The war in Afghanistan is not going well for U.S. and NATO forces. What follows is a proposal by U.S. Army Colonel
Thomas Lynch to turn the situation around. A critique of that proposal by Afghanistan expert Barnett R. Rubin can be found here.
In mid-January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved an order to send an additional 3,000 U.S. marines into Afghanistan in anticipation of the now annual Taliban spring offensive. It was the right thing to do, but such a temporary force increase falls far short of what is needed. U.S. military policy is still stumbling toward failure in Afghanistan—a failure that will likely have dire consequences beyond South Asia. Let’s be clear: The mission in Afghanistan is not in jeopardy mainly because NATO members refuse to provide sufficient troops or appropriate engagement protocols for the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). Neither is the mission in jeopardy because of any deficiency inherent in U.S. or Coalition counterinsurgency doctrine. The problem goes deeper, into the underlying political context of Coalition military operations. The real issue is the transitory and uncertain U.S. military posture in Afghanistan (and, by implication, across South Asia), which undermines the necessary link between relevant military security operations and positive political consequences.
Our uncertain commitment to Afghanistan has the effect of bolstering Taliban propaganda, which threatens to punish anyone cooperating with Coalition efforts. This intimidation of critical local U.S. allies, fueled by a credible fear that the United States will leave them in the lurch, is shaping conditions for a major failure in our counterinsurgency and counter-terror programs. Our unwillingness to commit ourselves for the long haul also provides incentives for Pakistan to hedge its bets. The U.S. government has urged the Pakistani government to act decisively to deal with its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border to dry up support for the Taliban effort in Afghanistan. But doing so entails significant risk for Pakistan, both internally and regionally. No Pakistani government, military or civilian led, will take those risks unless it knows U.S. power will remain engaged to backstop the effort.
The only way to change the poisonous regional security dynamic that keeps Pakistan a safe haven for terrorists and jeopardizes Afghanistan’s future is to alter fundamentally the convoluted U.S. political strategy that has gone unchallenged over the past six years. There are understandable reasons for portraying the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as temporary, and for mixing into ISAF as many non-U.S. contributions as possible. The United States is not an imperial power and does not wish to be perceived as such in a region justifiably allergic to European colonial legacies. Nevertheless, those reasons do not outweigh the liabilities that the present policy brings. We must eliminate the uncertainty about U.S. staying power by strengthening and institutionalizing the U.S. security commitment to the region. The next administration, if not the present one, has a difficult but necessary choice to make that has been ducked for far too long.
At its core, the negative security psychosis afflicting all of South Asia emanates from Pakistan. Pakistan’s intense paranoia with respect to India is primarily responsible for the continuing insecurity in Afghanistan, turbulence in the Pakistani tribal areas and the presence of a safe haven for al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in the border region. Islamabad’s paranoia binds Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together in a triangle of mutual suspicion that these three states, alone or in combination, seem unable to escape.
American policymakers have not appreciated sufficiently the depth of Pakistan’s security paranoia and the instability it has produced. They have thus overestimated Pervez Musharraf’s willingness to eradicate Taliban sanctuaries and al-Qaeda’s supporting infrastructure across Pakistan’s western frontier. The Pakistani Army and especially the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) have cemented their ties to the Taliban over more than twenty years. Some of these ties rely on religious affinity, but for the most part they grow out of strategic security calculations.
First, the ISI, both active members and influential alumni, see the Taliban as a useful lever against the threat of Pashtun irredentism. From its inception in 1947, Pakistani strategists have understood that perhaps the only way to deflect Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan from spreading into Pakistan’s Pashtun areas was to promote Islamic identifications within Afghanistan rather than ethnic ones. Second, over the years the ISI and the army have come to rely on the Taliban to help train, safeguard and nurture other Muslim radical groups that Pakistan continues to employ in its secretive paramilitary and insurgency operations against India in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. And third, India’s growing influence in Afghanistan since 2002, building on President Hamid Karzai’s personal ties to India (he was educated there), has led Pakistani generals to fear that a campaign of political and ultimately military encirclement is playing out before their very eyes.
