Published: December 19th, 2011
Author: Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
If you had to choose which country is the most strategically important – Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran – you might have a hard time deciding.
On the one hand we have Pakistan: Population 175 million, the sixth largest in the world. An unstable civilian government facing off with a powerful military. A haven for insurgents – not to mention Osama bin Laden – who attack US troops across the border in Afghanistan. The extent to which Pakistani officials are complicit is unclear, although former JCS Chair Adm. Mike Mullen called the ISI “the virtual arm” of the Haqqani network. Comments like these from both countries, combined with incidents like the NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, have US-Pakistan relations at an all-time low. Finally, there’s the little matter of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which numbers some 100 weapons.
On the other hand we have Iran, a smaller country, but arguably more unstable and potentially threatening. Jon Huntsman called Iran’s nuclear ambitions “the transcendent issue of this decade from a foreign policy standpoint.” Hyperbole? Perhaps. But there’s no question that preventing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is important.
That leaves Afghanistan. When Newt Gingrich called Afghanistan “the least important of the three countries,” no one remarked – because everyone is thinking the same thing. The US has already achieved its primary strategic objectives in Afghanistan; it is no longer our fight.
This leaves us with something of a puzzle. Afghanistan represents little in terms of srategic importance – and yet 90,000 US troops are still stationed there. We have spent over one trillion dollars on the wars, and will spend $100 billion next year. War spending is a main driver of the current financial crisis.
As one wasteful war winds down, it’s worth thinking about what our national security interests really are. Building our economy – that is vital to our national security. So is preventing Iran from building a bomb as well as preventing the dangerous situation with Pakistan from spiralling out of control. Compared to goals like these, nation-building in Afghanistan seems trivial.
Look at it another way. An American official told New York Times’ Bill Keller: “If you stand back and say, by the year 2020, you’ve got two countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan]— 30 million people in this country, 200 million people with nuclear weapons in this country, American troops in neither. Which matters? It’s not Afghanistan.”
In thirty years, will we look back and be glad that we spent $100 billion on Afghanistan in 2012? Or will we regret such vast expenditure in Afghanistan that was not commensurate with regional priorities?
Published: November 29th, 2010
Author: Edward Kenny
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.
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.
Published: October 29th, 2010
Iran and Hamid Karzai:
Afghanistan Study Group Member Stephen Walt argues in a blog post that the reaction to the Iran money scandal is overblown. It is only natural that Iran would want to influence one of its neighboring countries with financial aid. On Afghan side, why shouldn’t Karzai accept money from Iran? As Walt points out, when you are in the business of buying off warlords, “cash on hand is a pretty useful asset.” Lastly Walt points out what a trifling sum of money is being sent to Karzai. “$1 million a year is really chump change,” he writes. Compared to $119 billion the U.S. plans to spend in Afghanistan next year, $1 million really is a minuscule quantity of money.
Steve Clemons on the News Hour Tuesday makes a similar argument, saying it would be “naïve to think that Karzai in Afghanistan wouldn’t be finding ways to cut deals with all of their neighbors.” Clemons, a member of the Afghanistan Study Group debated co-guest Ali Jalali on the U.S. approach towards the Karzai regime. Clemons argued that policymakers should be open to the possibility of other leaders in Afghanistan and not be so committed to Karzai. He went on to argue for institutions-building approach, centered on injecting civil society into the political system. In contrast, Jalali said that Karzai-bashing is counter-productive, especially as there is no potential alternative leader to take his place. Both views have merit. Over the short term, Karzai is the president of Afghanistan. Replacing him would just create greater instability; however the lack of legitimacy is a serious issue. If Afghanistan cannot develop more inclusive political institutions, the U.S.-Karzai partnership is bound fail.
David Cortright on Afghan Women
Afghanistan Study Group member, David Cortright has just co-authored a major new study on women in Afghanistan. The report illustrates the fragile political environment in which Afghan women find themselves. On the one hand, there have been undeniable gains for women across Afghanistan, since the overthrow of the Taliban. From representation in parliament, where women are now guaranteed 25% of the seats in the Wolesa Jirga (lower parliament) and 17% of the seats in the Meshrano Jirga (upper parliament), to the right to vote—women made up 44% and 38% of the vote in 2005 and 2008 elections respectively—the political situation for women is unambiguously better than it was under Taliban rule. Furthermore, women have made social gains. They now have improved access to education and health services—37% of primary and secondary school enrollees are now girls—which was nonexistent for women under the Taliban rule.
