About Around the Square January 19, 2010

In My Opinion: The Afghanistan Plan

By Benjamin Schiff

President Barack Obama’s December 1 speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan made plenty of sense for domestic U.S. politics and as a set of military-political policy compromises. The objective is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” Unfortunately what appears to be rational policy in the United States will likely not produce the desired effects in the region.  

For the policy to make sense, al Qaeda must be a coherent, primary U.S. adversary, and policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan have to fit together well. Neither of these conditions exists.

Al Qaeda isn’t the real adversary in Afghanistan

Observers agree that the effect of worldwide pressure on al Qaeda has been its dispersion into a network of smaller nodes to which local anti-government and violent Islamist organizations affiliate themselves. The appeal to 9/11 and the necessity to defeat al Qaeda resonates historically and rhetorically, but al Qaeda is a diffuse adversary and terrorism more likely managed than defeated.  

The policy’s logic is that power vacuums provide opportunities for terrorists to take root–so an Afghan power vacuum must be prevented, preferably filled by a friendly government. The primary threat thus isn’t al Qaeda, it’s a power vacuum.

The Afghan government is militarily challenged by resurgent Pashtun fighters grouped under the umbrella of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group that originally emerged in the 1990s from among Afghan refugees in Pakistan supported by the Pakistani government’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The original Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan until being evicted by the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance following September 11, 2001. Now Pashtun opposition to the U.S.-supported government has regrouped and is challenging the government for control.

The problem is Afghan governmental legitimacy

President’ Obama’s concrete objective is to support and stabilize the Afghan and Pakistani governments and to “break the momentum” of Taliban opposition in Afghanistan. The increased U.S. deployment is supposed to establish enough physical security so that efforts to build up Afghan government services–and thus its legitimacy–can succeed. One part of the building program is to vastly expand and improve government army and police forces. The other parts are to regularize the justice system, reduce government corruption, expand the economy, and provide social services–basically, to carry out the tasks of government.

The challenge is to carry out these measures faster than people are alienated by the continuing violence, insecurity, and poverty that encourage them to give up on the government, shift to local, clan, and tribal loyalties and to view the government and its allies as enemies.
The plan to deploy 30,000 additional U.S. troops and more allied ones, but then to reduce deployments beginning in mid-2011, is intended to placate U.S. critics who fear an unlimited commitment, and to show President Hamid Karzai’s government that U.S. support hinges on rapid success in reducing corruption, improving services and security. But while President Karzai’s interests could be served by success, they may also be served by failure. Particularly given the U.S. election cycle, Karzai may be able again to convince the U.S. administration in 2011 that withdrawal will be more politically costly than extension.

Immediately after the President Obama’s speech, military and diplomatic officials said that the 2011 deadline did not imply that the U.S. would simply depart, but that a long-term commitment to Afghanistan persists. Karzai must have already seen light pouring into his tunnel.

Portents for success are not promising. Observers of Afghan military and police training largely disparage accomplishments so far. A high desertion rate, leakage of weapons and equipment from the government forces to anti-government fighters, poor leadership and low troop and police morale show how hard it will be soon to establish Afghan internal security.  

Until Afghans can be convinced that fighting for the government provides better outcomes than ignoring the fight or fighting for the other side, government forces’ training and mobilization will languish. Moreover, the top-down, military focus of the policy may simply be the wrong approach.

Some critics argue that the policy focus should be civil, rather than military, and be carried out with maximum connection to local people. Helping establish schools, build transportation infrastructure, provide clean water, rebuild housing, promote agricultural productivity and economic stabilization from the ground up may help more than building military security, “breaking Taliban momentum,” from the top down. The question remains what the balance between military and civil engagement should be and whether any such U.S. and allied involvement can win the government more friends than it generates enemies.

From the U.S. standpoint, Afghanistan and Pakistan are parts of a single set of problems  but the solutions are not mutually compatible

President Obama’s December announcement reaffirmed his view that Afghan and Pakistani security challenges are linked. It’s true, but doesn’t simplify the policy problem. The Pakistani government is not unalterably opposed to the Afghan Taliban (in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistani redoubts) because the Afghan Taliban weakens a Kabul government that Pakistanis fear will be too closely favorable to Pakistan’s primary enemy, India.

U.S. Predator/Reaper drone attacks against al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban in Pakistan may thus serve U.S. antiterrorist and counter-insurgency strategies, but they have two negative effects in Pakistan: they weaken a Taliban that Pakistan sees as an ally against India, and by angering local civilians victimized in the attacks, bring support to Pakistan’s own Taliban, an anti-government force that is retaliating by attacking government and civilian targets throughout the country.   

Even rational policy can produce unhappy outcomes

The strength of the Obama policy is real flexibility behind apparent firm objectives and timing.  Implementation can change as events unfold, although the rapid troop deployment will create a momentum of its own. The policy’s weaknesses are an objective that does not accord with the real challenge—unwarranted assumptions about the adversaries it faces, problems of implementing a primarily military strategy where the keys are political-economic, and a joint Afghan-Pakistani policy that contains internally contradictory objectives.


Benjamin Schiff focuses on international politics and international organizations. He has published books on the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, on Afrikaners in South Africa at the end of apartheid, and about the International Criminal Court. His 2008 book, Building the International Criminal Court received the 2009 Chadwick Alger Prize from the International Studies Association for best book in the previous year on international organization and multilateralism and the Academic Council on the United Nations System’s 2009 award for Best New Book on the United Nations and the U.N. system.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Around the Square staff or the college.


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