This is why President Musharraf insists on publicly drawing the dubious and very unhelpful distinction between “militant” Taliban and “ordinary” Taliban. He used such language recently, during an interview with Lara Logan for 60 Minutes on January 6, 2008. He can be expected to do so again, for his views clearly represent those of Pakistan’s army. This relatively rosy view of the Taliban once made sense from the Pakistani perspective, but it doesn’t anymore. Musharraf above all should understand that the Taliban not only remain a bedrock partner of an al-Qaeda organization sworn to kill him; the group has also expanded its focus from insurgency in Afghanistan, banding together under Waziristan tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud to declare jihad against the Pakistani government itself in December 2007. Clinging to the delusion that it can control the Taliban, the Pakistani Army has been blind to the fact that Pakistan’s very social fabric now faces an uncompromising insurgency from a Taliban/al-Qaeda nexus that will soon rival, if it doesn’t already, the size and scope of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Political realities invariably overwhelm mere military and diplomatic tactics. Well-intentioned but insufficient U.S. diplomatic initiatives and military assistance programs to Pakistan never had a chance against these basic regional dynamics. In retrospect, the truth is not that Musharraf did too little to please the United States in attacking Islamist extremists, but that under present circumstances he did too much, both for his good and our own. We bade him act, and he did so—not enough to win, but enough to upset the social balance in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas, producing what amounts to a proto-Islamic emirate from North Baluchistan through Waziristan and into Bajur. That emirate is now at war against him, and it is winning. Short of a decisive rollback, its al-Qaeda aspirants will see this emirate forcibly expand throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Against this growing jihadi menace, Pakistan’s security obsession with India persists despite earnest U.S. diplomatic efforts between 2002 and 2007 to improve the security dialogue between Islamabad and New Dehli. Focused diplomacy by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and later by former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, helped calm decades-old animosities and disputes over contested territory. Indeed, it is no overstatement to say that during this period a sea change has washed over the Indian political and military elite. Once determined to undermine and dismantle Pakistan, most Indian statesmen have come to see an integral, stable Pakistan as a useful buffer against potentially greater dangers in the region. These facts, however, have induced no real change in Islamabad’s penchant to see an Indian plot behind every regional security rumor.
Pakistani leaders have much more justification to doubt U.S. promises and judgments. In large part, U.S. diplomatic efforts have not worked because Pakistani military and intelligence elites remain wary of long-term American intentions. Pakistanis retain deep scar tissue regarding the abrupt U.S. abandonment of bilateral collaborative security programs in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s (after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan). Pakistanis, especially the officer corps, still fear a third American decision to cut-and-run from South Asia, and they will fear it until Washington strategically commits to a positive, permanent security presence in the region. Only through such an unambiguous commitment can we even begin to rebuild the badly shaken trust and confidence between the two militaries. In turn, this is the only way Pakistani society might once again come to view an American military presence as a reliable safeguard for peace and stability in South Asia rather than an threat.
Because American policymakers have poorly understood critical regional security dynamics, they have consistently overestimated Coalition progress against the Taliban. On the strictly military level, the campaign has gone reasonably well. Taliban forays into Afghanistan during 2006–07 were badly bloodied by U.S. and NATO-ISAF forces. Yet our focus on tactical military facts obscures the Taliban’s overall political success. Sanctuary in Pakistan has enabled the Taliban to evade decisive military engagement in order to rearm, regroup and train to fight another day. The Taliban successfully intimidates its Pashtun Muslim kinsmen in eastern and southern Afghanistan simply by surviving to fight on year after year, and it is the Taliban’s Pakistani sanctuary that makes that strategy possible. The intimidating Taliban rejoinder is, in effect: “America will leave Afghanistan prematurely, as it has abandoned Afghanistan in the past; and when America leaves, we Taliban shall return to power and kill all Afghans who have collaborated with unbelievers.” Until we find a way to make this message less than credible, tactical battlefield successes against the Taliban will amount to little.
