Obama's Strategy in Afghanistan: The Afghanisation of the War

Published in South Asia
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By AlJazeera Centre for Studies

Early in December 2009, and after lengthy consultations, United States president Barack Obama announced his strategy in Afghanistan. At first glance, it seemed as if the approach chosen by the U.S. president aimed at the Afghanisation of the conflict; pitting Afghans against Afghans. It also seemed that his plan was based on a specific target date by which he wanted to get American troops out of the battlefield which was inaugurated by his predecessor.

Indeed, Obama's announcement makes the war in Afghanistan an American war more than in any other period since October 2001, the date that the invasion of Afghanistan began.

Elements of Obama's strategy

The long period of deliberations prior to President Obama's announcement of his administration's Afghanistan strategy saw a slow leaking of a number of the elements of the strategy to the media. But no one was able to predict with any certainty the objectives that the president would set for the ongoing war.

The elements that formed the basis for President Obama's announcement can be summarized in the following four points:

  1. The United States will deny al-Qaeda a safe haven in the Afghan-Pakistan border area;

  2. With the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops to the U.S. forces already operating in Afghanistan, the U.S. will work to stop the escalation of the Taliban's power and influence in the country;

  3. While putting a halt to Taliban attacks and while forcing Taliban forces to to retreat, the U.S. will exert much effort to train and equip military and security forces for the Afghan government to capacitated enough to confront the threat of the militants; and

  4. The U.S. will begin the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in July 2011.

Factors which prompted a war strategy

Obama's strategy was based on the recommendations of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus, commander of the Central Command. It is clear that they both urged President Obama to take the decision to increase troops, with the aim of applying the experience of and drawing lessons from the war in Iraq.

There were two main factors which prompted Obama to declare a clear strategy for his war in Afghanistan. The first factor is the obvious successes of the Taliban in various parts of the country, particularly in the central, south-east, and north-east provinces. It is believed that the Taliban forces are now in control of, or are dominant and work with relative freedom in, approximately two-thirds of the country. These successes have been achieved partly because of the decline in American interest in Afghanistan during the period between 2003 and 2008, when it seemed as if Washington was losing the war in Iraq, and by the Western failure to establish a credible Afghan government in Kabul.

The second factor has to do with the fact that Obama, since his presidential election campaign, has been widely critical of the war on Iraq, and considered the Bush administration as having miscalculated the situation by attacking Iraq and ignoring the situation in Afghanistan. Obama, in other words, positioned the Afghan question at the heart of his foreign policy, and had declared the war in Afghanistan as the war of his own administration - even before he had moved towards the threshold of the White House.

In general, the American public and American foreign policy observers positively received the president's announcement of a new Afghanistan strategy. From a political perspective, the announcement was very shrewd. Details about one of the main issues in the president's plan - the size of the increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan - was leaked to the media weeks before, so it ceased being an issue of surprise. More important, of course, is that the decision to increase the number of troops was balanced by the other major decision of setting a clear and close date for beginning the withdrawal of troops, an obvious indication that the Obama administration was seeking to Afghanise the war. In addition, Obama set modest goals for the war, trying to avoid talking about defeating the Taliban.

It is likely that the Obama strategy is based on the recommendations of General McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since spring 2009 and the most prominent American expert in non-conventional wars, along with General Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and the commander of the Central Command in whose operations department Afghanistan falls. Both men urged President Obama to take the decision to increase troops, with the aim of drawing lessons from the war in Iraq during 2007-2008 and applying that experience in the Afghan scene. One might then ask: to what extent does the reality of Obama's plan correspond to the image spread about it? And, what are the chances of the success of this plan?

 Allies and regional powers

NATO allies of the United States welcomed Obama's announcement. NATO's Secretary General stressed that alliance partners had agreed to increase their forces collectively by 7,000 soldiers; adding to the 34,000 U.S. troops that had been on the Afghan scene. Compared to the increase in the number of U.S. forces, NATO's decision, from a military perspective, was of little significance. But it does have important political connotations, as it indicates the mobilisation of a virtual consensus within the alliance behind U.S. policy.

This consensus is overshadowed by the differences in the various speculations of how the war would end, and by the fact that it is doubtful whether the allied nations would indeed send this (albeit limited) number of additional troops to a very complicated and dangerous battlefield.

The most prominent dissenting voice within NATO was the Turkish position. Ankara - which participates in Afghanistan with a non-combat battalion - declared that it was not planning to increase the number of its troops in Afghanistan and that it would not change its mission of training and construction to one of fighting.