The picture for women is not totally rosy, however. As the insurgency has intensified, women have seen an erosion of the gains made since the toppling of the Taliban regime. Violence against women has increased, female members of parliament are now under constant threat of assassination, and schools for girls have been pressured to close. Economic hardship has led many Afghan families to force arranged marriages on their daughters. In Kabul, laws protecting women have been uneven. A recent law legalizing marital rape epitomizes the challenges that feminist Jirga members face against widespread societal opposition. There are also reports from Human Rights Watch that prostitution and human trafficking of women are on the rise. It is hard to attribute the erosion of women’s rights completely to the re-emergence of the Taliban or the expansion of the war. As Paul Pillar points out, there is also a cultural factor to the treatment of women, independent from the resurgent Taliban or the increased insecurity.
Women find themselves between a rock and a hard place. While the fighting continues, their rights are likely to continue eroding. On the other hand, there is widespread unease about negotiating with the Taliban. Fatima Gailani, the president of Red Crescent asks rhetorically: “what will we have to sacrifice with reconciliation?” Cortright argues that the reconciliation process should go forward, but that the inclusion of women is essential to protecting their rights. He calls for a sustained international troop presence to provide security as U.S. forces are drawdown. Lastly, he pushes for greater emphasis on development, promoting what Nicholas Kristof has called the Dr. Greg approach after Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, whose schools dot the Af-Pak countryside. Kristof has argued that development should emphasize working within local social structures so that locals feel ownership of the development projects.
There is no guarantee that Cortright’s recommendations will work, but they are the best hope to protect the fragile status of women in Afghanistan.
Scott Atran on Negotiations with the Taliban
Scott Atran from France’s National Center for Scientific Research has produced an excellent Op-Ed on the prospects of reconciliation with the Taliban. The Op-Ed comes on the heels of several contradictory news reports describing the state of the war. The pentagon has been touting progress in Kandahar, where once contested regions are seeing increased security for the first time in years. Taking a wider view, it appears that members of the military and intelligence community have concluded that the campaigns have not broken the back of the insurgency; the Taliban is proving far more resilient than some military planners had once thought.
Part of the problem, argues Atran, is that the Pentagon is operating under the false premise that escalating the war will force the Taliban to the negotiating table. This premise is incorrect for a number of reasons. Firstly, the U.S. is operating in a strategically weak position. The insurgents know they can outlast the foreign occupation—timeline or no timeline, the Taliban recognize that public support for the war in the U.S. has its limitations. As time passes the U.S.’s bargaining position is therefore almost certainly going to weaken. Secondly, the success of recent operations in killing Taliban commanders may paradoxically make negotiations more difficult. As Matt Waldman and Jenna Jordan have also demonstrated, moderate midlevel commanders are being killed and replaced by more radical younger insurgents, and the willingness of the Taliban to compromise has continued to diminish. Related to this argument, the ability of Taliban commanders to control the insurgency has also eroded over time, as Atran’s anecdote about the murder of a Taliban cleric makes clear. Atran argues that reconciliation holds greater promise for two reasons. Firstly the insurgents have indicated they may be willing to take a hard stance against Al Qaeda. In fact, as Washington Times correspondent and Afghanistan Study Group Member Arnaud de Borschgrave reports, there is a long history of animosity between Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar dating back to before 9-11. The second reason to be optimistic, argues Atran, is that tribal linkages, particularly between the Haqqani network and Karzai’s Popolzai Clan can be exploited to jumpstart the talks. In comparison to a military strategy built on faulty premises and with no hope of success, there seems to be great promise in potential peace talks, but the U.S. has to change course.
Elsewhere on the Blogosphere from Afghanistan Study Group Members
- Juan Cole attends a scathing critique of the Karzai government and U.S.’s military policy.
- Paul Pillar discusses the growing threat of home grown terrorists.
- Mosharraf Zaidi is terribly disappointed that Pakistan has failed to make institutional reforms following the terrible flooding this past summer.
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
Published: October 27th, 2010
Author: Ed Kenney
Iran in Afghanistan
Today’s New York Times has a front page story on Iran’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Karzai government. The U.S. should not be surprised that Iran is trying to influence the Afghan government with financial support. Iran has a 582 mile border with Afghanistan, close to a million Afghan refugees living within its borders, sees an enormous percentage of the Afghan drug trade traffic through its land, and population and is traditionally protective of the minority Shia Hazara population. In a press conference, Karzai pointed out that U.S. contributions dwarf those given by Iran or other nations. Furthermore, there is no indication that Karzai ever pledged to refuse Iranian aid. This news development, however, does indicate troubling continual erosion in the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. If Karzai actually believes his regime could survive “without the West’s help”, he might be tempted to exclude the U.S. in peace negotiations. This potential development should greatly concern policymakers.
