By K. Subrahmanyam
Jul 13 2010
Former US ambassador to India, former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and now senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, Robert Blackwill has outlined a new strategy for the US to deal with the Afghan Taliban, at minimum cost to American and allied forces. In one sense, it can be interpreted as the inexorable strategic logic that is bound to propel US action, sooner or later. Simply put, the strategy suggests that the US accept a de facto partition of Afghanistan between Pashtun and non-Pashtun areas, concentrate its forces in non-Pashtun areas, and maintain an effective air force including drones and special forces to strike relentlessly at the Taliban leadership in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Blackwill is compelled to advocate this strategy, given Pakistan’s double game in dealing with the Afghan Taliban, corruption and the increasing alienation of the Karzai government, the inefficiency and combat-unworthiness of the Afghan forces being raised, and the tribal divisions in Pashtun Afghanistan. He argues that American and allied casualties are not commensurate with the results achieved, and are not likely to be, despite surges of various magnitudes. So he advocates adopting new policy goals for Afghanistan that, realistically, have a better chance of succeeding. This means accepting a de facto partition enforced by US and NATO air power and special forces, the Afghan army and international partners. The US should retain an active combat role in Afghanistan for years to come and should not accept permanent Taliban control of the south.
But the US should be ready to assist tribal leaders on the Pashtun periphery, who may decide to resist the Taliban. The focus will be on defending the northern and western regions — containing roughly 60 per cent of the population. These areas, including Kabul, are not Pashtun dominated, and locals are largely sympathetic to US efforts. The US should offer the Afghan Taliban an agreement in which neither side seeks to enlarge its territory — if the Taliban stopped supporting terrorism, a proposal that they would almost certainly reject.
In those circumstances the US should make it clear that it would rely heavily on air power and special forces to target any Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan Taliban leaders who aided them. They would also target Afghan Taliban encroachments across the de-facto partition lines and terrorist sanctuaries along the Pakistan border.This may require a longtime residual US military force in Afghanistan of about 40,000 to 50,000 troops. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and anti-Taliban Pashtuns could be mobilised in this endeavour, as well as NATO allies, Russia, India, Iran, perhaps China, and Central Asian nations. Afghan army training could be accelerated and also nation-building efforts in the northern and western regions, where, unlike the Pashtun areas, people are not systematically coerced by the Taliban. In due course, a stronger Afghan National Army could take control of the Pashtun areas.
He argues that “such fundamentally changed US objectives and strategies regarding Afghanistan would dramatically reduce US military casualties and thus minimise domestic political pressure for hasty withdrawal. It would substantially lower our budget-breaking military expenditures on Afghanistan — now nearly $7 billion per month.This would also allow the US Army and Marines to recover from years of fighting two ground wars; increase the likelihood that our coalition allies, with fewer casualties, might remain over the long term; encourage most of Afghanistan’s neighbours to support an acceptable stabilisation of the country and reduce Islamabad’s ability to parlay the US ground role in southern Afghanistan into tolerance for terrorism emanating from Pakistan.”
He accepts that there are problems with this approach: “The Taliban could trumpet victory or not accept a sustained status quo and continually test US resolve. It is likely that lower-level violence would persist in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, especially in the south... Pashtun Afghanistan could again become a hotbed of international terrorism, a dangerous outcome that probably could only be avoided by US combat forces fighting there for years — and, in any case, the current Al Qaeda epicentre is in Pakistan.”
In the context of de facto partition, Blackwill argues, “the sky over Pashtun Afghanistan would be dark with manned and unmanned coalition aircraft — targeting not only terrorists but the new Taliban government in all its dimensions”. He accepts that “Pakistan would likely oppose de facto partition. Managing Islamabad’s reaction would be no easy task — not least because the Pakistan military expects a strategic gain once the US military withdraws from Afghanistan. Indeed, Islamabad might need to be persuaded to concentrate, with the United States, on defeating the Pakistan Taliban and containing the Afghan Taliban to avoid momentum toward a fracturing of the Pakistan state.”
The last sentence is pregnant with dark forebodings for Pakistan. A Taliban-dominated Pashtun Afghanistan and Pakistani Pashtun areas under Pakistani Taliban influence are likely to move towards their long-cherished goal of scrapping the Durand Line and uniting to form the independent Pashtunistan. If that were to happen, Baloch, Sindhi and Balti nationalist assertions cannot be far behind. The Taliban dominated Pashtunistan may conclude a deal with the US to break off with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. In that event, Pakistan, instead of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan will be in danger of losing Pashtun areas of Pakistan. In the alternative theTaliban may continue its links with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. In that case, their anger at being constantly hit by US airpower may turn on the Pakistan army and state with terrorist attacks on Pakistani Punjab being stepped up.
The Blackwill article is a clear warning to the Pakistan army leadership and its supporters in the government who have deluded themselves and even persuaded a large number of policy makers and analysts in US, India and the West that the Pakistan army has all the aces in this game and the US is desperately dependent on Pakistan for its Afghan strategy.The present US strategy attempts to preserve the unity and integrity of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it is today. The US is prepared to accept some costs to itself in terms of casualties to secure the best possible result. If the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continue to play games with the US as they think they can and get away with it, then the US will have to secure its national security interests at the cost of Pakistani unity and integrity. That is the message of Blackwill’s article. President Obama has many options between accepting defeat and withdrawal and being compelled to accept unacceptable casualties. The Pakistan army should not repeat the blunders of 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999 through its overconfidence.
The writer is a senior defence analyst
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi