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USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan

The "AfPak" war: Washington’s three options

Friday 20 February 2009, by Paul Rogers

The United States’s strategic predicament in Afghanistan and Pakistan is deepening. What will Barack Obama do?

The United States decision in the closing months of 2008 to send an additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan was largely in response to an escalation in Taliban activity that has now lasted through the current winter. Those troops, from the 10th Mountain Division that has repeatedly been deployed in Afghanistan since the start of the war in October 2001, are now installed in Logar and Wardak provinces south of Kabul (see "Afghanistan’s critical moment", 6 February 2009). President Barack Obama announced on 17 February 2009 that he is deploying 17,000 more US soldiers, many of whom will attempt to limit the free exchange of paramilitaries between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001
In the past two weeks there has been a much greater media focus in the United States on the deterioration in security in Afghanistan, much of it prompted by the decision to send the extra troops. This has even made headlines across the domestic news-channels, occasionally even displacing the dominant concern with the economy; but this rare focus on an international story is accompanied by commentary that tends to underplay impact of more troops on the wider strategic environment. Indeed, one result of the Republican efforts to define a narrative of victory in Iraq around the effects of the 2007-08 "surge" has been an assumption that what "worked" there will have a similar effect in Afghanistan.

This ignores the fact that senior US military commanders remain deeply reluctant to withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq, not least because they are far from sure that the surge really has had the claimed effect (see Helene Cooper, "Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan", New York Times, 24 January 2009). Their reluctance also means that the US army and the marine corps remain seriously overstretched, which makes the desire for greater Nato burden-sharing in Afghanistan so strong.

The meeting in Krakow of Nato defence ministers on 19-20 February 2009 has not had the desired result in this respect. The US defence secretary, Robert M Gates, has had reluctantly to accept that increased Nato support in Afghanistan will come only in the form of civil aid and assistance with police and army training (see Matthew Day et al, "US demands for more troops in Afghanistan ignored", Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2009).

Poland and Britain are the only allies that have appeared to offer much support; but even if both countries agreed to increase their troop levels further (from Britain’s 8,300 and Poland’s 1,000) the numbers would be unlikely to exceed 2,000-3,000. This is far below the figure of 10,000-plus extra troops (in addition to the current reinforcement) that many analysts in Washington believe is necessary if the military situation is to be stabilised and the Taliban surge countered.

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

A four-way tide

The extent of the current problems in Afghanistan is illustrated in four current developments:

* Washington’s new director of national intelligence, Denis Blair, warns that "Afghanistan’s weak and corrupt government is failing to halt the spread of Taliban control", and says that "public support for the Taliban and local warlords" is increasing (see Mark Mazzetti, "Intelligence director says global crisis is top threat to U.S.", International Herald Tribune, 13 February 2009)

* The Pakistani government’s agreement on 16 February 2009 to change the legal system in the Swat region may bring to an end the intense fighting between 12,000 government troops and an estimated 3,000 paramilitaries, but it is also likely to allow an increase in Taliban influence outside of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) next to the border with Afghanistan. This makes it deeply unpopular in Washington. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy of President Obama to Pakistan and Afghanistan (or what an increasing number of strategists is coming to call "AfPak") is worried that it could amount to a surrender to the Taliban (see "US concerned over Pakistan deal", BBC News, 20 February 2009)

* Three government ministries in Kabul were hit on 11 February by simultaneous suicide-attacks. This can be seen as an extension of the "swarm" tactics that have been used by paramilitary groups in several countries (see John Arquilla, "The coming swarm", New York Times, 14 February 2009). The use of several small units in simultaneous actions has proved to be effective; the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 tied down most of India’s federal counter-terror forces, for example (see "The lessons of Mumbai", 1 December 2008). The ability of the Taliban to conduct such operations in Kabul is yet another indication of their penetration into the heart of the capital

* The Kyrgyz parliament voted on 19 February to end the US agreement to utilise the Manas air base, which is currently used to tranship 15,000 US troops and 500 tonnes of equipment a month through to Afghanistan. The plan for the Russians to take over the base makes this an even greater setback for the US, even if there may be further negotiations before the evacuation is enforced (see Thom Shanker & Ellen Barry, "U.S. hints at payment to keep Kyrgyz air base open", International Herald Tribune, 20 February 2009).

A three-way choice

The pressures of the Afghan situation face the Barack Obama administration with three core policy options. The first is to maintain the status quo. The aim would in military terms be to avoid any increase in violence while in political terms accepting the need to make pragmatic deals both with an ineffective government in Kabul and with an array of regional warlords. The United States would in this event reinforce its own troop levels, without expectation of any major injection of fresh forces from its Nato allies. The hoped-for result would be to prevent security in Afghanistan from deteriorating further and thus al-Qaida from re-establishing itself. This would require a decade-long commitment at current levels of engagement.

The second option is to find the means to increase military forces in Afghanistan to well above 100,000 troops - even if this entails an early and risky withdrawal from Iraq. The aim would be to defeat the diverse Taliban and warlord militias, thus subduing violence and facilitating a peaceful transition of security and power. This would require a long-term US military presence, but with the function of enforcing a peace rather than suppressing a war.

The third option is to withdraw in a planned and phased way. The aim would be to minimise further losses and damage in a campaign acknowledged to be essentially unwinnable. The US would in this event be accepting that the western military presence is widely viewed in Afghanistan as a foreign occupation that serves to stimulate violent opposition. This would require a readiness to negotiate and compromise with elements of the Taliban and other militias (much as the Islamabad administration has done in Swat).

The surprise option

What will the Obama administration decide? It is worth remembering that in its broad stance towards the George W Bush administration’s conduct of the "war on terror", it has as yet shown few signs of new (far less radical) thinking. Indeed, and in contrast to its policies on the domestic economic crisis, the current administration so far represents continuity rather than change. The proposed Afghan troop "surge" is only the most notable example (see (see Charlie Savage, "Obama’s war on terror may resemble Bush’s", International Herald Tribune, 19 February 2009).

It is likelier, then, that the emerging Afghan policy will be much more in the direction of the first or even second options than the third. The problem for Obama and his colleagues in that event, however, is that neither choice may actually be workable - in part because conditions in Afghanistan have gone too far, in part because the world has passed the point where it is conceivable for western states to occupy countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

More immediately, the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be separated from developments in western Pakistan. They are part of the same, "AfPak", reality. This makes the Swat agreement significant in terms of the Obama administration’s three policy options: for if it does seek a closure in Afghanistan that brings some measure of achievement it will have to extend its war much more fully to Pakistan, with all the dangers that entails. This, at its heart, is the same dilemma that was faced by George W Bush and would have been faced by John McCain if he had won the November 2008 election.

There is, however, at least the potential for a different approach. The infusion of 17,000 troops notwithstanding, a fundamental and long overdue reassessment of Afghanistan policy may yet take place in the coming months. The Obama administration might just have or acquire the capacity, the confidence, the judgment and the resources for a radical change in policy. The door to a surprising outcome is by no means closed.

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