Plan B for Afghanistan?

Discussion in 'Subcontinent & Central Asia' started by nrj, Aug 13, 2010.

  1. nrj

    nrj Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

    Nov 16, 2009
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    It is becoming increasingly clear that US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) efforts to develop a stable political system and growing economy in Afghanistan are failing. The government of President Hamid Karzai has little support in or out of the country. The Taliban have recovered from their sudden ouster in late 2001 and now control or have a strong presence in much of the Pashtun regions of the south and east.

    One option would be for the US and its allies to withdraw from the Pashtun regions and concentrate on political and economic development in the northern areas, where the insurgency is weak and anti-Taliban sentiment is strong. Retrenchment in the north would confer considerable flexibility and advantages.

    Immediate prospects
    At present, the Taliban are deeply embedded in many if not most parts of the Pashtun regions in the south and east. Through parley or threat, they have won local support and brought levies of local men into their forces.

    Western forces are unable to garner intelligence from locals or get them to serve effectively in militias; they are being attrited by roadside bombs; and they are operating in smaller and smaller enclaves in the south and east. Seeking to reverse this state of affairs will be painstakingly slow and will take many years and many hundreds of US casualties per year.

    The recent firing of General McChrystal as the top US commander in Afghanistan, though apparently unrelated to the conduct of the war, has emboldened insurgent groups. They see his departure as stemming from their successes over the years, especially in countering counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. Insurgents can look back on the past few years and feel justifiable confidence.

    General David Petraeus has taken command and this has led to optimism that he can repeat his successes in Iraq where tribal parleys won over Sunni Arab insurgents. But too much adulation may have been heaped on the general by a public that knows little about Iraq or counter-insurgency, and perhaps too much is expected of him.

    And a general does not go twice into the same insurgency. A principal reason for the Sunni Arab volte face lay in their hopeless strategic position - at once fighting qualitatively superior coalition forces and quantitatively superior Shi'ite militias. Sunni Arabs saved themselves by allying with the US and turning on al-Qaeda forces, which in any event had become arrogant nuisances.

    Furthermore, foreign powers helped quell the insurgency. Saudi diplomats and intelligence personnel prevailed on the tribes of al-Anbar province (especially the Dulayim who straddle the Iraq-Saudi border) to ally with the US. Similarly, Iran used its considerable influence with the Shi'ite militias and political parties to end the fighting.

    For similar help from abroad, Petraeus will have to contend with the Taliban's chief supporter - Pakistan. Earlier in 2010, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) arrested several important Taliban figures - a move thought to have been the result of US pressure on Pakistan to force the Taliban into negotiations. Though Pakistan's intentions remain unclear, the arrests of the Taliban figures, who were thought to be in talks with the Karzai government
    , might be an ISI effort to block Taliban negotiations with Karzai so as to ensure that Pakistani intelligence shapes any settlement.

    The recent leaked classified US military documents point to Pakistan's ongoing involvement in Afghanistan. (See Pakistan has its own battle to fight Asia Times Online, July 28, 2010.)

    Unlikelihood of a complete withdrawal
    The war is seasonal. Many insurgent fighters return to their homes in the autumn to help with crops and herds, then return in the late spring. This leads to variations in casualties, which in turn affects support in the US public and that of NATO partners.

    The return of part-time fighters to their insurgent bands and the initiation of US/NATO operations in the south will lead to higher casualties - and greater debate. Support is waning in European countries, where mythic notions of war perished amid two world wars and where more recently politicians and generals have become unhappy with unfolding of events. Several countries with sizeable commitments will likely begin to leave within a year, triggering more intense debate in the countries that remain.

    Distractions abound in the US public, but higher casualties and the attention brought on by the US commander's awkward comments on his civilian authorities. Opposition to the war may become statistically stronger yet remain politically weak. Casualties are not borne by the public at large, rather chiefly by working-class and rural Americans with greater respect for the military and war service than found in the rest of America - large portions of which are silently thankful that family members have nothing to do with military service.

    Republican opposition to the war is muted. It was a Republican president in George W Bush after all who opted to occupy Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama has followed military counsel in the last year. Still, in the event of withdrawal or defeat, Republicans are prepared to pounce on their political opponents for "losing Afghanistan". Democrats in the public, convinced they elected a non-warlike president, are increasingly restive.

    Most of the public - as noted, untouched by the war - are given to oscillation and indecision. A Vietnam-era poll might be recalled here. In May of 1969, with opposition to the war over 60%, only 9% of the public favored withdrawal if it meant that South Vietnam would fall, as it surely would (and as it surely did). They wanted neither war nor defeat, neither casualties nor withdrawal without victory.

    Formidable currents against withdrawal permeate American political culture. There is a belief that withdrawal or defeat in Afghanistan will lead to renewed al-Qaeda sanctuaries and another wave of terrorism in the US. This is unlikely, as an al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan would offer nothing it doesn't have in Pakistan and it is clear that al-Qaeda can never operate openly anywhere. Any major base or center, regardless of the host country's disposition, will be destroyed. If they build one, the drones will come.

