Sunday, December 6, 2009

Endgame in Afghanistan is security, not a troop pullout

The following first appeared in The National on 7 December 2009.

How Barack Obama came to decide on a new Afghanistan strategy is by now well known. By late October both the fact that additional troops were required and the number of troops to send had been agreed upon. What remained was to decide whether to announce a tentative withdrawal date.

The US president was in favour of this to gain “leverage” with the Afghan and Pakistani governments as well as to reassure a war-weary public at home. He got his wish, but as a result the president was left with a war strategy that satisfied neither his allies nor his opponents.

Mr Obama wants these additional troops in and out of Afghanistan in a year and a half. Those that have raised a hue and cry over his supposed artificial deadline would do well to remember that the so-called “surge” in Iraq lasted approximately the same amount of time. Furthermore, he has stated that the situation in Afghanistan after 18 months would shape any decision to withdraw.

Those that wanted a firmer expiration date for the conflict do not warrant more than a brief rebuke. After eight years of fighting the coalition has left Afghanistan in a worse state, destabilised Pakistan, and sparked what could potentially be a regional power struggle centred in Afghanistan. At the very least, Afghanistan must be stabilised to undo whatever damage has been done thus far.

Yet, there are genuine concerns about the new strategy. Foremost among these is the limitation Mr Obama has placed on the US commitment to Afghanistan’s security. Mr Obama has made it clear that he will only do so much before Afghanistan’s security would be exclusively an Afghan problem and he wants this to happen as soon as possible. To do this he has taken more than a few pages from the strategy in Iraq. For better or worse, the war in Afghanistan is shaping up to be another war in Iraq.

The surge in Iraq worked in large part, because both the Mahdi Army and the majority of Sunni insurgents either stopped fighting or switched sides. There is reason to believe that the Taliban will react the same way: this has been a penchant of Pashtun tribal fighters going back to the time of the British Empire. Some may choose to side with the coalition either out of hatred for the Taliban or naked opportunism. The result will probably be a decrease in violence after a brief spike at the beginning of the fighting season in May next year.

But the surge was not a success in Iraq because violence went down. It was successful because it gave an opening for the government to assert itself, and allowed politics to replace violence as a means to resolve conflicts. This will be a greater challenge in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are not winning with arms, they are winning with better governance. They are better than Kabul at providing services and upholding law and order.

The situation in Iraq should serve as a warning to proponents of the surge in Afghanistan. Security gains there have slid backwards as some Sunnis have returned to violence or, at least, grown openly hostile to Baghdad because of its failure to uphold promises. In some ways, the imminent US withdrawal has escalated simmering political tensions as minority groups scramble to grasp what they can in advance of that date.

The situation could potentially be worse in Afghanistan. For all its many flaws, the Iraqi government is a democracy that is largely representative of its people. Hamid Karzai’s government has only the veneer of democracy and popular representation. He exploits ethnic ties and teams with local power brokers and warlords to project Kabul’s authority. Unless he is forced to change his ways, security gains will only allow him to entrench his interests and enshrine corruption and cronyism as the status quo in Afghan politics. For the sake of Afghanistan’s future, the centre of political power must be in Kabul, but not in this way. The Taliban feed off Pashtun national ambitions, but mostly from legitimate grievances with the central government. Any security gains are illusory so long as those grievances exist.

Even if the additional troops remain in Afghanistan for longer than 18 months, and even if security dramatically improves, the end result remains in doubt. The US singles out al Qa’eda as the reason it must finish the fight in Afghanistan, but the Taliban not al Qa’eda are the main enemy to be defeated. However, it will be al Qa’eda, not the Taliban, that will be the ultimate victors should the US fail in Afghanistan.

Terrorism is a tool used by such groups to goad the enemy into alienating a population through heavy-handed tactics and breaking its will to fight through a long, expensive and ultimately futile fight. Al Qa’eda specifically states that its goal is to bankrupt the US through expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US may be far from bankrupt, but a withdrawal that does not leave Afghanistan free from the clutches of the Taliban will validate al Qa’eda’s tactics and long-term strategy. It would, in all likelihood, encourage like-minded groups to employ the same strategy to the detriment of global security. This means that setting prior limits on a commitment to a fight risks validating the strategy of al Qa’eda. This not only applies to the US, but to its allies, which includes the UAE.

The war in Afghanistan must be won to avoid this, but the long-term solution is not to fight al Qa’eda with soldiers. That is the least effective and most expensive method.

The goal should be to prevent the creation of other Afghanistans, underdeveloped corners of the world whose grievances can be exploited to build a safe haven for terror groups and a hornet’s nest for any would-be invaders.

There are many potential Afghanistans. Failure to prevent their decline, could result in some sort of military intervention to counter what is, essentially, a non-military problem. Al Qa’eda is winning because it set the terms of the conflict in Afghanistan. It is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that they do not do so again.