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More experts pan our Af-Pak war. When will this show close?

18 September 2010

Summary:  Another group of experts reviews the Af-Pak war and pans it.  Other than the carefully-chosen advocates selected for the government’s reports, almost every impartial review has panned our Af-Pak War, either in conception, execution — or both.  Here’s another one, by an especially prestigious group.  It’s worth reading.

Strategic Survey 2010, International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 2010 — This introduction by Dr John Chipman summaries their findings about the Afghanistan War, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the war.  The full report can be purchased by non-members.  For a summary see  “Al-Qaida and Taliban threat is exaggerated, says security thinktank“, Guardian, 7 September 2010 — “Strategy institute challenges idea that troops are needed in Afghanistan to stop export of terrorism to west”

Excerpt (red emphasis added)

It is therefore to be expected that the mission in Afghanistan will undergo more public scrutiny and re-examination. The counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy approved by President Obama was in sum a grand strategy for Afghanistan. The goal was very little short of a secure and stable Afghanistan. As the campaign passes the ten-year mark, public tolerance for the generation-length commitment that political and military leaders in the West have sometimes spoken about is waning.

The original strategic goal was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and prevent its return. War aims traditionally expand, but in Afghanistan they ballooned into a comprehensive strategy to develop and modernise the country and its government. Defeat of the Taliban insurgency was seen as virtually synonymous with the defeat of al-Qaeda, even though much of its organised capacities had been displaced to Pakistan.  Many worry that the large presence of foreign troops is what sustains and fuels the Taliban fighters.

Reconciling the insurgents to a distant government in Kabul whose legitimacy is questioned and authority weak will be hard. Finding a constitutional dispensation that recognises the very loosely federal reality of Afghan regional fealty and governance structures would require an enormous political effort that included not just all local actors but all regional states. That in time might be necessary. In the interim, and as the military surge reaches its peak and begins to wind down, it is necessary and advisable for outside powers to move to a containment and deterrence policy to deal with the international terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border regions.

At present, the COIN strategy is too ambitious, too removed from the core security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military energies needed both in the region and elsewhere.  Let us recall what British Prime Minister David Cameron said on 14 June in a statement to the House of Commons:

‘I am advised that the threat from al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan has reduced, but I am also advised that if it were not for the current presence of UK and international coalition forces, al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan and the threat to the UK would rise.’

The first part of this statement is clearly a fact as the specific international threat from Afghanistan itself is insignificant while that from Pakistan is being dealt with partly by the Pakistani military and partly by the decapitating drone strikes against elements of the al-Qaeda leadership and other ‘high value targets’ in Pakistan that are being carried out by international forces.

The second part of this statement is more of a judgement. It is not clear why it should be axiomatically obvious that an Afghanistan freed of an international combat presence in the south would be an automatic magnet for al-Qaeda’s concentrated reconstruction. Al-Qaeda leadership, such as it is, may be quite content to stay where it is, while Taliban leaders who remained in Afghanistan might think twice of the advantages to them of inviting al-Qaeda back given the experience of the last decade. At least they could be made to think twice. The problem with judging that al-Qaeda would just return or that the Taliban would turn itself into an international or global threat following a major withdrawal of coalition forces is that this presumes that no other policies would be implemented to contain the terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border areas or to deter it.

It is the outlines of a containment and deterrence strategy that need now to be more firmly drawn. This is a strategy that at some point will need to be implemented. It will be needed as combat forces withdraw, and is one towards which the international community could move quickly if it was judged that there was sufficient local and regional support for a containment and deterrence approach. Containing the international threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border and deterring the reconstitution of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would, like all such strategies, have political, diplomatic, economic and military elements.

  • It would require political deals in Afghanistan and among key regional powers including India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states.
  • It would entail promises of economic and development support to its supporters as well as the threat of military strikes against any re-concentration of international terrorist forces.
  • It too would be a grand strategy of sorts, but unlike the counter-insurgency grand strategy, would not be so dependent on orchestrating near-ideal internal political and developmental outcomes in Afghanistan.
  • Nor would it necessarily require the degradation of Taliban capacities to the point of near surrender, a prospect that is by no means immediate.

A containment and deterrence approach would be a strategy that was limited to dealing with the threat as originally defined by the coalition forces that intervened in Afghanistan. Outlining such an approach earlier rather than later would demonstrate that the long-term strategy need not depend on winning an ever-lengthening succession of tactical local battles against an enemy incentivised by the presence of foreign forces. It would replace the impression that an eventual drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan would constitute victory for the enemy, with the reality of a strategy that could be maintained for a longer period while meeting the principal security goal.

The strategic debate on how to progress in Afghanistan must be focused on:

First, structuring combat forces in Afghanistan to deter and prevent the reconstitution of an organised terrorist threat from within Afghanistan.

This would mean their organised redeployment to the north and the arrangement of a status of forces agreement that would allow their intervention in the south against any reconstitution of al-Qaeda jihadist capacities that could pose an international threat. That may include continued precise operations, for example, against elements of the Haqqani network, but would not include attacks on Taliban forces that posed no extra-provincial threat and were open to compromises on the reach of their power and ambitions. The military effort will have to be concentrated on developing within Afghanistan the rapid-reaction capacity to prevent the Taliban cooperating with al-Qaeda in areas that they control, defend against any Taliban effort to extend control to non-Pashtun provinces or Kabul, and to frustrate any efforts by Taliban in Afghanistan from effectively supporting anti-government forces in Pakistan. The direct combat role in Afghanistan is out of proportion to the threat that the Afghan Taliban pose outside Afghanistan.

Second, orchestrating a more con-federal Afghanistan, where the provinces accept that formal rule and external authority resides in the capital and the capital cedes practical sovereignty on most issues to the provinces.

A more balanced power-sharing system would invite a less contested political-security space. However paradoxical it may sound, a balance of weakness between the capital and the provinces may be more conducive to Afghan stability. It would allow all the international cooperation in Afghanistan that remains necessary, without investing more power in a central government that cannot deliver. Ultimately, formal constitutional change to acknowledge this reality, and create a structure that simultaneously reflects Afghan provincial primacy while supporting the strong sense of Afghan nationhood, is vitally necessary. The political dispensation must in effect move to a situation where the provinces have control of their destiny but pretend to be ruled by the centre, and the centre retains power over broad international and financial policy but does not seek to interfere in most areas of provincial government.

Third, the new strategy should accept that the Afghan National Army will itself need to have a con-federal character to it.

Local forces with genuine local roots willing and able to provide security could be badged ANA and have a stronger chance of being successful. General Petreus has discussed with President Karzai the creation of uniformed local security forces already. Giving national recognition to them is a way of demonstrating that the central government respects localism and contributes to the respect for regional variations by a distant central authority that is necessary.

Fourth, the US and others will have to further deepen the engagement with Pakistan and convince Islamabad that contact with a wide variety of actors in Afghanistan is necessary to create a more sustainable national order.

Managing Indian and Pakistani strategic goals in the country needs to be an important priority. A tripartite dialogue between Afghanistan, India and Pakistan is desirable; not least to diminish risks that enduring conflict could escalate to civil-war proportions. Central Asian states, Russia and Iran will have competing concerns in Afghanistan that will have to be reconciled, but a less ambitious coalition military posture in Afghanistan should be used to make this possible.

Also worth reading

Other posts about the Af-Pak War

For a full list see the FM reference page about Iraq, Af-Pak, & our other wars.

Myths about why we’re fighting in Af-Pak:

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