    Global presence is a basic part of America's self-image and will not be relinquished easily. A military presence in some 84 countries around the world came as a surprise to Americans born before World War II; it became a fundamental part of the national identity to those born after the intoxicating victory of 1945. The American identity of prosperity and virtue became infused with global power and mission. The September 11, 2001, attacks charged the nation with defending itself through campaigns across the world. Relinquishing this mission, and the national identity behind it, will be difficult, especially now that terrorism is returning to America.

    Recently, the Department of Defense released a geological study that reported a wealth of mineralogical deposits throughout Afghanistan. Among these deposits are considerable amounts of rare earths, which are critical to many hi-tech instruments with military and civilian applications. They are also critical to many "green" technologies, such energy-producing windmills. There is also promising oil and gas wealth in Kunduz province in the north.

    Withdrawal to the north
    The war as it is being fought shows little promise. The Kabul government has no meaningful support. Support in the US and elsewhere is on the wane, yet no consensus on withdrawal is likely. Another way to fight the war is needed or the US faces a lengthy, inconclusive war lasting a decade or more with a likely disagreeable outcome.

    An alternative lies in recognizing and seizing on the geographical realities of the insurgency and withdrawing from the south and east - large portions of which have been left to insurgents already - and consolidating in the north and west. A diagonal line - based on centuries-old ethnic distributions, not drawn by an arbitrary outsider - could provide the basis for a more promising outcome.

    The Taliban insurgency is based almost exclusively around the Pashtun tribes in the south and east. Outside those areas, in the north and west, there are almost no Pashtuns - and almost no insurgency - save for a pocket of Pashtun in the north-central area near the border with Tajikistan.

    The north and west are inhabited chiefly by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and a miscellany of other peoples who compose 45% to 50% of the Afghan population. Having suffered under Taliban rule and in cases endured massacres at their hands, they vehemently oppose the Taliban. It will be remembered that it was the Tajiks and Uzbeks who composed the bulk of the Northern Alliance, which held onto their redoubt throughout the Taliban period (1996-2001) and which with US help drive the Taliban into Pakistan in 2001.

    The northern peoples have maintained their own military formations which pose a serious deterrent to a Pashtun incursion into lands in which they have no indigenous support. These militaries are well-disciplined and well-armed - the legacies of Ahmad Shah Massoud's and Abdul Dostum's forces that fought the Russians in the 1980s and the Taliban. This is a welcome contrast to the Afghan National Army, which has demonstrated little fighting spirit.

    The people of the north and west, though divided on many matters, have a common heritage in opposing foreign invaders and overreaching rulers in Kabul as well. They have fought the Taliban and remained suspicious of the inept efforts of Karzai to form a polity, though they are granted symbolic positions as vice presidents in his government. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara peoples could form a more viable and effective government than the one ensconced in Kabul today.

    A "Northern Afghanistan" would enjoy a great deal of regional support in state-building, economic development, military training and generally in opposing the Taliban. Russia, Iran, India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all oppose Islamist militancy and are concerned by its growth in Afghanistan and spread into the Ferghana Valley that winds from eastern Afghanistan into Kyrgyzstan.

    By contrast, the Taliban have only the dubious support of Pakistan, which is nearing dangerous instability by any measure, and Pakistan's distant geopolitical partner, China. Economic development would lag behind that of the north. Politically, the contrast would be between a consensual formula based on Afghan tradition in the north and to the south, a zealous theocracy based on notions of Islam brought in from distant Deobandi and Wahabbi sects.

    Further, though often called by a single name, the insurgency comprises numerous, disparate groups: the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, the network of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani, and numerous clan-based militias. They are reasonably united today in the face of foreign occupation and corrupt administration, but with a Western withdrawal from the south and east the unity would collapse, large-scale desertions would ensue, and infighting would break out, all of which took place when the Soviet Union withdrew in the late 1980s.

    Militarily, the Taliban are tenacious fighters who knew well the advantages of the terrain. They were effective in defeating the scores of warlords that cropped up after the Soviet Union left and the Mohammad Najibullah government failed. They were also effective in defeating the various rival movements that came and went in the early 1990s. But these successes were greatly helped by their enemies' internal divisiveness and lack of reliable foreign aid - neither of which obtains today.

    Controlling the south and east would greatly alter the Taliban's political and military situation. No longer would it be the evasive guerrilla band that attacks police stations, sets up improvised explosive devices, and rallies support against corruption and foreign occupation before vanishing into the hills. It would have to maintain a presence and govern a large, disparate and war-shattered region populated by people who expect an age of renewal and growth to come their way. The Taliban would have to build popular support after the charges of corruption and occupation begin to ring hollow, or face eroding popular support and perhaps even an insurgency of its own.

    Further, the Taliban would have to be able to defend the south. Events of 2001 attest to the feebleness of the Taliban's political support and military prowess against a disciplined enemy with a modicum of airpower.

