From nation-building to militia-building

Obama’s review risks Afghan partition


By Brahma Chellaney

Financial Times

Published: December 16, 2010


US plan is degenerating into militia-building, writes Brahma Chellaney


Since coming to office US president Barack Obama has pursued an Afghan strategy summed up in three words: surge, bribe and run. It was translated into a military plan at Nato’s Lisbon summit in November, and confirmed by Thursday’s release of the administration’s Afghan review, which claims “our strategy in Afghanistan is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of US forces in July 2011”. But it is a plan that will only increase the turmoil next year – and, in effect, result in the partition of Afghanistan, at great cost to India in particular.

As the US and other coalition partners gradually draw down their combat role from next year, their place is to be taken by Afghan security forces, whose strength is to be boosted to 300,000 through crash training of recruits. But it is unlikely such local forces will be able to hold Afghanistan together. So the US plan to wind down combat operations by 2014 will lead to a serious increase in terrorism within the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt and create a destabilising Afghan power vacuum.

In fact, despite a big increase in US troop levels since 2009, coalition forces are increasingly relying on local militias and warlords, not on the regular Afghan army and police. In the face of a faltering war effort, the US has been funding or creating local militias in as many Afghan provinces as possible.

A new array of US-backed provincial warlords has emerged across Afghanistan, receiving millions of dollars to provide highway security and run missions with US special forces.

Against that background, the transition optimistically outlined in today’s review will only intensify the Afghan power struggle. The most likely post-war scenario is now the partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. That means that while the Taliban will call the shots in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, the non-Pashtun northern and western regions will retain their present de facto autonomy.

If a resurgent Afghan Taliban is now on the offensive and unwilling to cut a peace deal, it is largely because of the fillip it got from the US search for a face-saving exit; and the sustenance it still draws from Pakistan’s military. Militarily, the US has erred by not removing the Afghan Taliban leadership, located in Pakistan’s Quetta and Karachi areas.

The ongoing plan to retreat will only embolden jihadists to stage more daring attacks, leaving India in particular on the front line. Indeed, the approach outlined today formalises a vital (but so far unstated) shift in the war strategy: to contain terrorism regionally rather than to defeat it.

Even if distant America and Europe can afford this, India will suffer the consequences. India has felt most of the blowback from past failed US policies in the region. With today’s announcement showing the US preparing to end another intervention, while showering billions of dollars on the Pakistani military, history is again coming full circle.

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.

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