AfPak: the unwinnable war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 October 2009

The Barack Obama administration is continuing to engage in feverish debate about the future direction of its policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The high stakes of the argument are reflected in a whirl of media stories and briefings about its possible direction and the personalities of those involved.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here  In this delicate moment, three ingredients of the United States's assessment of the military situation in "AfPak" are notable. The first (positive for the administration) is apparent progress in Pakistan, as the extensive use of armed drones weakens elements of the al-Qaida movement and the Pakistani Taliban; this process, it is anticipated, could be aided by the Pakistani army's reported preparations for an incursion into the key border districts of North and South Waziristan.  

The second ingredient (negative for the administration) is growing evidence that the insurgency in Afghanistan is evolving into a more general insurrection in which the Afghan Taliban and some associated warlords now form only a component of much broader opposition to foreign forces (see "Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection", 8 October 2009).

The third ingredient is rarely mentioned. This is that the most of the direct advice available to President Obama is coming from current or former military officials. A retired colonel in the US air-force, William Astore, compares this situation to the militarised advice-bubble that enveloped Lyndon B Johnson at a key period in the Vietnam war (see "Obama at the Precipice", TomDispatch.com, 13 October 2009).

The tendency to mix a genuine analysis of military realities with a view that serves a particular interest is widespread in such circumstances; the current military advice to Obama emphasises the Taliban's links with al-Qaida, and the risk that withdrawal from Afghanistan will allow al-Qaida to re-enter the country (see Gareth Porter, "Pro-War Officials Play Up Taliban-al Qaeda Links", Inter Press Service, 14 October 2009).

The approach of such advisers is also inevitably affected by a rooted belief in the United States's position as the world's only military superpower. It would be hard for these senior military personnel to suggest withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially in the wake of the hugely costly six-year war in Iraq; for this would represent in effect a further defeat for men whose careers have been devoted to the service of what they sincerely believe to be a noble institution. 

A turn in the road

This immediate context of Barack Obama's critical decision may vitally influence the formal announcement by the administration of its long-awaited response to the report of General Stanley McChrystal. The indications are that the United States will indeed inject the requested 40,000 additional troops into Afghanistan; and that this is part of a retooled counterinsurgency strategy that will place civilian security higher up the list of the coalition's priorities.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcomingA shift in this direction has already been made, with the deployment of an additional 13,000 support troops, which itself supplements the 21,000 committed in March 2009; all this before a formal response to McChrystal's appeal (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Support Troops Swelling U.S. Force in Afghanistan" Washington Post, 13 October 2009).

There remain grave doubts, however, over whether such a change can lead to meaningful "success" in the war. Ian Davis makes the case in NATO Watch's bi-monthly observatory, accessible via ISIS Europe:

"NATO fielded 60,000 troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 - a country a fraction the size of Afghanistan.  FM3-24 [the relevant Field Manual] recommends a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with a population of 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. At best, if Obama's pleas to European NATO allies are heeded, US and ISAF forces might reach a total of 120,000 - larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan, but still only one-fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends".

The argument is reinforced by the spread of the insurgency into the north and west of Afghanistan, which tends to undermine the frequently made point that much of the country remains unaffected by the Taliban and its paramilitary associates; and by the change in the nature of the war suggested in last week's column in this series. 

What of the fighters themselves? An American intelligence official who helped draft agency assessments says: "Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency, ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban" (see Bryan Bender, "Taliban not main Afghan enemy", Boston Globe, 13 October 2009).

Many analysts argue that this is good news, on the grounds that it should be possible to detach and even co-opt many of the "non-Taliban" insurgent majority. But this ignores two elements: the widespread suspicion of foreign troops among Afghans as occupiers who must be opposed, and the illegitimacy of the corrupt and inefficient Hamid Karzai administration in Kabul.

A torrent of blows

But if the military problems in Afghanistan are escalating, Washington is taking comfort from the belief that the situation across the border in Pakistan was brightening. That view, however, was always composed as much of hope and inattention as of sustained evidence; three current factors are emerging to expose its fragility.

The first is a series of deadly and devastating military attacks. These include an attack in Mingora on 30 August 2009 that killed sixteen police-officers; a suicide-bombing of the World Food Programme's offices in Islamabad on 5 October, in which five people died; a car-bomb in Peshawar that devastated a market, killing forty-eight; and an attack in the Swat valley on 12 October that killed forty-one people (including six soldiers and four community-police officers).

