Afghanistan: new strategy, old problem

Barack Obama’s fresh military approach in Afghanistan may only compound the United States’s predicament there - and postpone the moment for the hardest choice of all.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 December 2009

Barack Obama’s speech at the West Point military academy on 1 December 2009 ended the lengthy process of internal discussion within his administration about future strategy in Afghanistan by committing 30,000 more American troops to the country in phased deployments until August 2010 - which would bring the total there to almost 100,000 (along with 46,000 from other Nato countries after their further deployment of around 7,000 additional soldiers).

This outcome may bear the stamp of the new United States president, but it also reflects in good part the appalling legacy left to him by George W Bush. For the ingredients of the US dilemma span both administrations: among them the way that the near-doubling of foreign combat-troops in Afghanistan in 2007-09 has actually been accompanied by an increase in resistance and in the territory the insurgents control (see "Afghanistan: next test, last lesson", 26 November 2009).

Indeed, across many parts of Afghanistan the insurgency now stretches far beyond Taliban paramilitaries to involve many other militias. This is so much the case that opposition to the foreign military presence is now close to being an insurrection - which also targets the corrupt government that depends on this presence for its own survival.

The curse of four

The new approach from Washington would have to overcome four severe problems if it is to work. First, the extensive corruption within the regime of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is well established - and has become such an embarrassment to his western backers that they have been forced to raise the tone of rhetorical outrage over the issue. It is hard to see such condemnation making much of a difference, for the roots of corruption are deep; and the structural factors are reinforced by short-term and individual ones, such as the need to pay off those who helped manipulate the election which allowed Karzai another term in office, and the desire of many officials to make as much money as they can now as an insurance against future uncertainties.

Second, efforts to train the Afghan security forces - a key component of the Obama strategy, in that its successful completion would allow a plausible withdrawal from 2011 - are in trouble. The upgrading of the Afghan army (whose current nominal strength is 94,000) has been severely compromised by the lack of an officer corps, and by the loss - through desertions or resignations - of a quarter of the entire force in a single year; meanwhile, many members of the police service are inefficient and corrupt, or infiltrated by Taliban and other militias.

Third, the situation across the border in Pakistan is unstable. The military there may have been trying to curb the power of its own militants, but its inability to complete the task means that - as so often before - it will be forced into making deals (formal or informal) to create breathing-space. In any case, Pakistan’s willingness to respond to an internal threat does not in any way diminish the desire of its elite to regain influence in Afghanistan - in great part to counter what it sees as the “pernicious power-base” being developed by India. This is best done, the elite calculates, by aiding the Afghan Taliban and other paramilitaries.

Fourth, Barack Obama’s administration is in something of a domestic vice: caught between Democrats opposed to the war, Republicans who speak of appeasement if withdrawal is even mentioned (and even invoke the Vietnam-era canard that an “unleashed” military could have secured victory), and a population that is losing faith in the Afghan project.

The hand of six

The United States’s new response is a complicated strategy with six elements:

  • the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops, backed by an expected 10,000 more from other Nato states; this would take foreign troop numbers to at least 140,000 - more than the Soviet Union had for most of its eight-year war in Afghanistan
  • an emphasis on securing cities, larger towns and trunk-roads, meaning in turn less attention to rural areas (even though Afghanistan is one of the world’s least urbanised countries)

  • a hugely increased effort to train the Afghan army and police, and to expand their numbers

  • the investment of more money in civil-development assistance and limiting corruption

  • the search for a much closer working relationship with Pakistan

  • the beginning of a reversal of the surge in forces within two years, and the start of a clear process of withdrawal before the US presidential-election campaign of 2012 gets underway.

The other side

What might be the expected reaction of the Taliban military planners to this approach? For it is certain that they will apply the same degree of coordination and sophistication in the next phase as has been the case in the recent past - often anticipating and thus defusing western efforts by changing their own pattern of activity.

The strongest point for the Taliban is that, with support for the war corroding in the United States, time is on the movement’s side. First, then, its militants could choose simply to retreat from confrontation with the heavily armed and well equipped US soldiers and marines, thus avoiding heavy casualties and playing a clever waiting-game. 

The downside of such a response from the Taliban’s viewpoint might be to give an impression that the movement has been defeated, and this could lose it much political support among Afghans whom it has to one degree or another won over. This approach may also encourage US and other Nato forces to stay, since they would be suffering fewer casualties and perhaps even able to convince their electorates that the war is being won.

But if the Taliban and other militias choose, second, to engage in protracted conflict against the reinforced deployments this could have the mixed result of killing more foreign soldiers while losing many on their own side.

The paramilitaries could also opt for a third course, namely to open up new fronts away from the areas of current and future heavy US troop-concentrations (primarily Helmand and Kandahar provinces).

Beyond the details of what the Taliban and its allies decide, it is important to note that most analysis of Barack Obama’s strategy published in the western media is severely constrained by its selective perspective. There is a pervasive assumption - even now, after eight years of war - that the insurgents are mere “recipients” of external policy changes: reactive but not themselves proactive.  

This is nonsense - and dangerous nonsense. It would be far wiser to assume that these militias have people who are every bit as intelligent and professional in their thinking and planning as their western counterparts. They have had three months to think through the Obama leadership’s policy-development process; and much of this thinking will be about how the US changes affect their own plans - not how they will respond to the United States. Thus they may have very clear intentions for the next three to five years that are embedded in detailed military planning; and what is now happening on their side will involve adjustment of these plans in the light of the great rethink across the Atlantic.

The big if

In such circumstances, can the Obama policy work? The experience of 2007-09 alone, when the insurgent campaign has accelerated and expanded, suggests that there are long odds against success (see "Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection, 8 October 2009). But there is one scenario that offers the possibility of an opening.

If western governments and military can achieve greater cooperation with Pakistan, if the Karzai regime can be made to limit its levels of corruption, if civil aid to Afghanistan is greatly increased, and if the extra American and Nato troops are used primarily for defensive support of civil developments rather than major offensive actions - then it is just possible that significant elements of the Taliban leadership can be brought into the process of governance. In that event, the stage could be set - after eight to ten years of war - for serious compromise extending to a power-sharing settlement.

This may now be the very best that can be hoped for - though even it may not be attainable. That is the measure of the risk that Barack Obama is taking, but unless he were to order a large-scale and rapid withdrawal he has few other options. The shift towards compromise with the Taliban would be so radical a change in policy that it could well destroy the US president’s prospects for a second term. Such a change of direction may appear to many as the only feasible way to resolve this long and bitter war; but at present at least, it is something that Washington is not prepared to contemplate.

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