Af-Pak border even though the Taliban and other militants openly use the Pakistani side as a haven and staging ground for attacks? Not allowed to pursue the militants across the border, US troops in Nuristan, Kunar and other Afghan border regions find themselves as sitting ducks for surprise attacks orchestrated from Pakistani territory. 

Had Washington sought to defeat the Taliban, a further military surge may have made sense, because an ascendant Taliban can be defeated only through major ground operations, not by airstrikes and covert action alone. But to rout an already-weakened al-Qaeda, the US doesn’t need to scale up the war. While acknowledging that al-Qaeda’s capability has been degraded to the extent that it is in no position to openly challenge US interests, American proponents of a bigger war contend that the real danger is of al-Qaeda reconstituting itself if a US pullback leads to the Taliban’s return to power. 

Firstly, without large ground forces in Afghanistan or even major ground operations, the US can hold al-Qaeda remnants at bay in their havens in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan through covert operations, Predator drones and cruise-missile attacks, as it already is doing. Secondly, US air power and special-force operations, in combination with the support of ground forces of ethnic minorities and non-Taliban Pashtun warlords, can prevent the Taliban from grabbing power in Kabul again. That was the same combination that helped oust the Taliban from power. Even if the US pulls out most of its troops, it will have such punitive-denial capability as it intends to maintain military bases in Afghanistan in the long run. 

American and international interests will be better served by gradually drawing down US troop levels. What unites the disparate insurgent elements is a common opposition to foreign military presence. A measured US pullback, far from bolstering the forces of global jihad, will eliminate the common unifying factor and unleash developments with largely internal or sub-regional significance. The most likely outcome of an Afghan power struggle triggered by a US decision to scale back the war would be the formalisation of the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. 

The possible emergence of smaller, more-governable states in the world’s "Terroristan" belt cannot be bad news. In such a scenario, 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 British-drawn but now-disappearing Durand Line in ferment. Pakistan ultimately is bound to pay a price for creating and nurturing the Taliban monster. And that price is likely to directly impinge on its territorial unity. 

The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research. 

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