The worst such incident by far from the perspective of the Pakistani army, however, was one that targeted the very heart of Pakistan's military power: the audacious assault on 9 October on the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi (close to the capital, Islamabad). This resulted in a twenty-hour siege to dislodge the insurgents, and ended with twenty-three people dead and scores injured; it is comparable in psychological terms to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. 

The wave continues. On 15 October, five coordinated operations across the country - three of them in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore - targeted against police academies and posts, killing dozens of people.  

This torrent of blows has demonstrated the ability of the Pakistani Taliban to strike across the country with near-impunity. Its timing is crucial, for it has come as the army is reported to be preparing to launch its long-planned major military operation in North and South Waziristan. 

Washington regards this move, intended to end the Waziristans' status as "safe havens" for (supposedly) hard-pressed insurgents returning from Afghanistan, as a crucial escalation of the war. But this very focus on a military solution in these regions tends to push aside the awkward question of whether the army's earlier anti-Taliban operation in the Swat valley, completed in August 2009, achieved its intended results.

In strict military terms, it now appears that the claims of direct successes by Pakistan's army against Taliban militias in Swat were overblown. Many of these militias responded in time-honoured fashion by retreating from combat rather than face the heavy artillery and air-strikes that could be employed by the army.

There is evidence too that many of the more rural parts of Swat have seen little in the way of aid and reconstruction; that, combined with the onset of winter, could mean the kind of hardship that earlier encouraged local people to turn away from the government and towards the Taliban (see Sabrina Tavernise & Irfan Ashraf, "Racing Time and Taliban to Rebuild in Pakistan", New York Times, 10 October 2009).  

A cold prospect

A second factor is now emerging: namely the Pakistani army's lack of sufficiently well-trained troops and of the necessary equipment even to deploy effectively into the Waziristans. These limitations in part reflect the fact that the army is primarily a conventional force, trained and equipped to fight a defensive action against a similar Indian adversary, rather than being in any sense a counterinsurgency force. 

The Pakistani army suffered serious casualties during the Swat operation, and is now trying to obtain new materials - including helicopters, night-vision equipment and signals-intelligence systems - as quickly as possible  (see Usman Ansari, "Pakistan Army Seeks To Rearm To Enter Taliban Lair", Defense News, 5 October 2009).   Its particular concern in the meantime is that a shortage of helicopters requires the army to move troops in the conflict-zones mainly by road, and this makes them vulnerable to local militias in Waziristan that are greatly skilled in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially roadside-bombs.

But with or without such improvements in military technology, operations are likely to begin at some stage before the full onset of winter. There may initially be an appearance of progress as (once more) local militias melt away rather than engage in confrontation; but this is likely to be exposed as an illusion when these units launch protracted guerrilla assaults through and beyond the winter, with corrosive effects on (still inadequately equipped) army contingents.   

The sobering implication of this analysis is that Washington's current governing perception - that the war may be proving difficult in Afghanistan, but at least is showing signs of progress in Pakistan - is quite misleading.

A dual strategy

A third factor illustrates the difficulties facing the United States and its coalition allies in the region: the Pakistani elite's differential attitude to the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The former is viewed as a threat to the state and efforts will be made - even including incursions into North and South Waziristan, however costly - to contain it.

But this strategic choice, and the willingness to accept (with all the resentment it carries) American involvement in combating the internal enemy, is accompanied by Pakistan's much more supportive attitude towards Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Any prospect of the latter's defeat would be seen as a serious blow to Pakistan's security in relation to its regional-superpower adversary: India.  Pakistan's deep worries that India's influence is becoming embedded across much of Afghanistan is reflected in local press reports that Indian road-construction teams in several parts of Afghanistan are simply fronts for New Delhi's intelligence operations.

It is difficult to overestimate the vulnerability that is felt in Islamabad over Indian influence in Afghanistan. In this context it is important to note that for Pakistan strategists, controlling the (Pakistani) Taliban based in the country's western regions is essential to state security; but this does not remotely mean that Islamabad wants to limit (Afghan) Taliban power across the border. Quite the reverse, since these militias offer almost the only counter to the rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan and the risk this carries of Pakistan losing its one regional asset in the decades-long confrontation with its giant neighbour.

For the United States this remains a formidable difficulty. If your supposed key ally in the region cannot afford to see you achieve your political goals because they run counter to its own perceived security needs, what price the possibility of victory - no matter how many troops are surged into Afghanistan? 

For this reason, if no other, Afghanistan is "unwinnable". Sooner or later, the Obama administration will have to face up to this reality as it comes to terms with the full impact of the toxic legacy it has inherited from George W Bush.

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