Obama's Afghan Dilemma
President-elect Barack Obama says that Afghanistan is "the right war." "It's time to heed the call from General [David] McKiernan and others for more troops," Obama said in late October, referring to the US commander in Afghanistan. "That's why I'd send at least two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan." He's coupled that with tough talk about hitting Al Qaeda anywhere, including next door in Pakistan. "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out," Obama said in the second of his three debates with John McCain. "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda."
Despite such rhetoric, however, nearly two years ago Obama began assembling a cast of experts steeped in the intricacies of South Asian affairs, and they have provided him with a far richer and more sophisticated view of the Afghanistan-Pakistan tangle than emerged in the campaign. "The format of presidential debates does not lend itself to a nuanced discussion," says Bruce Riedel, wryly. A former CIA specialist on South Asia who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush, Riedel led an advisory task force on Afghanistan-Pakistan for Obama. Interviews with Riedel and other Obama advisers--who made it clear they were not speaking for the president-elect--suggest that Obama intends to reorient US policy in the region significantly, and a key plank in that reorientation includes negotiations with the enemy. But assertions by the US command and the Obama team that we can both "surge" and negotiate overlook the glaring reality that sending more troops into the Afghan quagmire and urging the Pakistani government to escalate the war it is fighting against its own people will make the crisis worse, not better.
The outlines of Obama's strategy, which aren't likely to be articulated fully until after the inauguration, include a repudiation of the strident "global war on terror" rhetoric that marked President Bush's years and that only inflamed Muslim attitudes toward the United States. Campaign sloganeering aside, Obama may try to curtail the indiscriminate use of air power in Afghanistan against often ill-defined targets ("just air raiding villages and killing civilians" was how he put it in 2007), though how he'll do that while adding more troops and escalating the war isn't clear. He'll slow down, if not halt, the provocative cross-border attacks into Pakistani tribal areas against insurgent bases, even as he reserves the right to hit bin Laden. The incoming administration will take steps to strengthen the fledgling civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan against the machinations of the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which maintains covert ties to a wide range of extremist groups, including the Taliban. And it will support a major boost in economic aid to both countries.
Nearly all of Obama's advisers--along with members of a parallel task force at the Center for American Progress, a think tank likely to be the source of many Obama appointees--insist that a central part of a new US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan must be to facilitate a peace process between Pakistan and India, its giant neighbor to the east. For decades, Pakistan's military and the ISI have lent covert support to Islamist terrorist groups, in Afghanistan and in the disputed territory of Kashmir, as part of a strategy of asymmetric warfare against India. A Pakistan-India accord would strengthen Pakistan's civilian government and undercut the rationale for the army and ISI's ties to the Taliban, allied Afghan Islamist warlords and Kashmiri Islamist militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, suspected of involvement in the Mumbai terror attack. Wendy Chamberlin, US ambassador to Pakistan on 9/11 and a member of Obama's Pakistan task force, is a strong supporter of efforts to forge a Pakistan-India accord. "I argued for it [in 2002]," she says. And I got dismissed."
Many of Obama's advisers are open to the notion of bringing Iran into the mix, pointing out that Iran was helpful in 2001 in building the original coalition behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Iran's role was also highlighted in a September report by a private working group led by Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. They suggested connecting Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Iran in a regional economic community, concluding, "The U.S. should...reconsider its opposition to the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project." Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani scholar and author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, has called for creation of a South Asian Union to facilitate a regional economic resurgence.
Even as they favor eventual talks with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban movement, some of Obama's advisers and Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander, defend their call for a surge by arguing that their first priority is to stabilize Afghanistan militarily. "Trying to divide your enemy is always a smart thing to do," says Riedel. "But until we break the momentum that the Taliban has today, where they feel that they're the winner, I don't see that you have any credible chance of persuading even a small number of Taliban to break. They think they're winning, and if you look at the numbers, you can make a pretty convincing case."
In the first ten months of this year, 255 US and NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan, more than all those who died in the first four years of the war in Afghanistan put together. Entire swaths of southern Afghanistan, in provinces along the Pakistan border south and east of Kabul, are controlled by the Taliban and their allies. Lately they have been able to strike with impunity even within Kabul, the Afghan capital. The CIA has been warning for more than two years that Afghanistan was spinning out of control. A forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate, representing the views of sixteen US intelligence agencies, warns that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and, according to the New York Times, "casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there." The enemy has also evolved as a fighting force. Already by 2006, according to a report for West Point by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Taliban were fielding battalion-size units of more than 400 fighters. In some provinces the Taliban and their allies are creating a parallel state, appointing governors and provincial officials and establishing Sharia-style courts.
