11/12/2010 Afghanistan Update: No Games in December, Let’s Have a Real Review

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

Afghanistan Update 11/12/10:  Council on Foreign Relations Releases Af-Pak Review

The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) has just published a policy paper on U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The 70 page report documents the challenges the U.S faces in the region; it puts the Afghan war in a regional context and provides recommendations for policymakers going forward.  This is an important document that contributes to a needed and necessary debate on the US strategy in Afghanistan.  However, as with most major strategy reviews, the paper has both strengths and weaknesses.

On the plus side, the paper is very forthright about the challenges facing the U.S. in Afghanistan.  In particular the report cites the rising violence, the lack of popular support for the Afghan government, and weak political institutions as major road blocks to a successful military strategy.  Although CFR endorses the Obama approach, it is a “qualified endorsement”.  Most significantly, the report recommends a real December Strategic Review.

“If [ the] review shows that progress is not being made, the United States should move quickly to recalibrate its military presence in Afghanistan.”

This brings up an important weakness in the paper.  It asks the question “has there been progress in Afghanistan?”; but it does not really answer it.  Given the evidence presented through news sources, several of the metrics presented in this paper to gage progress have seen deterioration.  There has been little progress in “building local security and civilian capabilities” even in areas where the military offensive has garnered some positive results. Although areas of Kandahar have seen some security gains, the insurgency remains as potent as ever.  The report acknowledges that 2010 will be the most violent year of the war.  Meanwhile the government remains as corrupt as ever.  The lone bright spot seems to be the training of the Afghan National Army, but Afghanistan won’t be able to take over security from NATO forces until 2014 according to NATO’s civilian commander.

Based on this evidence, you would think the CFR would spend more time discussing feasible alternatives to the current strategy.  Instead, their portrayal of the alternative “light footprint” strategy is incredibly pessimistic.  The paper claims (p.58) that a light footprint would empower global terrorist networks, lead to a destabilizing civil war, and possibly escalate into a full-scale nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan.  There are problems with the assumptions the paper makes; but if you do make these assumptions, it is hard to then argue for a “recalibration” of strategy in the next section.

Perhaps the most disappointing section of the paper is on U.S. strategic objectives.  In one of my previous posts I said there was a growing consensus that al Qaeda does not pose a security risk to Afghanistan.  Put simply, al Qaeda is unlikely to leave its relatively safe sanctuaries in Pakistan.  This argument has been made by experts such as Afghanistan Study Group Member Paul Pillar and Counter-Insurgency strategist David Kilcullen.  The Council on Foreign Relations is behind on this issue, arguing

“The United States needs to stop Afghanistan from once again becoming a sanctuary for these groups…if the Taliban consolidates its position in large portions of Afghanistan, it could create new space for these dangerous groups to plan attacks against the United States”

There is a lot here that is manifestly wrong.  First, terrorists already have a sanctuary in Pakistan so it is hard to see how a Taliban victory would affect the operations of the group.  More worrisome, this passage shows a fundamental lack of understanding on how these terrorist groups operate.  They recruit members globally.  The idea is not to gain territorial “space”, but rather to connect various radical groups to a common cause.  Forcing al Qaeda off of a piece of territory does nothing.  The U.S forced al Qaeda out of Sudan in the 1990s, but guess what, the group still had “space” to “plan attacks” on 9-11.

A serious strategic objective discussed at length in the paper, is preventing civil war in Pakistan:

Turmoil in Afghanistan—possibly even a bloody civil war—could produce a refugee crisis, draw in regional competitors, and destabilize Pakistan and the region”.

This is purportedly a description of “what could happen” if the Taliban gain a stronghold, although it seems to describe the war environment today.   The real question is whether regional stability is enhanced by large NATO forces in Afghanistan or hindered by it.  Most evidence suggests the latter as foreign occupying forces and drone strikes fuel radicalism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ensuring that Afghanistan does not devolve into a bloody civil war is, however, a legitimate concern.  The Afghanistan Study Group argues that a “fast track” peace and reconciliation process is the key to avoiding civil conflict.  This is one area where the CFR report makes two interesting and useful arguments.  Firstly they argue for a more broad-based peace council:

The present Karzai led reconciliation process is insufficiently representative of the wide spectrum of Afghan interests.  It is raising fears among many of these groups and spurring concerns throughout the region, particularly India.  The process requires greater U.S. guidance and regional consensus building”

This blog has long argued for a more inclusive reconciliation process.  For example, participation of women in the Peace Jirga to ensure safeguarding of women’s rights.  With that said, there is a danger of having too broad a peace council.  With too many opposing interests a peace deal may be harder to reach.  In general this recommendation makes sense.

Secondly they argue that reconciliation and constitutional reform should go hand in hand.

“The national reconciliation process also offers a potential opening for constitutional reform.  Insurgent leaders have explicitly rejected the present constitution and are unlikely to reenter Afghan politics without certain amendments.  The two political initiatives—reform and reconciliation—should therefore be managed in tandem”

This is an excellent point.  Oftentimes when experts discuss the reconciliation process they worry that the insurgents will change the constitution in ways that will undermine human rights.  This is a very real worry.  Opening up the Afghan constitution for debate is also a potential opportunity to change parts of the constitution, which undermine governance in the provinces.  For instance the constitution allows Karzai to appoint provincial governors; a rule which makes zero sense in a society with such stark regional, ethnic and sectarian divides.  The Peace Jirga may decide that eliminating some of these poorly thought out rules would be a step towards peace with the Taliban.

In conclusion, it is impossible to cover this entire CFR paper—I would love to discuss some of the interesting ideas on Pakistan—in a single blog post.  The Council on Foreign Relations has produced a useful paper.  If President Obama focuses on the good suggestions such as taking the December Review seriously and thinking about ways to implement reconciliation more effectively, the CFR will have done great service.

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