Afghanistan: next test, last lesson

The war in Afghanistan may now be beyond the point where any military-centred United States strategy can work.

Barack Obama is after a lengthy period of consultation moving towards the announcement of a revised strategy towards the war in Afghanistan, now scheduled to take place in a live broadcast from the West Point military academy on 1 December 2009. It is highly likely that the United States president will order a substantially increased deployment of troop numbers to Afghanistan, probably over 30,000 if not as high as the upwards of 40,000 requested by the senior US general in the country, Stanley A McChrystal (see “Obama May Add 30,000 Troops in Afghanistan”, New York Times, 24 November 2009).

This is broadly in line with what would have been expected if John McCain and Sarah Palin had won the presidential election in November 2008 and had then continued the policy of the George W Bush administration. Yet there are important differences both in context and approach.

In respect of the context, two issues dominate. The first is the steady deterioration in security across much of Afghanistan as the insurgency begins to show signs of turning into a more general military campaign (see “AfPak-Iraq: wrong war, right path”, 29 October 2009). The second, a direct consequence of the spreading insecurity and of the high level of US casualties, is the decline in support for the war in the American homeland.

This loss of support, moreover extends now beyond Democratic circles to significant numbers of Republicans. True, their attitude flows from a more general sense that Obama’s dithering attitude is making defeat inevitable and that an immediate withdrawal would thus be preferable to slow disaster and humiliation. In response, leading neo-conservative commentators argue insistently that the war remains winnable (see William Kristol & Frederick W Kagan, “No Substitute for Victory: Don’t Abandon Afghanistan”, Weekly Standard, 25 November 2009), and a degree of optimism is still audible among other foreign-policy thinkers (see Michael E Hanlon, “Vision for Victory in Afghanistan”, Brookings Institution, 18 November 2009).

In respect of the approach to the war, where the Obama administration differs from its predecessor (or the probable McCain-Palin alternative) is in its recognition that the war cannot be won in the conventional sense of the total subjugation of the insurgency. The implication is that there needs to be compromise with some oppositional elements in Afghanistan, direct measures to curb the corruption that pervades Hamid Karzai’s regime, and a far greater commitment to civil-development programmes in the country. But - and here there is continuity - this new understanding remains based on the belief that such progress can only be achieved through a much larger American military presence.

The military wager

This military escalation is in one sense already apparent in a number of massive military-construction programmes (see Nick Turse, “Pentagon starts an Afghan building boom”, Asia Times, 10 November 2009). These far exceed the current civil programmes. In the 2008-09 financial year, the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) gave out $20 million in contracts while the army awarded $2,200 million (of which more than a third was for military construction); the 2009-10 financial year sees a further $1,300 million committed to 100 projects at forty sites. At Bagram airbase near Kabul there are 20,000 United States troops, alongside many thousands of other coalition troops and civilian personnel; at the other major Afghan base, in Kandahar, there are 30,000 personnel. These large installations already have an air of permanence, and this is before the probable coming increase in troop numbers.

Much of the expansion in military construction is the result of contracts agreed by the George W Bush administration (whose number and size accelerated in 2007-08). In itself this trend does not run counter to Barack Obama’s more broad-based approach, and in any case Obama is near- certain to combine his expansionary policy with the suggestion of an eventual withdrawal - thus selling the initiative as a “final push”.

The main problem is that any such scenario is dependent on the simultaneous operation of many factors, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), over 2010-11 (see “AfPak: the unwinnable war", 16 October 2009. Almost everything has to go right for Obama over this period for the strategy to work - and there are no guarantees that it will. In particular, six issues have to evolve in the administration’s favour.

The six-way bet

The first is reducing corruption in the Hamid Karzai regime. It will be hard. The Afghan president himself is now having to repay debts to those who helped arrange his re-election; this in a country listed by Transparency International (TI) as second only to Somalia in levels of perceived corruption worldwide, with a ranking in TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2009) of 179 out of 180 (see Thomas E Ricks, “Kilcullen: It’s all or nothing, Mr. President”, Foreign Policy, 18 November 2009).

The second is the training of Afghan security forces to a level where they can take over responsibility from the western coalition - a process seen as the key to scaling down US forces. This too will be hard: the Afghan police are hopelessly ineffective, and are infiltrated by Taliban sympathisers.

The third issue is that the ostensibly more professional Afghan national army is experiencing extraordinarily high levels of desertions. A quarter of its entire personnel was lost in the year to 30 September 2009, many of them through desertion (see Gareth Porter, “US headache over Afghan desertions”, Asia Times, 26 November 2009).

The fourth and fifth issues relate to current developments in Pakistan. The Pakistani army operations in South Waziristan continue, but the forces deployed are too small to garrison the district; and in any case, many of the paramilitaries have simply retreated without damage. The results of the conflict so far appear to include a significant change of attitude among that assembly of paramilitaries termed the “Pakistani Taliban”. In the past, local militia leaders have seen Pakistani army operations as having a ritual aspect and not fundamentally affecting their domain; but the increased size of recent army operations, not least in the Swat valley, makes them view the army as closely allied to the United States.

In consequence, the militia leaders increasingly see themselves as being in direct opposition to the Pakistani state. They may refrain from frontal attacks on large army units but they are expanding their bombing and shooting raids across Pakistan, including major assaults on offices and bases of the security and intelligence services (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Militants change tack in Pakistan”, Asia Times, 17 November 2009).

This in turn raises an issue that highlights how complex this situation is: for just as the Pakistani Taliban is extending its own operations, Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is improving its links with the Taliban and other militias in Afghanistan. Its motivation here in part flows from the belief that an eventual pullout by western forces from Afghanistan would give Pakistan the opportunity to regain the influence that it had in Kabul during the era of Taliban rule there in the late 1990s. This is crucial to Pakistan as it seeks to limit the growing reach of its main strategic rival, India, in Afghanistan.

The sixth issue is one that crosses the “AfPak” border but primarily affects Afghanistan: the growing connections between al-Qaida elements and the Afghan Taliban (see Peter Bergen, "The Front: The Taliban-Al Qaeda merger", New Republic, 19 October 2009). In a broader sense the al-Qaida movement may have been weakened, but its closer ties with the Afghan Taliban help make the latter less a narrowly nationalist movement and more one that leans towards a transnational jihadist position (see Imtiaz Gul, “The Al Qaeda Diaries”, Foreign Policy, 20 November 2009).

The hard road

The problematic character of these six factors, individually and together, underline doubts over the likely effectiveness of injecting tens of thousands more foreign troops into Afghanistan. President Obama may well have used the long weeks of intra-administration debate and consultation to prepare a more nuanced and sophisticated approach than his predecessor, but the suspicion must be that it will have all come too late.

The very nature of the conflict in Afghanistan may now have reached a point where methods that are still at heart military cannot work (see “Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection”, 8 October 2009). The fact that it will be Barack Obama and not George W Bush that has to learn this lesson may be deeply unfair. But that is the nature of politics.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here