 Reasons for the Turkish position

There are a number of reasons why Turkey adopted the position that it did. They include the following:

  • The Turkish military leadership is not convinced that NATO can, in fact, achieve victory in Afghanistan;

  • Ankara believes that its forces have succeeded in building a relationship of trust with the Afghan people, and even with the Taliban, and it does not want to lose that confidence and relationship of trust; and

  • The Turkish government believes that it can play a broader future role in an attempt to end the war in Afghanistan, and that such a potential role will provide Turkey with a foothold in a region that does not relate to it geographically - given that the Ottoman Empire had not succeeded in establishing strategic ties with Afghanistan.

The success of the U.S. strategy in the region is dependant on the positions adopted by those states neighbouring Afghanistan: Pakistan's position is critical and primary in this regard, followed by the positions adopted by Iran and India. U.S. success is also linked, in a different way, to the Russian position.

Pakistan has offered only reserved support for Obama's plan. This is partly because Pakistan is fighting its own war against the Pakistan Taliban in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan's main fear is the possibility of an escalation of U.S. raids on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the expectation that the new strategy will see further U.S. demands being made on Pakistan. In addition, there has not been any significant involvement by Washington in attempting to cool down the tense situation between India and Pakistan - as demanded by Islamabad.

For Obama's plan to be successful, it would require an active role by Pakistani intelligence in infiltrating the Afghan Taliban, a role that no other party except Pakistani military intelligence (which is thought to be teeming with Taliban sympathizers) has the capacity to play.

To ensure the success of his plan, what Obama requires from Pakistan transcends that country's campaign in the tribal region, which, in any event, seems to have turned into something akin to a civil war. What Obama needs is for Pakistan to do more and play a more active role in ensuring that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are denied safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border. This is a goal whose achievement requires an escalation in the military campaign in Pakistan. To succeed, Obama's plan also requires an active role from Pakistani intelligence to infiltrate groups of Afghan Taliban.

On the other hand, India plays a double role with regards to the Afghan question. On the one hand, any escalation in the already strained relations between India and Pakistan will result in Pakistan being forced to move its troops from the Afghan border to the Indian border. By so doing, the scale of Pakistan's participation in support of Obama's plan will reduce. Furthermore, because of mutual suspicion between the Karzai government and Islamabad, the former has strengthened its ties with India at the expense of neighbouring Pakistan. There is no doubt that the widening scope of Indian influence in Afghanistan poses a tangible threat to Pakistan's interests, and raises doubts within the Pakistani military and intelligence services about the strategic returns of the alliance with the United States on the Afghan question. This is especially so after Pakistan has incurred huge costs to its military on the one hand, and to its political stability and security on the other.

It must be noted that the Pakistani military is working to re-activate its internal influence within the country. This is indicated by the fact that President Asif Ali Zardari was coerced into giving up many of his powers, including his control over the nuclear arsenal, thus widening the sphere of influence of the military in determining the country's foreign policy under civilian rule, including policy on Afghanistan - a question which is closely linked to the national security of Pakistan.

Iran is a different matter. Tehran considers the Taliban a foe, and does not want to see the Taliban again being at the helm of power in Afghanistan. But Iran also views with concern the increasing and deepening U.S. military role in Afghanistan, as it relates the American role in Afghanistan to America's position on Iran's nuclear program.

If Washington resorted to the imposition of further sanctions on Iran, the latter could respond to the sanctions on two American fronts - in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It is clear that Iran's influence on the Taliban is too weak to be a source of concern to the Americans. Yet there are indications of Iran's relationships with many other actors in the Afghan arena: from Karzai's government to some of the former warlords, from the Hazara Shiite groups to the Tajik political forces.

It is likely that if Tehran felt that Washington was to launch a military strike against its nuclear facilities, Iran might open lines of communication with the Taliban, with the aim of inflicting pain on the U.S. forces there and causing further degradation of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The Russian position is more ambiguous and complex. The Russian government welcomed the Obama plan, as negotiations between Moscow and Washington on the establishment of a supply line for U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the port of St. Petersburg, parallel to the supply line from Karachi, almost reached agreement. But, on the other hand, Moscow looks with satisfaction at the growing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, given that the Russian strategic focus at this stage is on what is known as the "near abroad": Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia, which are regarded as highly significant to Russia's direct national interests.

