America and Afghanistan: politics in charge

The United States’s military strategy in Afghanistan is fracturing, but what matters most now in Washington is the domestic electoral timetable.

A series of violent incidents in Afghanistan casts renewed doubt over the claims of progress in the United States’s military-political strategy in the country. It includes the assassination on 12 July 2011 of the powerful and high-profile Kandahar politician Ahmed Wali Karzai (half-brother of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai) and the bombing of a mosque-held memorial service for him on 14 July which killed five people.

The scale of the problem now confronting the US-led coalition in Afghanistan can be measured against the priorities of the strategy Washington has been pursuing, one in which military and political objectives are ever more closely interlinked. The overall background is that the Barack Obama administration recognises that the Taliban cannot be defeated and will via negotiation have to be incorporated into future Afghan governance (see "Afghanistan: mapping the endgame", 16 June 2011).

An important, even dominant, factor in its calculations is the timetable for the presidential election due in November 2012, which help to shape the administration’s view that progress on the ground will make possible the beginning of a process of substantial US troop withdrawals by the end of 2011.

In the military sphere, the most recent assessments see signs of progress in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. It is argued that these allow US forces to concentrate more on the provinces to the east where the Taliban presence remains very strong. At the same time, the Taliban is still an elusive and formidable force. Their units are composed of local people, not outsiders, and they can respond to the US military surge by melting into the background and biding their time for future action.

Taliban commanders too are consistently avoiding the risks involved in open confrontations with well-armed US troops, in part by refocusing the movement’s tactics on (for example) assassinations, prison breakouts and other smaller-scale operations; the aim here is systematically to undermine any sense of nationwide security. The killing of Walid Karzai is but one incident that exemplifies this approach. 

The implication of the US analysis, taking into account all these factors, was threefold. First, the American military-political leadership in Afghanistan would be prepared in the short term to work with powerful local figures (in effect, warlords) who had often acquired power over districts and even provinces through involvement in the opium/heroin trade, and who might well have Taliban links but who (it was believed) acted essentially in their own interests. The key point for the United States was that such people were often able to ensure a degree of security across a particular area that gave at least the impression of progress in the US war effort.

Second and third, the US military would intensify the already spreading use of armed-drones and night-raids by its special forces in an attempt to degrade the Taliban insurgency and kill its leaders. In combination, this effort - links with local potentates, drone-attacks and night-raids - could ensure the progress (or its semblance) that enabled troop withdrawals to proceed, thus removing at least one potential obstacle to the incumbent president’s re-election.

The flawed strategy

The cracks in this approach are increasingly evident. First, the choice to work with corrupt and ruthless warlords and similar leaders is controversial in itself, and compromises other social and political objectives. The killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai also exposes the fact that even in practical terms it is deeply flawed; the assassination follows the death of two senior police chiefs and a deputy governor in the first half of 2011 and is the most serious blow so far to the US policy of co-opting local leaders to the war effort.

Second, the extensive drone-attacks, many of them across the border into Pakistan, kill and wound many civilians. They also fuel resentment in Pakistan about the infringement of sovereignty. The result is further to damage relations between Washington and Islamabad, which the fallout over the murder of the investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad and the suspension of a tranche of US aid to Pakistan reinforces.

Third, the special-forces night-raids are employed mainly in Afghanistan rather than Pakistan. They too have increased rapidly in intensity, and now reportedly average nearly 300 a month. US military and some Afghan sources claim spectacular successes, including the killing or capture of large groups of insurgents (see Carlotta Gall, “Night Raids Curbing Taliban. But Afghans Cite Civilian Toll”, New York Times, 9 July 2011).

But here too there are frequent reports of civilian deaths and real anger at the intrusion into homes (and especially women's quarters) by heavily armed foreigners. The raids may well kill or detain insurgents, but it is again worth emphasising that the insurgents are also members of their communities who see themselves as resisting unacceptable foreign occupation.

Moreover, those lost to attack, in combat or to arrest leave behind scores of close relatives and friends. The short-term impact may appear impressive to the Pentagon but the longer-term impact, not least psychological, may be far less comfortable (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011).

The war at home

The difficulties in all three aspects of the United States strategy - drones, raids and warlords - make the Pentagon’s reports of advance on the ground look less than convincing. What remains is the political dimension: the Barack Obama administration’s commitment to start the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The president wants out (or at least the clear “beginnings of out” by the end of 2011) of a war which he inherited from the George W Bush era. This at least will not change, because US domestic politics are what count.

The outcome of the US strategy may be tough for many people in Afghanistan. The violence and instability will persist even as the search for a face-saving settlement is undertaken. Indeed, the United Nations reports on 14 July that civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011 have increased by 15% since the previous half-year.

But the raw truth is that Afghanistan and the well-being of its citizens are not the priority. Barack Obama has an election to win, and the demands of domestic politics now trump those of the country which has endured a decade’s war.

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

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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