nuclear bomb

  1. News Recap: Highlights from Middle East Institute’s 64th Annual Conference

    Published: November 5th, 2010
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Yesterday was the 64th annual Middle East Institute conference entitled Rethinking the Middle East in Transition. The conference included panels on non-state armed actors and Af-Pak security.

    al Qaeda Consensus — Pakistani Nukes may now be the U.S. Security Issue at Stake in Afghanistan

    One positive outcome from the Middle East Institute Conference was a consensus that the al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is largely imagined.  Kilcullen said it was unlikely that al Qaeda would leave its relatively safe sanctuaries in Pakistan, even if the Taliban were to emerge victorious.   Pillar argued that geographic-centric approach to fighting terrorism is misguided as the terrorist can always flee Pakistan toward Yemen, Somalia or a dozen other countries.  Biddle’s critique of Pillar emphasized the nuclear threat in Pakistan as the main rational for U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, not al Qaeda.  Clearly the importance of the global terrorism network has greatly diminished as a reason for war.

    Pakistan, however, remains the sticking point between those in favor of expanding the war, and those who want to pull out.   For those who believe in Pakistani connection, two questions must be answered.  Where is the compelling evidence that Pakistan is more stable today than it was prior to the U.S. invasion?  Most of the evidence suggests the opposite.  Our drone attacks are creating civil unrest in border regions; our military offensives in Afghanistan are pushing Taliban members across the border into Pakistan.  Secondly, if U.S. “victory” is so critical to Pakistani security, why is it that Pakistani security forces are actively aiding the Afghan Taliban?  Unless you believe that the ISI is somehow irrational, this explanation does not add up.

    Cynicism for Reconciliation in Afghanistan

    It was discouraging to hear two leading experts on insurgency naysay the prospects for reconciliation.  Mitchell Reiss argued that several critical factors are absent in Afghanistan for peace talks to hold much promise.  The U.S. lacks a clear partner for peace among the insurgents[1].  Furthermore the Taliban believe they can win and therefore have no incentive to come forward and negotiate.   David KilCullen basically agreed with Reiss’s analysis.  Despite acknowledging reports that 90% to 95% of the Taliban are “reconcilable”, Kilcullen argued that negotiations were unlikely to work as long as the Taliban have the upper hand.  He also argued that the combination of military action and diplomacy could create a “virtuous cycle” whereby radical insurgents are isolated with military strikes creating more space for moderates to reconcile and further isolating the radicals.

    Reiss’s and Kilcullen’s analysis suffers from logical inconsistencies pointed out by Afghanistan Study Group Member Paul Pillar: If both sides pledge to only negotiate from a position of strength, the net result is no negotiations ever.  Fighting an insurgency is a zero-sum game: one side’s strength is another side’s weakness.  There is really only one requirement for negotiations to go forward: both sides must recognize that the costs of war exceed any potential benefits[2].  This is a far lower barrier and one that, after thirty years of warfare, has been long surpassed for most Afghans.

    Reiss’s other metric does have some merit, but likewise should not block the U.S. from aggressively pursuing a peace deal.  Although it is true that a genuine partner for peace in Afghanistan is certainly a critical factor, this is something that the U.S. won’t know until it sits down and begins to negotiate with top level Taliban leaders—you are certainly not going to find an Afghan Gerry Adams by killing off one quarter of the Taliban’s military commanders and trying to buy off the rest.

    On the subject of killing off insurgents, Kilcullen’s “virtuous cycle” sounds great in theory, but the facts suggest a far different situation.  Evidence from Afghanistan shows that we are in an “un-virtuous  cycle”.  As the war expands and the more moderate Taliban commanders are killed, younger more radical Pashtuns are promoted and the Quetta Shura’s ability to control the insurgency diminishes.  Our continued military operations are hindering any prospect for a negotiated settlement, and the situation is likely to get worse not better as the fighting continues.

    [1] In fact, as Reiss pointed out, it is unclear whether even Mullah Omar has the capability of implementing a cease fire.  When I brought this same question up with Hekmatyar’s U.S. representative Daoud Abedi, he said that the Taliban could effectively end the insurgency “tomorrow”.

    [2] It is not clear the Taliban could march in and take Kabul next year even if the U.S. were to cut and run.  The absence of a quick and easy victory for either side suggests that there are incentives for both sides to enter negotiations.

    U.S. Policy Supports Pyramid Scheme

    No one at yesterday’s conference gave a more impassioned description of the governance problem facing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan than Stephen Biddle from the Council on Foreign Relations.  Biddle began his discussion by pointing out that General McChrystal’s COIN strategy places an unusually large emphasis on creating good governance.  Biddle went on to describe the U.S.’s focus on building government-capacity as misguided.  The local leaders are predatory having developed large networks aimed at extracting resources from Afghans, and U.S. policy makes matters worse by financially supporting a virtual pyramid scheme.  The problem, as Biddle sees it, is not simply a lack of capability.  Local leaders have malign intentions.  Those who find themselves outside the patronage network lose everything:  their land is stolen and they have no place to seek redress:  the courts and political leaders are all in the predatory network and NATO is bankrolling it.

    Anyone listening to Biddle would conclude that Counter Insurgency has zero prospects for success.  But Biddle, despite his rhetoric, does not see the governance problem for what it is: a major and perhaps fatal impediment to our war strategy.  Biddle’s recommendations are prosaic:  since the root of the problem is that these local Afghan leaders are being empowered, the U.S. should stop sending them money.

    There are at least two problems with Biddle’s recommendation.  Firstly, as he himself admitted at the beginning of his talk, promoting governance is a critical—perhaps the critical—factor in a counter insurgency strategy.  How can you promote governance while simultaneously refusing to work with local leaders?  There is a fundamental contradiction here.  Secondly, these local leaders have supporters and armed militias.  If the U.S. money well runs dry, these networks will likely go to the Taliban.  As numerous news stories have discussed, warlords control strategic areas of the countryside and often provide safe passage and assistance to NATO forces.  For example, if the U.S. stops working with Commander Ruhullah, who is going to guarantee safe passage for convoys between Kabul and Kandahar. The factors lead me and others to conclude that a fundamental rethinking of the war is necessary.

    More on the Election Significance

    One likely outcome of Tuesday’s election that I forgot to mention in Wednesday’s recap is that congressional gridlock may force President Obama to devote more time to foreign affairs.  Paul Pillar hopes that if he does, President Obama will rework the Afghan policy.

    Tags: , , , ,