Russia is aware that any rapid success of the U.S. in Afghanistan will give Washington the strategic freedom to play a more influential role in opposing Russian's attempts at widening its influence in the neighbouring countries and regaining many sites that it lost in the Yeltsin era and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Therefore, there are reports of indirect Russian support, albeit limited, to the Taliban, or, at least, of Russia turning a blind eye to the Taliban's purchasing of Russian weapons. On the other hand, what the Obama administration is waiting for is a further deterioration of Russia's economy and an increase in its need to upgrade its industrial structure, so that the U.S. might better be placed to force in Moscow to take a more positive stance towards the American plan in Afghanistan.

 The Obama Strategy and chances of success

To simply believe that Obama has scheduled a U.S. withdrawal from the Afghan stage is incorrect. What Obama indicated in his new plan, mainly for domestic consumption, is that the U.S. military withdrawal will begin in July 2011, and that this withdrawal will depend on the developments on the ground. The American president did not specify when the withdrawal would be completed, and he did not even mention that a complete withdrawal is on the cards for the foreseeable future. Certainly the increase in the number of U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan to about 100,000 troops - three times the number of all foreign military forces other than the U.S. - makes the war in Afghanistan an American war par excellence, and increases the likelihood of the involvement of U.S. forces in the complex Afghan theatre. The question is whether the July 2011 deadline will be the beginning of a major U.S. withdrawal or just a partial and slow withdrawal. This cannot be determined at this stage.

The active U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has surpassed the peak of its involvement in the last eight years, and the Afghanistan war has exceeded, in time, the Vietnam War. The American president is aware that a final strategic defeat of the Taliban is a difficult - if not impossible - goal to achieve, and this has caused him to avoid announcing any such goal.

The central goal of Obama's plan is to open a window of time that will allow U.S. forces to impose a tactical defeat on the Taliban troops, halting the escalation of the Taliban offensive, and reducing the influence of the movement on the battlefield, thus forcing it to suspend its operations without having to resort to large-scale military action.

This period, the Americans believe, is an opportunity to achieve two interrelated goals. Firstly, to build an Afghan army and Afghan security services which can be depended upon to bear the brunt of the war. Secondly, to strengthen the confidence of the majority of Afghan citizens in the new political and economic situation, in a manner that will help to narrow the window that is available to the Taliban to recruit supporters.

If the new strategy succeeds in achieving this goal, the actual withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin. However, the success of this strategy depends on a number of factors within the Afghan theatre, in Afghanistan's neighbourhood, and at the level of U.S. allies. There are a number of important considerations for the U.S. as it attempts to make progress in Afghanistan and implement Obama's new strategy.

  1. Afghanistan requires a credible government that can unite the largest possible section of the Afghan people. Hamid Karzai's government lacks this credibility and, consequently, the ability to play such a unifying role. Despite promises of reform made by Karzai to Washington after the controversial Afghan presidential elections last year, it is doubtful that he can give rise to a radical reform movement in his government.
    One of the proposals that is circulating within some sections of the American administration is that the U.S. bypasses Karzai completely and works in Afghanistan as if he is non-existent. Such a policy would position the Americans very well to be able to enforce their will in Afghanistan, but it will not help to build reliable Afghan military and security institutions which can be relied on in the confrontation with the Taliban and to protect the new state. A necessary condition for the building of the new army is the founding of a regime that, in the eyes of the soldiers and military forces assigned to perform combat missions, deserves loyalty and sacrifice.

  2. Building the Afghan army and security institutions, and thus progressing towards the Afghanisation of the war, requires the training of a new class of officers whose members enjoy the necessary level of education, and whose imperatives are above tribal and ethnic divisions. This seems particularly difficult to achieve under the present ethnic and tribal divisions that are ravaging the country.
    Such a task also requires a high level of intelligence to secure the army and security services against the Taliban's penetration. This in turn requires wide ranging counter-intelligence to penetrate the Taliban ranks. For cultural and political reasons, such infiltration is beyond the ability of the Americans. The Afghan security services, which are teeming with Taliban supporters, cannot be relied upon in this regard. The only body that can play such a role is the Pakistani military intelligence, which could undertake this task but not without concluding a grand deal with Washington which could serve to assure Islamabad that its vital interests and security of Pakistan and its political system would not be at stake.