As a consequence of expecting too much from Musharraf in Pakistan and exaggerating our successes in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers far too quickly asked the European nations of NATO to take the lead in counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan beginning in 2007. As the plan for growing NATO-ISAF control of military operations in Afghanistan developed during 2005–06, U.S. policymakers had hoped that 2007 would usher in a period of peacekeeping and stabilization operations across the Afghan border with Pakistan. They were wrong. This overly optimistic and incorrect assumption is the reason for the bickering among the NATO allies that seems to grow louder and more alarming every day. Because U.S. military and political leaders miscalculated, several European NATO members were in effect rushed out of their comfort zone of stability and peacekeeping operations in northern and northeastern Afghanistan. All sober Western defense analysts knew that most European militaries in NATO were beset by equipment shortfalls, manpower constraints and counterinsurgency capabilities that lack both sufficient military sticks and political or economic carrots. Consequently, the strategic misassessment meant that instead of safeguarding what they were led to believe would be an increasingly stable environment, they found themselves engaged in active counterinsurgency and combat operations against an aggressive Taliban and affiliated jihadi insurgent groups throughout southern and southeastern Afghanistan.
Worse yet, the handover of all counterinsurgency operations from the U.S. military to NATO across Afghanistan was easily, and successfully, exploited by the Taliban to demonstrate that the United States was planning to bug-out. While Washington may have thought that extending NATO’s reach across Afghanistan would signal partnership and collective Western resolve, it has instead been taken in Afghanistan and across South Asia as an ominous sign that America is setting the conditions to cut-and-run, leaving NATO or somebody else holding the bag.
The Military Basis for Political Success: Afghanistan
U.S. policymakers have also allowed the expansion of NATO’s role in Afghanistan to crowd out meaningful discussion with an eager Afghan government regarding long-term U.S. military security arrangements and basing rights. Although prickly sovereignty and trust issues between Islamabad and Washington preclude a return to any permanent U.S. military presence in Pakistan, such as existed in the 1950s and 1960s, no similar baggage weighs down Afghanistan. The Afghan government covets a strategic partnership with America. It will accept, but does not covet, a partnership with NATO. Kabul has been begging for a formal military alliance. But despite soothing rhetoric and one weak, non-binding statement of intent, the Bush Administration has never taken the Karzai government up on its offer. It has been a core strategic error not to do so.
None of the various mistakes that U.S. policymakers have made in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past several years can truly be rectified without some fresh thinking about the long-term U.S. military posture in South Asia. Fortunately, Secretary Gates has demonstrated the ability to determine the right thing to do and then get on with it. Here are five critical steps Gates must insist on getting done this year in order to align our South Asia security policy toward a proper long-term approach, giving the next administration the chance to salvage a situation that is steadily trending toward failure.
First, in Afghanistan the United States should follow through on the May 23, 2005 joint U.S.-Afghan declaration of partnership in principle, and conclude either a status of forces agreement or a robust and detailed defense cooperation agreement. This bilateral agreement must cover a long-term period, and it should be announced with great fanfare as America’s commitment to Afghanistan’s independent future as a sovereign, democratic state.
In addition, the agreement should be worded so as to safeguard Pakistan’s sovereignty and security along existing borders. It should offer formal, U.S.-mediated discussions between Kabul and Islamabad to resolve the Durand Line boundary dispute once the Taliban insurgency is defeated.11.
A detailed proposal to that effect has been put forward by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann. See “Borderline Insanity”, The American Interest (November/December 2007). Backed by an enduring U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, a formal bilateral security agreement can assure all but the most unreasonable minds in Pakistan’s military that Indian intrigue or rogue security threats will not confront Islamabad from Afghanistan.
Second, we must lead an effort to re-configure NATO force postures across Afghanistan as soon as possible. Sending an additional 3,000 marines is a good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. America needs to assume an exclusive operational lead in the counterinsurgency and combat missions integral to the struggle against the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami and the Haqqani jihadi networks across southern and eastern Afghanistan. This commitment will require the U.S. combat footprint to increase from the two American brigade combat teams currently in Afghanistan to four brigade combat teams before the end of this summer. Thus the overall U.S. military footprint of some 26,000 troops in Afghanistan as of this past December must grow to about 37,000 before fall and remain at that level for the next two years.
