We needed a game-changer in Afghanistan. The plan delivered by the new administration is not it.
The most important and destructive deficiency of the new plan is its willful ignorance of the bad effects of flooding Afghanistan with more foreign troops. For months, experts ranging from Richard Barrett (the UN’s al-Qaida/Taliban expert) to Gilles Dorronsoro from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have warned that adding more U.S. troops would fuse fractious elements of the Pakistani and Afghanistan Taliban into a cohesive–and deadly–opponent. As Barrett warned in September 2008, this development would play right into the hands of al-Qaida. And yet, here we are, in March 2009, adding more troops.
As predicted, the moment the administration announced plans to add more troops, the various factions among the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border decided to drop their internal squabbling and to solidify their alliance with al-Qaida. According to today’s New York Times:
“After agreeing to bury their differences and unite forces, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have closed ranks with their Afghan comrades to ready a new offensive in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to send 17,000 more troops there this year…In their written statement, decorated with crossed swords, the three Pakistani Taliban leaders reaffirmed their allegiance to Mullah Omar, as well as the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.”
As late as last week, President Obama declared that “there’s got to be an exit strategy.” But this plan, by leaving the door open to further escalation, fails to put us on a path to the exit in Afghanistan. Beyond the immediate bad consequences of the deployment of 21,000 new troops (17,000 previously announced plus today’s announced 4,000 “trainers”), reports indicate that administration plans to keep the door open to a further 10,000-troop escalation to be announced later this year. Worse, the white paper released this morning by the State Department continues to advocate “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan, a military doctrine that would require a huge increase in both American and Afghan boots on the ground. Some estimates of troop requirements in Afghanistan for a true counterinsurgency strategy exceed 600,000 troops. This is not what an exit strategy looks like.
The President spent a great deal of his speech today discussing Pakistan and the measures the U.S. would use to entice or cajole Afghanistan’s neighbor into confronting extremists inside its territory. The recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War,” questions the wisdom of this strategy:
“Pressuring Pakistan to attain political objectives in Afghanistan has been U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. Except in times of crisis (2001 and 2002–2003), the results have been extremely limited. Some experts are calling for more pressure, but there is a point at which pressure becomes counterproductive…In other words, it is possible that more U.S. pressure on Pakistan could change the situation on the Afghan border, but it is not worth increasing the chances of Pakistan’s destabilization. And even in the best-case scenario, we cannot hope for significant results for at least a few years, far too late considering the accelerating deterioration of security in Afghanistan.”
To make things worse, The Wall Street Journal reported today that the administration’s new strategy will continue to favor Predator drone strikes. These strikes kill civilians, devastate communities, and cause popular outrage against the United States. The drone strikes generate rage against the Pakistani government for being unable or unwilling to stop the strikes. The former helps our opponents recruit and expand and find safe haven; the latter destabilizes a fragile civilian government still struggling to bring its military to heel.
Describing the Pakistan/Afghanistan problem, former Ambassador Dan Simpson wrote:
“Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control. Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can’t get matters in Pakistan under control…Mr. Obama’s escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work…If it is not going to work, there is no reason to pursue it, spending more of our money and blood.”
Carnegie’s report offers another strategy for changing the dynamic in Afghanistan: reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan without negotiating with the Taliban, concentrating troop strength during the drawdown in strategic zones, including major population centers. This unilateral move would reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan and remove the unifying rationale for extremist coalitions. Let the fault lines reemerge among Taliban groups and avoid taking actions that prompt them to forget their divisions. Focus on building good governance in major population centers and help build an Afghan government that will outlive our presence. These steps, far more than the announced counterinsurgency attempt, offer a chance to get Afghanistan on a road to stability.
There is still time for the President to get Afghanistan right, but that time is rapidly running out. Mr. President, if you’re looking for the exit, turn around.