  3. For Obama's plan to succeed, the goal of all the allies of the U.S. needs to be unified and their policies need to be synchronised at the military, political and economic levels. Despite the fact that NATO welcomed Obama's plan, it is clear that most of these NATO allies are now seeking to approve the date of the final withdrawal. Most of the allied forces in Afghanistan would be happy to conclude separate agreements with the Taliban in order to avoid military confrontations, and it is unlikely that they would be willing significantly to increase the number of their forces. No less importantly, the Western allies have failed to fulfil previous pledges to provide assistance to ensure the launch of the process of economic reconstruction.

  4. Securing Pakistan's military, intelligence, and political support for the American plan requires the conclusion of a grand deal with Islamabad, essentially to secure Pakistan's back from the Indian side, to resolve the Kashmir issue (which is said to be the key to stability in South Asia), to secure Pakistan's strategic interests in Afghanistan, and to assure the flow of sufficient Western aid to bail out Pakistan's economy from the vicious cycle of loans and high military expenditure. Furthermore, the Pakistani military will need the assurance that there will be a halt to the pressure on it over its nuclear program - pressure which has been applied under the pretext of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of "terrorists". In spite of active overtures from the U.S. towards Islamabad, there is no indication that the parties are close to concluding such a deal.

  5. It is difficult, at this stage, to expect India's positive response to Pakistan's demands - assuming that Washington is, in fact, already working to persuade New Delhi to respond to these demands. Such an expectation is lessened when one considers the growing size of U.S.-India military cooperation, which is approaching a strategic alliance.

  6. Iran is unlikely to play a positive role in Afghanistan, without Tehran receiving the total reassurance that it will not be subject to more heavy-handed sanctions or to U.S. or Israeli attacks.

  7. The price for Russia's sincere and close cooperation with the U.S. has to do with extremely sensitive strategic objectives, such as the restoration of Ukraine and Georgia to the Russian house of obedience. It would be difficult for Obama voluntarily to place this issue on the negotiating table. The price may be economic, by forcing Russia to seek U.S. assistance for the Russian economy. This, however, is something that will require a long wait.

From this analysis, it is clear that the horizon available for the rapid success of Obama's plan is limited. To achieve the goals set in the plan there should be a long-term U.S. military and economic commitment in Afghanistan, a commitment that might be prolonged for decades. Such a commitment is extremely cumbersome, both in terms of the lives of soldiers and in terms of the costly economic burden.

 An alternative option

When the Bush administration launched its war on Afghanistan in October 2001, there was no justification for toppling the Taliban government - which was not hostile to the West but sought, in fact, to build close cooperative relations with Washington. It would not have been difficult to find a solution that would be satisfactory to both parties in the dispute on Al-Qaeda and Usama bin Laden, which was utilized to justify the war. Even after the overthrow of the Taliban government, it was a mistake to build a new regime without engaging the Taliban, or engaging a credible wing of the movement at least.

The Taliban is a unique phenomenon, and it must be understood in its Afghan context. To assume that it is just an Islamic political movement is a huge mistake. It is, in fact, a product of the intersection of various factors: the Hanafi madrasa textual tradition, the Pashtu identity, conservative Islamic traditions of the Afghans, and the new Islamic political idea of establishing Islamic rule. The Taliban is not organised in the conventional sense, and its defeat requires the defeat of the deep-rooted powers on which the movement relies, a task which would be difficult to achieve and is almost impossible in the current situation and in view of the social structure and culture of Afghanistan. In spite of Obama's many references to Al-Qaeda, the war in Afghanistan is not a war against Al-Qaeda (which does not have any important role within Taliban ranks), but with the Taliban and its supporters.

For the U.S., the way out of the quagmire it has got itself into is to admit that the U.S. policy on Afghanistan since October 2001 was incorrect. Furthermore, instead of pursuing the option of a long war, Washington should consider the increase in the number of its forces as a means of imposing some moderation on Taliban demands, then open the door to serious dialogue with the leadership of the movement rather than with fringe elements who no longer have influence on the Taliban.

Any one of the credible Islamic countries will be able to play an active role in this regard, with the objective of such a dialogue being to establish a transitional coalition government that will pave the way to peace and for the holding of free elections which properly will reflect the will of the Afghan people and their decision as to who must govern them. This must coincide with the military withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies from Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate that Obama's plan has the components for success, or that it is destined to be better than previous plans which have been proposed since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, and which achieved no significant results on the ground.

 * This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and the Doha-based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies. The article was originally published in Arabic by the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, and has been translated and republished in English by AMEC.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:46

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