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Obama's Afghan Strategy: Regional Perspectives

The Atlantic Review is pleased to present this guest article by Dr. Shanthie Mariet D'Souza of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.

Dr. D'Souza (image file)President Barack Obama’s ‘new strategy on Afghanistan’, unveiled on December 1 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, linking additional troop deployment to a timetable of drawdown of forces and narrowly defined goals, misses out on the core essentials of counter-insurgency (COIN) campaigns which hinges on time, long-term commitment, institution building and larger political strategy. Ultimately, COIN campaigns are won in the political domain, where military is only one of the many essential elements to achieve the long-term solution.

As the debate on the troop surge raged in the United States following the controversial Afghan presidential elections and waning domestic support for the Afghan war, President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 troops within the first half of 2010, nearly acceding to his top military commander General McChrystal’s request for an additional 40,000. President Obama banking on his approach of ‘multilateralism and diplomacy’ has requested NATO allies to pitch in another 10,000 troops. So far NATO appears to have managed to garner support for another 7,000. Combined with NATO troops, the top US Gen. McChrystal would eventually get the required number of 40,000. The amount spent on Afghan war will increase from an estimated $130 billion in fiscal 2010 to $160 billion.

With increased troop levels, Gen. McChrystal had promised to turn the tide of the Taliban momentum in 12 months. By adopting a ‘population-centric’ COIN strategy of ‘clear, hold, build and transfer’, the additional troop could help in ‘clearing and holding’ insurgency afflicted areas in the south and east. However, with focus of troop deployment being the South and the East, concerns abound regarding the stability of Afghanistan’s North and the West. The Taliban insurgency which works through various networks has the capacity to cause instability in these regions, as witnessed recently in Kapisa, Kanduz and Baglan. More importantly, the COIN strategy does not look at new measures of cutting the symbiotic nexus and sources of funding of the various strands of Taliban insurgency which is a huge motley of various anti government groups, followers of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s radical group Hizb-i-Islami, the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and its affiliates, religious clerics, narcotic traffickers, bandits and tribal fighters in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. For instance, the Haqqani network, operating in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, and North Waziristan has now extended its activities to Ghazni, Logar and Wardak provinces.

The most widely and intensely debated aspect of the present strategy is setting the date of drawndown of forces. By fixing an arbitrary time frame of summer of 2011, especially when the COIN strategy is just being unveiled, it runs the danger of working to the advantage to the propaganda of the insurgents and their sponsors. The Taliban have posted a message on the Voice of Jihad web page in response to the new strategy- "You send more troops, we'll have more to kill". Also, the limited time frame will help carry their narratives further in the Pushtun heartland “Americans have the watches; but we have the time”.

In the Indian context, the COIN campaigns are carried out over a large time frame under the liberal democratic constitutional framework where the state is ready to ‘bleed’ to let the insurgent groups engage the state through various dialogue mechanisms and in some cases even political representation. The successful end of the Mizo insurgency in India’s northeast is a case in point. In Afghanistan, the recently concluded presidential elections have only helped weaken the largely discredited Karzai government. The ‘credibility’ of the Afghan government is time and again raked both by the international community and the insurgents alike. Thus, in the absence of measures towards building a politically inclusive order that involves mechanism of conflict resolution and long-term reconciliation strategy, the dangers of subversion of the present weak Afghan regime at the end of 18 months only looms larger.

A major problem in outlining a time table for drawdown of troops hinges on the need for a phased transition to an Afghan-led security sector, to take over from the US forces in 18 months. If the objective is to increase ANA’s strength to 250,000 and that of the ANP to 150,000, as currently proposed by the Afghan government, there would remain the problems of mentoring and funding such a huge project. These numbers would be highly unsustainable for an externally aid dependent ‘rentier state’ whose annual budget is barely $2.5 billion. The greater worry, however, lies in the scenario of acceleration of training impinging on quality. Within the specified time frame and with the current level of funds earmarked, the US will not be able to create an army and police capable of independent action. It would alternately rely on the Urbaki (tribal militias) as it presently does in Wardak province. In the absence of clear security and political framework, these instruments of ‘community policing’ could only promote a culture of impunity. In India, the controversial role of the private militias in various conflict theatres has been a matter of intense public debate.

Although the setting of a date for draw down of forces after 18 months ends a lot of speculation regarding American intentions in that country, and has provided some clarity to the domestic constituency and allies, it has sent a wrong message to the ‘friends and foes’ in the region. It has evoked a lot of concerns particularly among the Afghans and Pakistanis.

In Pakistan, there are concerns that increase in troops will push tribal fighters along the Pak-Afghan border into Pakistani territory and create more instability. While partnership with Pakistan has been rightly highlighted, the difficult relationship on either side of the Durand Line coupled with weak civilian government’s lack of capacity to tackle the Afghan Taliban leadership based in Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi, there would be no significant blunting of the insurgent’s future capabilities. The strategy is largely silent on tackling the lethal capacities and inter-linkages of the local groups based in Pakistan and their connections with Al qaeda activities world wide.