Afghanistan Study Group Member Juan Cole has an interesting take on the Iran story arguing that the scandal demonstrates that Iran and the U.S are “de facto Allies in Afghanistan”. He goes on to say that the Iranians have a long history of animosity towards the Taliban:
“The Iranians hate the Taliban and it is mutual. The two almost went to war in with one another in 1998 over the killing of Iranian diplomats at Mazar. Iran backed the Northern Alliance in its dark days when al Qaeda had it bottled up in the North East and Karzai is still backed by Northern Alliance War Lords”.
Karzai’s heated rhetoric may simply reflect political posturing related to a ban on private security contractors. These security firms have gotten a lot of negative attention due to the killing of civilians. However, they also play an important role in providing security for development projects all over Afghanistan. Simply put, without security contractors, much of the U.S. supported construction and development cannot take place. Karzai may try to extract U.S. concessions before agreeing to postpone the ban.
Afghanistan Study Group Member Bernard Finel thinks the benefits of security contractors are overblown. In demanding a ban on security personnel, Karzai is demonstrating leadership “for the first time in a decade,” writes Finel; furthermore development projects are “long-run and minor”, essentially a “trivial” issue in comparison to more important questions surrounding Afghan legitimacy. By demanding that the U.S. remove contractors, Karzai is reclaiming sovereignty. Finel concludes that a successful COIN strategy cannot be dependent on mercenary forces:
“A development-centric COIN approach supported with 500,000 well-trained American troops is one thing. A development-centric COIN approach sustained by a hodge-podge of bribes, private militias, and mercenaries is quite another.”
Is the War Going Well?
There is a real disconnect between the press releases from the Pentagon and those coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan. General Petraeus is promoting recent military successes in the Kandahar offensive. Thanks to increased operations by both U.S. special operations and Afghan allies, vast stretches of the province have seen increased security, but is the tide really turning? The same day the Washington Post published Petreaus’s remarks, the paper also published a story on Af-Pak relations casting doubt on the general’s statements:
“In interviews, [Pakistani] military and intelligence officers said they were skeptical of assertion by U.S. military leaders that coalition forces have turned the corner…calling that narrative a ‘desperate ’attempt to convince the American public that there is progress in the war”
Taliban officials similarly say that the “peace talks” are mostly hype. As Michael Semple from the Carr center suggests, the presence of backchannels with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have been used to communicate with the enemy for years and are standard operating procedures for Afghanistan.
So the question remains: Whose version of the war should we believe? Harvard professor and Afghanistan Study Group Member Stephen Walt does an excellent job explaining why we should be skeptical of Pentagon press releases. Firstly, he argues that it is in U.S. interests to play up positive developments in the war in order to encourage insurgents to defect. In other words these reports could be a psychological operation aimed at the insurgency. Secondly, even if the gains in Kandahar are real, the Taliban can still regroup in their Pakistani sanctuary (with Pakistani support). There is very little evidence to suggest that the current gains are permanent, but there is ample historical precedent to suggest that the recent gains are only temporary.
“The Taliban Will Never Negotiate as Long as They Think They are Winning”
Robert Naiman questions a piece of conventional wisdom on potential negotiations with the Taliban. The conventional wisdom says that the Taliban will never compromise as long as they have the upper hand in the conflict. Naiman points out that in any conflict, one side almost always seems to have the upper hand. This view seems to preclude negotiated settlements from ever successfully ending conflicts—a view contradicted by numerous historical examples. The real problem, suggests Naiman, is not that that the Taliban refuses to negotiate in the current environment, but rather that while they are winning, the Taliban makes harsh demands such as the removal of all U.S. troops. In other words, a more accurate statement would read “the U.S. will never negotiate as long as they are losing the war.”
One caveat should be added to Naiman’s persuasive argument. In order for meaningful negotiations to take place, both sides must recognize that military victory is not imminent. If the U.S. believes they are on the cusp of breaking the insurgency’s back, there is no incentive for the U.S. to negotiate. Likewise, if the Taliban feel they can hold out for two months, then march on Kabul, they will not enter negotiations in good faith. Simply put, if both sides believe that the costs of continuing the war, outweigh the benefits of continued fighting, there will be an incentive to negotiate regardless of which side has the upper hand. In Afghanistan, after over three decade of war, including nine years of US involvement, neither side has a clear path to victory. That is ample incentive for both sides to sit down and talk.