The counterinsurgency is made all the more difficult by the nature of the enemy, an exceedingly complex, multiheaded Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It goes far beyond Mullah Omar's Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. "Calling it the Taliban is a failure to understand what's going on," says Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and terrorism at the RAND Corporation. "It's a movement, not an organization," explains Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "What we conveniently have been labeling 'the Taliban' is a phenomenon that includes a lot of people simply on the Islamic right." In all, the US military has identified at least fourteen separate insurgent organizations in Afghanistan, and according to Riedel, there are as many as fifty separate Islamist formations in neighboring Pakistan [see Anand Gopal, page 17, for more on the insurgency].
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman, a sober-minded, conservative military analyst, sounded the alarm. "We are running out of time," he wrote. "We currently are losing, and the trends have been consistent since 2004...we face a crisis in the field--right now." The situation, he said, is far more urgent than anything that can be solved by economic aid or nation-building efforts. "At least during 2009-10, priority must be given to warfighting needs." McKiernan, the US commander, has called for at least four more brigades, perhaps as many as 25,000 troops. He warned that the mission in Afghanistan will require a "sustained commitment" lasting many years, and the United States has announced plans to help more than double the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA), to 134,000 troops. "This is a decades-long project," says Ashley Tellis, a former National Security Council specialist on South Asia, who adds that it will take at least ten years before the United States can withdraw and let the ANA fight its own battles. "The transition alone will take a decade, until you can switch to the ANA," he says.
But surging troops into Afghanistan would be akin to sending the fabled 600 into the valley of death. As in Vietnam, tens of thousands more troops will only provide the Taliban with many more targets, sparking Pashtun nationalist resistance and inspiring more recruits for the insurgency. Advocates of sending additional US forces into this maelstrom have yet to articulate exactly how another 25,000 can turn the tide. Tariq Ali says that pacifying the country would require at least 200,000 more troops, beyond the 62,000 US and NATO forces there now, and that it would necessitate laying waste huge parts of Afghanistan. Many Afghan watchers consider the war unwinnable, and they point out that in the 1980s the Soviet Union, with far more troops, had engaged in a brutal nine-year counterinsurgency war--and lost. British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles has warned against precisely the escalation that Obama and Petraeus advocate. Sending more troops, he says, "would have perverse effects: it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets [for the insurgents]." A top British general, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, says, "We're not going to win this war.... It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat."
"What began as a punitive raid aimed at beheading Al Qaeda and chastising its Afghan household staff has somehow morphed--with no real discussion or debate--into a prolonged effort to pacify Afghanistan and transform its society," says Freeman. "This moving of the goal posts gratified neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. Our new purpose became giving Afghanistan a centrally directed state--something it had never had. We now fight to exclude reactionary Muslims from a role in governing the new Afghanistan." Freeman suggests that this is an untenable goal, and that it is time to co-opt local authorities and enlist regional allies in search of a settlement.
Those who insist the war is winnable, including US and NATO commanders, also say that it can't be won without taking the war across the border to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas, an escalation that's already under way. But this poses a whole new set of problems. The situation in Pakistan is only slightly less dire than in Afghanistan. The country emerged this year from nearly a decade under a US-backed military dictatorship and faces a daunting set of challenges. A multipronged insurgency based in the tribal areas is spreading its influence into the neighboring North-West Frontier Province, and it has reached all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, where assassinations and suicide bombings occur regularly. The new government is weak and divided, with little or no control over the Pakistani army and ISI. And its economy is virtually bankrupt: with inflation at 25 percent and vast unemployment, the country is desperately seeking $10 billion to $15 billion in immediate financial aid.
Yet the fragile Pakistani state is being pushed to the breaking point by the Bush administration. Since August, nearly two dozen CIA Predator missile attacks in tribal areas have inflamed much of the country against the United States. Already, before the spate of attacks, public opinion polls showed that 86 percent of Pakistanis say the goal of the United States is to "weaken and divide the Islamic world," 84 percent say the United States is a greater threat than Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and 89 percent oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the US "war on terror." Many Pakistanis blame the United States for its fifty-year record of propping up military dictators, which makes it hard for the United States to support even its allies, such as President Zardari. "Right now, we're kind of the kiss of death," says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who was part of Obama's Pakistan task force.