India has supported the nascent democratic government by providing aid to various capacities building, education, health and infrastructure programmes. India’s US $ 1.2 billion investment in Afghanistan makes it the largest regional donor and sixth largest bilateral donor in the reconstruction of the war ravaged country. By investing considerably in building the human and economic capital base, India aims at helping Afghans stand on their feet. In building Afghan capacities, the Indian and US goals are in tandem but there are differences in the way the aid is delivered. Most of the international aid delivered through alternate delivery mechanisms has not helped build Afghan governments credibility and neither has it made much impact in rural areas of the South and East. While international aid has been flushed in insurgency afflicted areas, it has been not reached the people due to the insurgent’s capacity to choke the aid. India, on the other hand, has focused more on the north and west, to prevent these areas from sliding into instability.

President Obama’s message of ‘no blank cheques’ to the Afghans with a defined date of withdrawal has evoked lot of concerns. President Obama told the Afghans that their security is paramount, and that US is not an occupying force. However, he also said that US goal of destroying al Qaeda takes precedence. This mixed message, along with the signals that the US seeks to exit in 18 months, will be viewed closely by Afghan fence sitters who will make sure they are on the right side of a war that seems to have no end.

Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.


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Pat Patterson on :

One of the ideas being tossed around by the US military is to rebuild the stand alone fighting capability of the old Northern Alliance, now the United National Front. This could cause some discomfort and fear among the central government as several of the old leaders are supporters of Karzai as well as having a large and more capable paramilitary force in the country answerable not to the government but to the US. The advantages are obvious in that there is a clear and non-political chain of command and they are seen as acting in the interests of national unity without being seen as irredemably corrupt as the ANP while the ANA is not seen the same but viewed as simply incompetent. The old USMC model of using locals with only a few US officers and noncoms to train and lead is one of the rarely discussed parts of COIN. These trainers are actually seen as the real leaders and are obeyed as part of the chain of command rather than advisors who can be most often safely ignored.

Marie Claude on :

Can anyone tell me what happened to Don ? I miss him and his witted comments

John in Michigan, US on :

Welcome Dr. D'Souza! You make a number of excellent points. The challenges are many and daunting, and we are already making mistakes, but it is still worth a try. "In the Indian context, the COIN campaigns are carried out over a large time frame under the liberal democratic constitutional framework where the state is ready to ‘bleed’ to let the insurgent groups engage the state through various dialogue mechanisms and in some cases even political representation. The successful end of the Mizo insurgency in India’s northeast is a case in point." When the Bush administration pursued COIN in Iraq, they informally discussed various time-frames, but adamantly refused to commit to any specific deadline in public. This was a superior approach to COIN than Obama and the Democrats' obsession with an artificial deadline. Yet, in democracies such as ours, there is always a implicit deadline: elections, which inevitably involve a review of the predecessor's strategy by the successor. This is one of the much discussed weaknesses of democracy as regards to foreign policy: delicate understandings between nations that emerge after years of laborious discussions, can be swept away in one election. The fact that Obama, fundamentally, adopted Bush's COIN strategy, should be read as a victory for continuity, even though Obama's policy has more caveats than Bush's. It would help if Obama could bring himself to say this explicitly; apparently he can't, or perhaps his base can't handle hearing it...nevertheless, the continuity is there, and the message should be clear, even in Pakistan. This is how an enduring, bi-partisan consensus is forged. This type of compromise is ugly, but hopefully it will be the saving grace that redeems the inherent unpredictability of democracy. Also, I think that when (if?) the time comes for the state to 'bleed' in order to bring (hopefully former) Taliban into the political process, that will play to Obama's strengths with his base at home and abroad, since they see him as the great negotiator. Personally, I hope that Obama and the Democrats' 18 month deadline evolves into a sort of review date, rather than a firm date for withdrawal. Eighteen months may not be enough time to implement a decisive COIN strategy, but if it is working at all, we should see undeniable signs within 18 months. Perhaps in 18 months things will at least be improved enough to have credible elections. If after 18 months it is not working at all, then it is time to try something else, possibly even withdrawal. My reading of India's history suggests than India managed to achieve continuity of policy, at least on the Mizo issue, under circumstances that were, shall we say, much more challenging than those faced by Obama today? Also, I am thinking back to January, 2009 when India floated the possibility of 120,000 Indian troops helping out in Afghanistan. Here on Atlantic Review [url=]we were skeptical, but we also realized we hadn't though enough about India's long ties with Afghanistan[/url]. Perhaps these troops would have been used in a COIN campaign inspired by the Mizo campaign. One question is, does India still have the same COIN capacity that existed in the 1970's? Has that capacity been maintained? Was it tried in places like Kashmir, and if so, was any progress made?

Joe Thesis on :

He described the need for a comprehensive strategy in the two countries, including a "standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan." The President expressed his profound respect for the Pakistani people and their history, and pledged that the United States would so all it could to help Pakistan fight against the terrorists who have so often attempted to destabilize the country, including with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

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