Friday, June 24, 2011

The Endgame in Afghanistan

The long awaited start of a draw-down in US forces has begun and while it is scheduled to take several years (at least through 2014) evolving conditions in the United States and in the Middle East could easily accelerate that timeline.

My purpose in this discussion is not to make a judgment but to present a few facts which I believe have an important impact on the process. But, in the interest of full disclosure, my personal feelings on Afghanistan are simple. I think we, the United States, should have declared victory when our original objectives were achieved (pushing al Qaeda out, destroying the terrorist training camps and forcing the Taliban from power). At that point we should have withdrawn. All this nation building and imposing of Western style Democracy to ensure the terrorists do not return was unnecessary and foolish. That objective is simply, in my humble opinion, not achievable. We culturally do not have the necessary understanding of Afghanistan’s culture and the idea of imposing a western style democracy, regardless of our good intentions, is an idea doomed to failure in that part of the world. The result has been huge expenditures in American lives and money, a perception in the Middle East that perpetuates the false belief that we are occupiers and are Imperialistic. This has meant the loss of American prestige and confidence in American power in Europe and around the world. A little harsh, I know, but my personal belief nevertheless.

Whatever the timeline being put out by the Administration, it is becoming apparent that we are exploring ways to accelerate the draw-down of our forces. At the same time it is evident that U.S. relations with Pakistan are deteriorating and cooperation is breaking down. This is a very important aspect to consider. The Kabul government will no longer have direct US assistance and protection and will not be able not be able to fill the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US combat forces. Pakistan has a vested interest in Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal will result in an Afghanistan intertwined with and influenced by Pakistan. Therefore, the deteriorating relationship between the US and Pakistan challenges any withdrawal plan.

The currently stated definition of victory is the creation of a strong (democratic) government in Kabul controlling an army and police force able to protect the regime and ultimately impose its will throughout Afghanistan. But, with President Karzai increasingly uncooperative with the United States, the likelihood of this outcome is evaporating. Karzai realizes his American protection will be withdrawn and understands that the Americans will blame him for any negative outcomes of the withdrawal because of his inability or unwillingness to control corruption.

Remember, there was a prior definition of success that shaped the Bush administration’s approach to Afghanistan in the early days. The goal was the disruption of al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan and the prevention of further attacks on the United States from Afghanistan. That definition did not involve a stable and democratic Afghanistan free of corruption and able to control its territory. It was more modest and, in many ways, it was achieved in 2001-2002. Its defect, of course, was that the disruption of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, while useful, did not address the evolution of al Qaeda in other countries. In particular, it did not deal with the movement of al Qaeda operatives to Pakistan, nor did it address the Taliban, which were not defeated in 2001-2002 but simply declined combat on American terms, re-emerging as a viable insurgency when the United States became bogged down in Iraq.

What ultimately happened was a slow mission creep from denying Afghan bases to al Qaeda to the transformation of Afghan society and started during the Bush administration, but the immediate origin of the current strategy was the attempt to transfer the lessons of Iraq to Afghanistan. The surge in Iraq, and the important political settlement with Sunni insurgents that brought them into the American fold, reduced the insurgency. It remains to be seen whether it will produce a stable Iraq not hostile to American interests. The ultimate Iraq strategy was a political settlement framed by an increase in forces, and its long-term success was never clear. The Obama administration was prepared to repeat the attempt in Afghanistan, at least by using Iraq as a template if not applying exactly the same tactics.

However, the United States found that the Taliban were less inclined to negotiate with the United States, and certainly not on the favorable terms of the Iraqi insurgents, simply because they believed they would win in the long run and did not face the dangers that the Sunni insurgents did. Its application to Afghanistan does not seem, as yet, to have drawn the Taliban into the political process in the way that incorporating the Sunnis made Iraq appear at least minimally successful.

The death of Osama bin Laden offered us an opportunity to return to the earlier definition of success in Afghanistan, in which the goal was the disruption of al Qaeda. For a short time the door is open for a redefinition of the U.S. goal and the ability to claim mission accomplished for the earlier, more modest end, thereby building the basis for terminating the war.

What is needed is a more conventional definition of war in which the primary purpose of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is to create a framework for special operations forces to disrupt al Qaeda in Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan, not to attempt to either defeat the Taliban strategically or transform Afghanistan politically and culturally. With the death of bin Laden, al Qaeda has been disrupted enough that the conventional military framework in Afghanistan is no longer needed. If al Qaeda revives in Afghanistan, then covert operations can be considered. The problem with al Qaeda is that it does not require any single country to regenerate. It is a global terrorist/guerrilla force.

Live Long and Prosper......

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