Third, NATO’s valuable and critical European military contribution to the fight should remain at current (or larger) force levels, but be focused in Afghanistan’s north and west, where stability and peacekeeping operations dominate. NATO partnership in Afghanistan is a crucial part of a viable South Asia security strategy, but we must fit our European partners’ military advantages to proper missions, not try to shove square-peg capabilities into round-holed mission profiles.
Fourth, the United States must re-establish a permanent, three-star operational military headquarters in Afghanistan. The headquarters must be empowered to coordinate and harmonize all military policy within NATO’s Afghanistan operations, as well as handle matters of regional stability and confidence-building. Such a U.S. military headquarters existed in Kabul from November 2003 to May 2007, and it was this headquarters that helped coordinate American humanitarian and military assistance for victims of the November 2005 Pakistani earthquake—a mission that produced a significant, albeit temporary, spike in Pakistani and Muslim goodwill toward America. Unfortunately, this headquarters disbanded to help redistribute scarce American military manpower to fill new U.S.-only billets generated within the expanded NATO-ISAF Afghanistan headquarters. The Afghans would welcome a return of a U.S. military headquarters, and its presence in Kabul would provide a conspicuous symbol of a long-term U.S. military commitment to regional stability and positive engagement across South Asia.
Finally, we must assure our Afghan partners that the U.S. government remains committed to completing the task of training and equipping their armed forces to be professional and accountable representatives of Afghanistan’s new democratic state. U.S. support for an Afghan military of more than 50,000 troops has waxed and waned unhelpfully in recent years. American policymakers have too often come across in Kabul as desiring that Afghanistan should have no military greater in size than it can pay for from its limited national budget, regardless of whether a force of that size makes any strategic or military sense. Recently, U.S. policy has matured to support an Afghan military slated to grow to about 70,000 by 2009 and 80,000 by 2011. U.S. policymakers should make it clear that we will support, equip and fund an Afghan force of 80,000 or more if that is what is needed to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and prevail against the Taliban/jihadi insurgency. At the end of the day, only a competent, professional and loyal Afghan Army will allow the U.S. military presence to fall from some 37,000 to a post-insurgency, steady-state force of about 6,000 personnel. This residual U.S. force will be devoted not to combating insurgency, but to peacekeeping, management of regional security and confidence-building measures, and to continued training, mentoring and cooperation with the Afghan military.
The Military Basis for Political Success: Pakistan
Along with new long-term U.S. military commitments to Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers need to re-frame the U.S. security approach toward Pakistan. Here, too, five essential dimensions of a re-framed approach stand out.
First, we should continue brokering dialogue and diplomacy between Islamabad and New Dehli. We might even extend these discussions to see if the two sides would collaborate with America in a program to develop modest ballistic-missile defense systems that might attenuate fears of a nuclear missile exchange. We should also seek to persuade India, Pakistan and the United Nations to allow U.S. military personnel to join the 45 UN military observers currently monitoring the ceasefire between Pakistan and India along the line of demarcation in Jammu and Kashmir. An agreement to add U.S. military monitors to a mission where now there are none would highlight American commitment to regional stability, and it could put reliable observers in a place to confirm that Pakistan is adhering to its 2002 agreement to crack down on the militant Islamic extremists responsible for many recent border clashes and acts of terrorism. Buttressed by the long-term commitment of permanent U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the dynamics of security cooperation and confidence building between Pakistan and India might pave the way for meaningful political progress.
Second, we must continue to train and equip Pakistani Army Special Forces to properly conduct counterterrorism operations. We must encourage President Musharraf or his successor to aggressively utilize these forces against all known and suspected al-Qaeda hideouts in western Pakistan. We should insist that properly trained and equipped Pakistani counterterror forces strike quickly and effectively at al-Qaeda, foreign jihadists and the new wave of extremely violent Taliban leadership; not that the wider Pakistani military launch cumbersome military operations that further destabilize already traumatized tribal areas in a way bound to make the insurgency larger and expand the role of al-Qaeda and other radical forces.
