By Walter Andersen
PRESIDENT Obama took two public opportunities over the past several days to announce a counter- terrorism strategy that would cost less money, involve fewer troops — and responds to the American public’s strong desire to reduce the US commitment to overseas wars during a period of economic stress.
In his June 22 address, the President said that additional US troops deployed after the “surge” ordered in late 2009 had made sufficient progress in the fight against al- Qa’ida to justify a drawdown from Afghanistan, starting in July. He ordered the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and the remaining 23,000 troops of the 2010 “surge” force would be out by the summer of 2012, thus signaling the beginning of the end of America’s role in the decade old war in Afghanistan.
After that, the some 70,000 remaining US troops will be gradually reduced until 2014 when they will move from combat operations to an undefined supportive role for the Afghan forces. Five days later on June 27, his counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, came to my school ( Johns Hopkins University) to say that large armies will be replaced by “ targeted surgical pressure” against groups that threaten the US. A Gallup poll shows that 73 percent of Americans support the President’s plan to downsize troop levels. This is one of the few major issues on which there is strong bipartisan support of a significant presidential initiative.
Will all of this work to diminish the present terrorist challenge in Afghanistan and restore a semblance of stability in Afghanistan? There are many minefields and uncertainties on the way to this desired outcome. As some critics have pointed out, there is no analysis in either statement of how the US will destroy al- Qa’ida and its allies (like the Afghan Taliban) nor is there an indication of what the US plans to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent a revival of terrorist activity.
Will there be a residual US counterterrorism force in Afghanistan and what will be its role in preventing another militant effort to seize control of the state, which could trigger another ethnic civil war that could draw in the neighbouring states, as happened in the late 1990s? Still another criticism is that the setting of withdrawal dates will be interpreted by the terrorists as an incentive to save their strength for the ultimate drive for power when the US military presence is weakened — and will encourage neighbouring states to plan for the possible chaos in Afghanistan that could follow troop withdrawals in order to protect national interests.
An inherent problem in the new strategy is that it relies even more than before on the cooperation of often unreliable overseas partners. In Afghanistan, the US effort must rely on the weak and corrupt Karzai government. In Pakistan, it means relying on a military that the US does not trust and a civil government that has almost no influence on security issues.
The killing of Osama bin- Laden without informing the Pakistani military underscores the depth of US distrust. The Pakistani military’s humiliation and expressions of outrage over the violation of its sovereignty have already made it a less willing partner to the US. The subsequent militant abandonment of four bomb making facilities after the US informed the Pakistani authorities about them underscores the US reason to be suspicious. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan are likely to abandon the US, however, as each depends on the substantial US economic largesse. Karzai, despite his politically motivated diatribes against the US aimed at shoring up support among his fellow Pushtuns, knows that the withdrawal of US/ NATO troops would put him in a very shaky security position within Afghanistan. While Mr. Brennan praised Pakistan’s cooperative efforts and said the US must remain committed to Pakistan, he also expressed his exasperation with Pakistan by saying at one point that “I’m hoping that the Pakistani people and the [ military] services are going to realise this really is a war.” While the Al- Qa’ida franchise has spread to other areas of the world, the June 27 Brennan speech at Johns Hopkins University argued that the “ utter destruction” of al- Qa’ida depends on dismantling it in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The future of US military operations in Afghanistan thus depends on a substantial convergence of counterterrorism policies between Pakistan and the US. The dilemma for both the US and Pakistanis is that both countries have very different strategic priorities.
The military in Pakistan has adopted a largely hands- off policy towards Afghan Taliban groups that do not attack the state. The official explanation is that attacking them now would dilute its efforts to attack those Taliban groups that do attack the state.
But a longer range objective is likely the contingency plan of using these groups to provide Pakistan influence in Afghanistan after US/ NATO troops withdraw. Hence the reluctance to attack Afghan Taliban groups in North Waziristan on the Pakistani side of the border, especially the Haqqani network, which pose a major threat to US and NATO troops.
Prompting the Pakistani army to exercise influence in Afghanistan is its concern that one of India’s strategic goals in building up its presence in Afghanistan is to foment instability in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan. Militant groups in Pakistan (such as the Lashkare- Taiba ( LeT)) and various Afghan Taliban groups are thus seen as an important part of the army’s operational plans to counter India in Afghanistan. This tactical stance is a logical calculation of the widespread perception in both Afghanistan and Pakistan ( and India as well) that the US military presence is temporary.
The setting of US withdrawal dates serves to emphasise the temporary nature of the US/ NATO military presence.
The various Afghan Taliban groups are significant stakeholders given their widespread support among Afghanistan’s ethnic Pushtun population, and the military does not want a situation where Pakistan lacks links to these potentially powerful groups which could play a major role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
Using militants as part of a proxy effort against India has long been part of the Pakistani military’s strategy against India.
Yet all of this works against the US strategy to diminish the threat from al- Qa’ida and the Afghan Taliban whose cross border activities kill US and NATO soldiers.
It also works against the broader goal of stabilising Afghanistan politically.
Few believe that the Afghan military or police will be ready to take over from the US forces in 2014. Not only is there a lack of training, but the comparatively weak presence of ethnic Pushtun troops undermines the effectiveness of security forces.
It is equally problematic if the Karzai government will provide improved governance.
This situation is partly due to structural problems. Afghanistan was reconstructed in 2002 as a highly centralised state that has undermined the Afghan tradition of relying on local leaders to play a significant role in the running of affairs at the local level. Centrally appointed administrators are often both corrupt and out of touch with local issues.
Given the major challenges facing the US in Afghanistan, it will have to put together some mechanisms very soon to shore up the state domestically and within its region to forestall the development of another terrorist threat to US interests.
Henry Kissinger, in a recent Washington Post op- ed, proposed what I think is the outline of a feasible long run exit strategy.
He laid out four conditions for a stable situation: a cease- fire among combatants; the withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government in Kabul; and an enforcement mechanism, with this last element as the most critical because the various combatants are unlikely to be bound by any of the provisions of the agreement.
The enforcement mechanism would have to have the approval — and perhaps participation — of all the neighbours (including Iran, Russia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China) and there is a chance that they might agree as stability in Afghanistan is in the interest of all of them. My own view is a residual US/ NATO counterterrorism force would probably have to be a key part of this enforcement mechanism to give it real clout. The chances are less than even that such a structure can be put together.
The alternative to this plan or something like it is a renewal of the fighting within Afghanistan that characterised the 1990s, which would provide incentives for outside powers to fund proxies as also happened in the 1990s. More directly dangerous for the US ( as well as to Pakistan, India and others) is that chaos in Afghanistan would also give emboldened militants an opportunity to strike out at their various enemies at home and abroad from bases within Afghanistan.
The writer is Director, South Asia Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University
Source: Mail Today