By Thomas Joscelyn & Bill Roggio
The long-awaited new US strategy for Afghanistan was released this morning. In a press conference, President Barack Obama outlined the US goals in the region and the plan to stabilize Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
The goal, Obama said, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
To achieve this goal, Obama laid out seven major points: tackling the Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan while promoting governance and democracy; a surge in military and civilian forces in Afghanistan; bolstering the Afghan security forces; reconciliation; Afghan governance; and international support.
These seven major points are outlined below, along with a brief analysis of the prescriptions and any associated problems.
1. Pakistan: Resolving the deteriorating security situation inside Pakistan was the first item mentioned by President Obama. The US will seek to bolster aid and support to Pakistan to improve Pakistan’s capabilities in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda as well as promoting good governance and strengthening democratic institutions.
The military support took precedence. “[W]e must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists,” Obama said, while noting that these efforts have largely failed over the past eight years. “And after years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check.”
Obama intimated that the US Predator campaign would continue. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders,” Obama said. “And we will insist that action be taken — one way or another — when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”
Obama also advocated a major boost in aid to Pakistan. He called for Congress to pass the Kerry-Lugar bill “that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years — resources that will build schools and roads and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan’s democracy.” He also called for Congress to pass a bill that establishes “opportunity zones in the border regions to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued with violence.”
Analysis: The United States has attempted to provide financial and military inducements to the Pakistani government to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal areas and Baluchistan province for more than seven years. Since 2001, the US has provided over $10 billion in aid to Pakistan. Billions of dollars of this aid is unaccounted for. The US has conducted more than 50 airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well as several ground raids in an effort to dismantle al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and training nodes. These actions, which have a destabilizing effect on the Pakistani government, have failed to push the Pakistani military to take action on its own.
During this time, the Taliban have taken over most of the Northwest Frontier Province, often via negotiations with the government. Quetta remains the location of the Taliban’s executive leadership council, while the greater Baluchistan province hosts scores of training camps and recruitment centers, and large swaths are under Taliban control. Elements within Pakistan’s intelligence service and the military continue to actively support the Taliban and other terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
It is difficult to see how a boost in military and economic support will push Pakistan into taking on Islamist extremists head on. Here, the devil is in the details, and few details are forthcoming at this time.
2. A military surge: The planned increased US troop deployments in Afghanistan have been public knowledge for some months. The US recently sent a brigade of more than 3,000 soldiers into the troubled central provinces of Logar and Wardak to tamp down the Taliban resurgence there. An additional 17,000 soldiers and Marines will deploy to southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgency is the strongest. Also, an additional brigade of about 4,000 soldiers will be assigned to partner with the Afghan security forces as trainers.
Analysis: Afghanistan certainly needs additional forces, and it can be argued that the 24,000 additional troops is too little to achieve positive results quickly. But the troop surge will have a positive impact. The US military plans to push the troops into the hot spots, mainly Kandahar and Helmand, the two most violent provinces in Afghanistan, as well as the provinces of Kunar, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Ghazni in the east, where the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hizb-e-Islam Gulbuddin are strong. The plan is to take the fight into areas that have become enemy sanctuaries.
The US command in Afghanistan has long sought the commitment of a brigade to focus on training the Afghan security forces. The training partnership model has worked well where it can be implemented, and the additional trainers should serve as force multipliers in allowing the Afghan security forces to shoulder a greater responsibility for security.
3. Increase the size of the Afghan Army and police forces: The plan is to accelerate the expansion of the Afghan National Army from an estimated 80,000 troops to 134,000 and the police force to 82,000 policemen by 2011. “[A]nd increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward,” Obama said.
Not mentioned by Obama is the creation of the Afghan Public Protection Force, the local security force designed to provide security for villages, roads, and installations. A pilot program of an estimated 4,000 members is currently underway in Wardak province, and if successful, may expand elsewhere.
Analysis: The increase in the size of the Afghan Army and police will likely still be insufficient to secure Afghanistan, but the increase in Afghan forces is needed. Nearly doubling the size of the Army in just two years will be a difficult task, and the new Afghan troops will not be ready to immediately take on security duties. As we learned in Iraq, pushing troops and police out into the field before they are ready can have a disastrous effect on security as well as on the units themselves. The Army and police will need to be even larger than the 2011 goal; some estimates indicate there needs to be more than 400,000 members in the Afghan security forces for them to ultimately secure the country and fight the insurgency.
4. Reconciliation: The US will seek to divide the reconcilable elements of the insurgency from the irreconcilables, and then defeat the hard core elements of the insurgency. Obama described this process as follows:
There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. And that’s why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.
Analysis: A reconciliation program has been open and underway in Afghanistan for years. The program has pulled thousands of low-level Taliban fighters and leaders away from the insurgency.
This continued effort may peel away additional low-level Taliban members. But the US and Coalition leaders should avoid looking for easy solutions to ending the insurgency such as looking for high-level insurgent leaders or large groups of fighters to pry away. Recently, Vice President Joe Biden claimed that five percent of the insurgency are hard core extremists (irreconcilables), another 25 percent can be induced to stop fighting, and the remaining 70 percent were fighting for local grievances or pay. There is no evidence of this, however.
There have been many reports of high level negotiations with senior Taliban leaders and the Afghan government, but the so-called Taliban leaders have been members who have been ejected from the movement. The Taliban’s leadership and their primary sponsor, the Pakistani ISI, have systematically weeded out many Taliban members who are not ideologically committed. The US and the Coalition must take care not to waste political capital and limited resources, and avoid getting bogged down in these phantom negotiations. The senior level, as well as most of the mid-level Taliban, Haqqani, and HIG leaders are not going to reconcile. And reports of divisions between Mullah Omar and the Taliban are false. In fact, these groups have become more interdependent since the US invasion in 2001.
Furthermore, Mullah Omar recently rallied much of the Taliban’s existing leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight their primary enemy: American forces in Afghanistan.
5. A civilian “surge”: The US will surge the so-called “soft power” elements in addition to the military troop surge. It has been reported that more than 400 civilians from State, Commerce, Agriculture, Justice, and other government agencies will be sent to Afghanistan to improve governance, the economy, and agriculture.
Analysis: Like the number of troops being surged, the number of civilians being sent may be too low, but will be welcomed if they are used properly. In Iraq, the expansion of the provincial reconstruction teams combined with a military surge in forces yielded positive results.
Much of the reconstruction and governance efforts in Afghanistan have focused on the national and provincial level. To achieve real success, the reconstruction teams will need to push into the districts to effect real change.
6. Afghan governance reforms: The US and Coalition will attempt to hold the Afghan government accountable for its actions and promote reforms and good governance. The US will “seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior, and sets clear benchmarks, clear metrics for international assistance so that it is used to provide for the needs of the Afghan people,” Obama said.
Analysis: This is far easier said than done. Afghanistan has been at war for more than 30 years, and the middle class has long since fled. Corruption is rampant in Afghanistan and few, if any, officials have a clean record. The US must ensure it does not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The goal is to provide enough governance and security to tamp down the insurgency and deny al Qaeda its sanctuary. Some level of corruption by officials should be expected given Afghanistan’s history; US officials must take care to only crack down on the offenses that jeopardize security and governance.
7. International/Regional cooperation: The US will seek to resolve problems in Afghanistan by working together with Afghanistan’s neighbors and the major players in the region. President Obama believes these countries share a common goal: the security of Afghanistan.
“[T]ogether with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China,” Obama said. “None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development.”
Analysis: This same recommendation was made by the Iraq Study Group with respect to security in Iraq. No working group was formed, and Syria and Iran, the two nations most responsible for aiding al Qaeda and the Sunni and Shia terror groups, were not consulted on the Iraq security plan. Iraq has achieved a large measure of success despite the lockout of Syria and Iran.
Not all nations share the same goals in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are long-time rivals, with radically different visions for Afghanistan, as well as for the rest of South and Central Asia.
Iran does not wish for the Taliban to regain power, but supports the group to bleed US and NATO forces and keep Afghanistan destabilized. Iran has no interest in having a secure, pro-US/NATO Afghan government on its eastern border. US military officials have repeatedly accused the Iranians of supplying arms to Taliban forces. Moreover, Iran currently hosts a substantial al Qaeda network on its soil. This has been confirmed by the US Treasury Department, the Saudis, and various other pieces of evidence. Iran has repeatedly obfuscated international efforts to secure the transfer of senior al Qaeda operatives living within its borders, including one of al Qaeda’s chief military leaders, Saif al Adel.
And while China and Russia do not wish for Islamist extremists, which threaten their own security, to regain power in Afghanistan, it is likely in their interests to have the US expend military and political capital in a protracted fight. For example, Russia has opposed the US’s basing interests in Central Asia, while there are reports that Chinese arms have been supplied (via Iran) to the Taliban.