Afghanistan Study Group News Recap November 2, 2010

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

On the eve of the midterm elections, few media outlets are focusing on the Afghan War even as major stories and analysis continue to develop:

Petraeus, the Afghan Review, and Public Support

Now that we have reached the month of November, there are an increasing number of stories on the President’s December Review of the war in Afghanistan.  The National Review has two analyses by James Kitfield and Yochi Dreazen (links unavailable).  According to these reports, General Petraeus is racing against time to produce enough progress in Afghanistan before the December review.  The main evidence Petraeus will present in December is the increase in Taliban leaders killed and territory cleared and controlled by coalition forces.  These metrics are flawed for a number of reasons.  The Taliban have proven that they can recruit new commanders with ease and as I mentioned in the last post these new commanders tend to be younger and more radical.  Likewise, territory controlled by the coalition is not an accurate measure of progress so long as the Taliban can flee to sanctuaries in Pakistan and the regime in Kabul remains too weak and unpopular to consolidate gains.

A third and crucial issue that Petraeus and the President must consider, is the eroding public support for the war here in the United States.  Indeed, while there is great uncertainty regarding many aspects of the war, I can say with relative certainty that public support—currently at 37% —is not likely to improve.  The pressure to pull out of Afghanistan is also affecting other NATO allies.  The French Minister of war recently told the London Daily Telegraph that they would hand over Sorubi province to the Afghans in 2011, making France most likely the first NATO country to begin withdrawing next year.  Other countries are likely to follow suit.

The question of public support is routinely ignored by analysts arguing over whether the president should impose a strict timetable for withdrawal, a question that will be at the center of the December Review.  One side of the argument says that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will remove a crucial incentive for the insurgency to fight:  the presence of foreign troops. On the other side, one argument for not imposing a strict timeline, suggested by Matt Waldman, is that our troop presence is perhaps the only card the U.S. has with which to negotiate a peace settlement.  Unfortunately, this debate tends to overemphasize the importance of timetables, which are in many ways a function of public commitment to the cause.  If, as expected, support for the war continues to erode, the public will demand that the troops come home.  This is true regardless of what President Obama says or does.  Given this constraint, Petraeus must offer the President an honest appraisal of the limitations of the Counter Insurgency strategy.

The Rational for War

Matt Hoh, Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, has argued that the war in Afghanistan is an ineffective and counterproductive way to confront global terrorism.  Foreign Policy analyst James Traub, examining the pros and cons of the Afghan war strategy, largely agrees.  Focusing on the Al Qaeda threat, Traub argues that the effects of the counter-insurgency campaign on Al Qaeda are at best uncertain and at worst counterproductive.  Once the costs of the war are factored in—Traub includes broad factors in his analysis such as loss prestige—the cost-benefit analysis is weighted even more heavily against the war.

Reintegration versus Reconciliation

One of the real strategic debates on Afghanistan is whether the U.S. should promote reconciliation or reintegration.  Currently, our strategy has been to promote reintegration of Taliban forces:  We are encouraging mid-level commanders and indigenous Taliban forces to defect to NATO.  Unlike a reconciliation process, the objective is not to achieve a broad based peace accord, but rather to further divide and weaken the insurgency.

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a story on one such mid-level commander who was encouraged to defect.  In the Northern town of Baghlan, Commander Sher was encouraged to abandon Hezb-islami and join the coalition.  Within three months Sher was dead (most likely from an accidental U.S. airstrike) and his militia leaderless and in disarray.  The failure of the Sher reintegration is twofold.  Not only did the U.S. lose a local ally, the virtual destruction of Sher’s forces sends a powerful message to any other potential defectors.  If this Wall Street Journal article is any indication, reintegration is not the answer to the U.S.’s problems and broad based process of reconciliation based on mutual concessions may be necessary.

Elsewhere from Afghanistan Study Group Members

Musharaff Zaidi says that the Obama’s visit to India is making Pakistan very nervous.  He argues that security in South Asia will only occur if Pakistan and India can put aside their historic animosities:

“Transformational change in South Asia can only be achieved through the realization and pursuit of a natural alliance, much more organic and productive than the one India and the US pursue with each other. This is the natural alliance between Pakistan and India — two countries with shared language, culture, food, faith, and history.”

Stephen Walt and  Juan Cole critique David Broder’s suggestion that Obama’s political and economic troubles could be solved with a military confrontation with Iran.

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