American Enterprise Institute: Where’s the Beef?
Frederick and Kimberly Kagan take an unusual approach in their recent paper on Afghanistan for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ignoring the vast amount of research and commentary to the contrary, they have prepared a thoroughly optimistic portrait of Afghanistan. Not only do they argue that the U.S. is winning the war—thanks to the counter-insurgency “surge” strategy, of course—they also suggest that victory is essential to the U.S. global war on terrorism. Neither claim is true.
The Kagan’s flatly assert that “unprecedented damage” has been inflicted on the insurgency: safe-havens have been eliminated, insurgent leaders captured or killed and the Taliban’s momentum “unquestionably arrested.” This argument happens to be both unsubstantiated and untrue as even our own intelligence services can attest. Based on two National Intelligence Estimate’s released last month, the insurgency remains resilient and cannot be defeated unless Pakistan acts against Taliban strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. A November Department of Defense Progress Report also delivered a candid appraisal of the insurgency’s strength at odds with the AEI report. The Kagans do not comment on these reports, other than to dismiss them as “alarmist”; nor do they discuss measurable metrics available to the public such as troop and civilian casualties, both of which show a continued downward trend. One wonders whether the Kagans missed last week’s Associated Press article which cited NATO officials arguing that the Taliban’s strength has not diminished over the past year or Monday’s USA Today article on the Taliban’s “surge” of deadly improvised explosive devices. Seldom has a report been written that is more at odds with both the media narrative and what the vast majority of Afghan experts are saying; still, one has to credit their audaciousness.
The notion that victory in Afghanistan is a critical element of the war against terrorism is an argument that we have rebutted many times before. Al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan[i], nor do they have any logical or sensible reason to abandon their safe-havens in Pakistan and return. Furthermore, even if al Qaeda were to return to Afghanistan, it is unclear what effect, if any, this would have on their ability to conduct operations worldwide.
Rather than re-hash old arguments, let’s take a moment to address another line of reasoning that is frequently used to defend the al Qaeda-Taliban link. Pro-surge commentators frequently cite evidence that Taliban and the Haqqani are working together and have links to international terrorism to support their pro-war position. Fighting one group is paramount to fighting all of the groups, they argue. The Kagans take precisely this approach:
All of these groups coordinate their activities, moreover, and all have voices in the Peshawar Shura (Council). They are not isolated groups, but rather a network-of-networks
This argument tends to play up ideological similarities among groups, which may or may not actually exist, while downplaying the strategic rational for forming an alliance. The Afghanistan Study Group[ii], among others, has pointed out that al Qaeda’s global scope differs greatly from the Taliban, which is predominantly made up of local Afghans fighting for over local grievances, first among them the presence of foreign troops in their land. There is actually a simple explanation for the collaboration of disparate groups; they all face a common threat, the United States. They also share a common goal—in this case the withdrawal of NATO troops. Indeed, if the Taliban has any interest in self-preservation, it would be shocking if they were not working closely with the Haqqanis, Hezb Islami, the TTP and others.
Afghanistan Study Group Member Paul Pillar explains how this strategic calculation combined with faulty assumptions by policy makers in the U.S. have contributed to a counter-productive strategy:
“We read on the front page of the New York Times that armed groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that have long been rivals to one another are now cooperating in combat operations against NATO forces. The groups include elements of the Taliban under the Quetta shura, the fighters of the Haqqani family, and militias associated with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The impetus for such new cooperation is the military pressure that our own forces have applied. A false assumption underlying much of the rationale for the NATO campaign in the AfPak theater is that the forces on the other side are an alliance of bad guys, including militias and terrorist groups, with a common set of objectives opposed to our own. Now by our own actions we are making this false assumption come true, at least at the tactical and operational level.
Whether or not you agree that the U.S. military pressure has been “the impetus for new cooperation” among insurgent groups, this is clearly an important factor in any analysis of Taliban collaboration. The fact that the AEI completely fails to address the strategic aspect in their analysis is a major weakness of the paper.
[i] Of course information on the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan comes from our “alarmist” intelligence community
[ii] See Myth # 5