11/29/10 Afghanistan Study Group Update

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

What Went Down In Lisbon?

The President has just returned home from a relatively successful trip to Lisbon for the the NATO summit.  For Afghanistan junkies there are really two take-home messages.

1.       Obama still has strong support for his Afghanistan strategy from European leaders.

2.       Differences between the administration and Karzai are sharpening.

One of Obama’s main goals was to shore up support among NATO member countries for a sustained commitment in Afghanistan.  Inside Europe there have been rumblings about NATO commitments decreasing in Afghanistan.  The French were hoping to transfer from Sarobi District next year.  In England, where support for the war is at 32%, the defense minister has called for a speedy drawdown.

Perhaps in an effort to gain support from these NATO allies, President Obama set a date of 2014 to end major combat activities.  Although the President’s statements are fuzzy enough to allow flexibility and most news reports acknowledge that there will still be a large troop presence in Afghanistan in three years, 2014 nonetheless represents the closest thing to an established end date to the war.  All in all, the new deadline was a small price to pay in order to achieve support among crucial NATO allies.

In Latest Dispute with Washington, Karzai has the Right Idea

The Lisbon conference also highlighted the growing public feud between Washington DC and Kabul.  At Lisbon, Obama responded sharply to Karzai for his recent comments criticizing U.S. special operations and night raids.  Karzai had also banned private security contractors, which are often hired to protect development projects.  On the surface, Obama is entirely justified in his critique:

He’s got to understand that I’ve got a bunch of young men and women… who are in a foreign country being shot at and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs, and they need to protect themselves. So if we’re setting things up where they’re just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that’s not an acceptable answer either.”

However, Karzai’s main beef with Obama is on the current U.S. strategy; it is not on the tactical level.  A recent column by Ahmed Rashid highlights the essence of the dispute:

“In a suggestion that alarms and infuriates western officials, [Karzai] says there is a political alternative to Nato—to depend more on regional countries, especially Iran and Pakistan, to end the war and find a settlement with the Taliban”

Both Iran and Pakistan are moving to maximize their bargaining positions in the event of a settlement.  This explains Iran’s recent surge in support for elements in the Taliban, when in the past Iran had always supported the Taliban’s enemies the Northern Alliance.  It also explains why Pakistan is reluctant to free Taliban leaders prematurely.   The main obstacle to a negotiated settlement continues to be the Americans themselves, for as long as the U.S. clings to the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) Doctrine, there is no incentive for the critical players—the Quetta Shura, the ISI, the Haqqani Network, and Iran—to come to the table and negotiate.  Instead of embracing Karzai’s attempts at diplomacy, the U.S. criticizes his efforts to end the conflict.   This is what should “alarm” and “infuriate” anyone who favors a sensible policy in Afghanistan.

START and Afghanistan

In Lisbon, Obama also had success gaining the support of NATO members for a strategic arms treaty with Russia.  The main reason to sign a nuclear deal with Russia is that it will foster greater cooperation between the two countries on other issues.  Last year, Russia stepped up big for the U.S. when it agreed to establish economic sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council.  Further, Russia has also been playing a bigger role in Afghanistan.  Last month they even conducted a joint drug raid—the first military operation for Russia in Afghanistan since the Russian army retreated in 1989.  If the START Treaty facilitates greater cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan, this could assist with a U.S. drawdown, a factor which the anti-war libertarians should consider in deciding whether to back the treaty.

The Refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Two interesting articles appeared in the Washington Post on the refugee problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Although the articles focused on the same theme—locals who have been forced from their homes because of war—they highlighted two different problems.

The article on Afghan refugees focused on a group of Pashtuns from Helmand province who have moved to Kabul as a result of the war.  In many cases these refugees favored neither the U.S. nor the Taliban, but were nonetheless caught in the middle of the fighting.  As one Afghan put it:

“If we grew our beards, the Americans arrested us.  If we shaved the Taliban gave us a hard time,” he said.  “What are we supposed to do, shave half our beard?”

In a country where kinship and family ties are very important, the Taliban had one crucial advantage; they were local.  As one refugee illustrated:

Who are the Taliban?  They are our brothers, our cousins, our relatives.  The problem is the Americans

The U.S. strategy, which is based on winning the hearts and minds of local Afghans, needs to confront this reality.  Afghans caught in the middle of a conflict will surely back their family and tribesmen over a foreign force from a distant land.

The second article looked at a policy to repopulate regions of South Waziristan that have been cleared of insurgents.  So far the program, which pays refugees $300 to move back to Waziristan, has garnered only mixed results.  A major problem continues to be a lack of governance and an inability to consolidate military gains.  As a White House report noted:

“Congress noted that an absence of government authority has resulted “in short lived military gains that allow militants to regroup in these areas”

As a result, the resettlement program has been “repeatedly postponed” with many prospective families voicing concern over a “Taliban resurgence”.  Many of the same lessons the Pakistanis are learning in Waziristan are also true in Afghanistan.  The military success in Kandahar is terrific, but without a return to governance, these gains will almost certainly be temporary.

Budget Issues

Last post, discussed the importance of the wars in Afghanistan with respect to the long-range fiscal outlook of the United States.  Several Afghanistan Study Group Members, as well as other foreign policy experts, signed a letter address to Deficit Reduction Commission Co-Chairs Bowles and Simpson arguing along similar lines.  The letter emphasizes the source of the U.S.’s power is our massive and dynamic economy.  Unless the U.S. moves away from ill-advised military adventurism, the necessary military cuts will not be made and American power will erode.

“ The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the limits of military power. Avoiding these types of operations globally would allow us to roll back the recent increase in the size of our Army and Marine Corps.”

Afghan Confidence Game

This blog and the members of the Afghanistan Study Group advocate a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan in the way that saves face and protects U.S. interests, while bringing stability to Afghanistan and the region.  There are many challenges to a policy of negotiation:  How much power should Karzai cede to Islamic militants? What roles should Pakistan and Iran play?  One unanticipated obstacle, however, was figuring out whom to talk to.  After all in a policy of reconciliation, talks must take place with high-level political leaders in the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Networks.  Surely you would think that the U.S. has the intelligence capabilities to identify the leaders of the Taliban.  Well, think again.  Last Tuesday’s Washington Post has a story that can only be described as a monumental intelligence screw-up.  Apparently some “lowly shopkeeper” claiming to be Akthar Mohammad Mansour, the second ranking Taliban leader in Quetta Shura, was flown to Kabul and possibly managed to con NATO out of “large sums of money”.  For months the Taliban has denied reports floating around the western press that they were engaged in negotiations.  Now the Taliban’s denials seem more credible.

This story obviously paints a very troubling picture of the U.S.’s intelligence apparatus in Afghanistan.  As Jeremy Scahil points out, how can anyone trust the Pentagon’s assurances that civilians aren’t being killed in the secret drone attacks and night raids after reading this?

The Taliban impostor incident also calls into question scores of deadly night raids that have resulted in the deaths of innocent Afghans. Several survivors of night raids recently told The Nation that they believed they were victims of bad intelligence provided by other Afghans for money or to settle personal grudges.

When it comes to night raids and drone attacks the stakes are much higher.  As Afghanistan Study Group Director Matt Hoh illustrates, the death of one civilian can lead to ten more insurgents.

“We might get that one guy we’re looking for or we might kill a bunch of innocent people and now make ten more Taliban out of them.”

Since we can’t seem to differentiate between the Taliban and the locals, this observation should cast doubt on the current war strategy, which presumably relies on solid intelligence.   Guess we can thank the intelligence community for giving us yet another reason to rethink Afghanistan.

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