    A new US position
    The US would have strategic options and benefits that it does not have as long as it fights the war as it currently does. Perhaps most importantly, it would allow the US to reduce its bloody, expensive, and counter-productive presence in Central Asia.

    The US could hold out the carrot of economic aid to Taliban-controlled regions. There already is a great deal of US infrastructure there in the form of hydroelectric dams, irrigation systems and road networks. This could lead to moderation within the Taliban, a complete break with al-Qaeda (to include turning over its leadership), and perhaps someday even to reconciliation and reintegration of the two parts of the country, perhaps after an agreement hammered out by a loya jirga (grand council).

    Alternately, the US could pursue a stick policy. The US could support insurgencies in the south based on numerous Pashtun tribes which have longstanding hostility toward the Taliban. Further, Taliban behavior could be moderated by the threat of small-scale airstrikes from drones and fighter aircraft.

    In an even less accommodating form, the US could prevent the Taliban from ever occupying an administrative center and becoming a government. The Taliban would have to remain a ghost-like guerrilla movement, unable to govern, spouting slogans that no longer resonate in the hearts and minds of Pashtuns.

    It is particularly relevant to political considerations in the West that any of these policies could be pursued with a greatly reduced US/NATO troop presence.

    The US would realize other benefits from withdrawing to the north. Domestic support for the effort would firm as Americans saw themselves no longer backing an inept and corrupt government and as working with a credible coalition of northern leaders, perhaps led by Abdullah Abdullah, who finished second to Karzai in last year's fraud-ridden elections.

    Americans would see more political and economic development - signs of progress frustratingly absent today. Leaving the core insurgent areas and retrenching in other areas would greatly reduce US casualties and Afghan civilian casualties. Indeed, the US could greatly cut its troop levels, perhaps even reducing them by half in two years.

    Regional cooperation in North Afghanistan would have long-term positive influences on the geopolitics and economic development of the area and large parts of Central Asia as well. There would be a closer working relationship with Russia, which for all its wily moves along its expansive periphery has been helpful with US/NATO logistics into Afghanistan as it shares an opposition to Islamist terrorism.

    Other cooperative arrangements will present themselves. Iran has built up western Afghanistan as a glacis against the Taliban, which slaughtered its officials and cruelly oppressed its Shi'ite co-religionists, the Hazaras. India, too, shares a concern with terrorism in the region and has embarked on significant aid programs in the north.

    The US could rethink its uneasy and dubious partnership with Pakistan. Its assistance was critical in supplying the mujahideen bands during the Soviet war. It led to a Soviet exit but also to a hypertrophied military intelligence service that has become the hub of terrorist and insurgent groups in Afghanistan and India. Over the years, US policy has sought to detach Pakistan from such groups - to no avail. Pakistan is perhaps the strongest state sponsor of terrorism and yet enjoys generous aid packages and trade relations.

    Recognition of the two states' differing interests in Afghanistan would make US supply lines through Pakistan even less reliable than they are now. Presently, the Pakistani Taliban attack convoys on the roads between Peshawar and the Khyber Pass and the large Pashtun population in Karachi is poised to endanger logistical depots there. The reduction of US troop levels allowed by withdrawal from the south would make Pakistan less important logistically and also reduce its leverage in Washington.

    Russia has maneuvered about in Central Asia but has not sought to endanger Western supply lines into Afghanistan. It has used its influence along its periphery to facilitate supply lines from the Baltic to Kyrgyzstan and has recently authorized US polar flights to use Russian air space. Russia shares the US's concern with the Taliban and its support is more dependable than Pakistan's.

    A reduced presence in Afghanistan would enable the US to wage the "war on terror" in a less expensive, more adroit and perhaps more successful manner. The heavy US footprint from Iraq to Afghanistan has provided a rallying cause for jihadis throughout the Islamic world. The US could establish partnerships with local intelligence services and respond not with large operations but with rapid insertions and extractions of special forces or with the use of small-scale airstrikes. This would certainly be the case with any return of al-Qaeda bases to Pashtun parts of Afghanistan or even south of the frontier.

    Withdrawal from the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan would be seen by many as tantamount to defeat - "cutting and running" in American political discourse. Such claims would undoubtedly be made and would resonate strongly in the media and public, but they display little understanding of strategy or military history.

    In 1942, Colonel Dwight Eisenhower and General George Marshall determined that reinforcing the Philippines would be a misallocation of men and materiel and chose instead to fall back on Australia. Nine years later, their fellow five-star general Douglas MacArthur withdrew from positions near the Yalu River in Korea and consolidated to the south. None of these generals was thought unwise, craven or unpatriotic - and neither war ended in defeat.

    As noted, withdrawing from the south and east need not be a permanent state of affairs, diplomacy and unfolding events could bring the two parts of the country back together. But should the division stand, the line would better recognize the ethnic realities of the land far better than the one Mr Henry Durand drew between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1893.


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