Third, and most important, we must insist that the Pakistani leadership end its duplicity with regard to the Taliban. While emphasizing that a long-term U.S. force presence in Afghanistan mitigates any rational Pakistani security concerns from its back door, we should seek a formal Pakistani declaration of “zero tolerance” for any Afghan Taliban presence in its tribal areas. Beyond that, we should attempt to forge a common position on how to eradicate the Taliban as an insurgent movement based in western Pakistan, fully taking into account the complex connections between Taliban political organization and the cross-border nature of Pashtun tribal ties.
Fourth, we should require that the Pakistani Border Corps (which is the present focus of a multi-million-dollar, U.S.-monitored Pakistani training and equipping program in counterinsurgency fundamentals) be empowered to forge immediate tactical-level agreements with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in order to allow “hot pursuit” of Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami or Haqqani-network fighters crossing the border to Pakistan. We must also make clear that we expect the Pakistani Army to be responsible and accountable for the success of the Border/Frontier Corps counterinsurgency mission. Concurrently, we should seek more formal and transparent information exchanges between U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistani military leaders in the western provinces that show clearly how Pakistan is killing or capturing active Taliban cell members beyond hot-pursuit range.
Working closely with Congress, the Departments of Defense and State should also expand Pakistani military participation in U.S. military exchange and liaison programs, making Islamabad a priority for these activities. More robust and less mercurial professional engagements between emerging Pakistani military leaders and their U.S. counterparts can go a long way toward enhancing trust and increasing transparency between two militaries that must have a positive relationship to succeed in mutually important counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in the years ahead. Increasing engagements of this type can also encourage serious professional dialogue about the future of a Pakistani military under firm, responsible civilian control.
On the other side of the coin, Musharraf or his successor must understand that a more robust, long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will enable more aggressive, unilateral U.S. cross-border military actions if Pakistan fails to demonstrate meaningful and verifiable improvement in its counterinsurgency and counterterrorism program. The best way to defeat the Taliban and drive al-Qaeda out of its present safe haven is with open, trusting collaboration between the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Pakistani leaders must understand that America will commit to less desirable, non-collaborative military operations if it must. It is a vital interest of the United States that western Pakistan not be a fortified hotbed for al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadi extremists to plan and orchestrate catastrophic terror operations against the United States and its allies.
Popular American discourse has understandably focused for the past year on the surge in Iraq. Yet over that same period the American-led campaign to rid the area of global jihadi terrorist safe-havens and a resurgent Taliban has faltered. Securing a stable and non-threatening South Asia has never been about just Afghanistan. As many who have served in Afghanistan in recent years have understood, the future of Afghanistan can be lost in Afghanistan, but it can only be won in Pakistan. This is truer in 2008 than it has ever been before: In effect, we are dealing with a single strategic mission complicated by the fact that it spreads over two countries, and involves the wider security interests of several others.
No amount of wishful thinking or willful ignorance about regional realities can change that. That is why sending an additional two-brigade combat team of uniquely capable American counterinsurgency forces into south and east Afghanistan for several years is vital. Clearly, some will question any new overseas deployments of our already thinly stretched military forces. However, forthcoming reductions of U.S. troops in Iraq should be enough to meet the need in Afghanistan without tearing the force apart.
Simultaneously, a formal, long-term U.S. military commitment in the region, centered on a strategic security commitment to Afghanistan, is vital to altering the psychology of insecurity and double-dealing that feeds Pakistani paranoia, fuels the propaganda that underpins Taliban resilience in Afghanistan, and gives al-Qaeda wide freedom of action across western Pakistan. This commitment is certain to generate some regional controversy, but its positive potential outcomes outweigh the risks from vocal but likely temporary Russian, Pakistani or Iranian unhappiness.
The stakes are high, and time is short. The growing number of major terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan during late last year and the anticipated Taliban offensive this year show that the U.S.-led Coalition is not winning this war. Short-term military policy tweaks won’t be enough to achieve victory. Now is the time to make a fundamental correction to long-term U.S. military policy in South Asia. It is the only way to ensure the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while setting the conditions for a subsequent diplomatic efforts to bring peace and stability to all of South Asia.
A detailed proposal to that effect has been put forward by former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann. See “Borderline Insanity”, The American Interest (November/December 2007).