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Afghanistanization: But Still No Exit Plan

Posted by Meteor Blades on March 28th, 2009

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After 60 days of comprehensive reviews and leaks about differences over those reviews within the administration, no surprises have emerged in the new strategy for the “good war” in Afghanistan that President Obama announced today. Not even the slightest hint about when the U.S. troop commitment might end. And not a word about the 550 or more prisoners in the infamous Bagram prison, many of them previously tortured and still held without recourse to legal or humanitarian intervention.

Thousands of additional troops and hundreds of civilians with expertise in agriculture and civil projects will be deployed with a major focus on counterterrorism. The objective will be to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda,” the President said in a speech which reminded the world of the loss of nearly 3000 on September 11, 2001, and thousands killed – many of them Muslims – by al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere since then.

Tactics will apparently come from General David Petraeus’s field manual on counterinsurgency. That is, hunt down Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, protect the Afghan population, and heighten reconstruction efforts. Or better said, construction, since Afghanistan is no Iraq. It has neither a modern infrastructure throughout most of the country, where the population is 75% rural, nor accountable civil institutions at the national, provincial or local levels. Illiteracy and semi-literacy predominates.

Those (re)construction projects, Obama said, will be governed more carefully than in the past, and be monitored by inspector generals assigned to the State Department. At the same time, he said, there will be an increased effort to stomp out corruption in the Afghan government.
Stepped-up economic and military aid will also be provided to Pakistan.
The generals, including Petraeus and David McKiernan, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, have sought more troops than are being provided. So the question arises, will an additional 27,000 combat troops (including those already committed by former President Bush), 4,000 trainers to teach the undermanned, underskilled and desertion-prone Afghan National Army and police, plus hundreds of government-employed civilians be enough to stabilize the country? And will they be enough soon enough? And how soon is soon enough?

Really soon, as in before August 20 when the Afghan elections take place, according to retired Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla. A counterinsurgency expert, he was a key adviser to Petraeus in Iraq during the “surge,” and briefly an adviser to Condoleeza Rice at the State Department. Kilcullen testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee February 5 regarding short-term and long-term approaches:

If we fail to stabilize Afghanistan this year, there will be no future.

To stabilize Afghanistan, we need a surge of political effort, we need a surge of civilian expertise and financial resources, and we need to re-focus the military and police on a single critical task: protecting the population ahead of the elections. The strategic aim for 2009 should be to deliver an election result that restores the government’s legitimacy, and with it the credibility of the international effort. Which candidate gets elected matters less than ensuring the outcome meets international standards for transparency and fairness. This is a huge task. To do it we need to stop chasing the Taliban around, and focus instead on protecting Afghans where they live, partnering with the Afghan people in a close and genuine way that gives them a well-founded feeling of security, and ensuring fair elections that restore hope for a better future.

All the additional troops, however, will not be fully deployed until the fall. And the elections, while mentioned in the President’s speech, don’t seem to be a key element in the administration’s plans.
Assuming for the moment that stabilization does work, it would be merely the first step, Kilcullen testified. He and others have indicated the multinational commitment would have to last 10 to 15 years and cost perhaps $2 billion a month. But administration officials who briefed reporters noted that the Afghanistan war already costs $2 billion a month and the military part of the escalation alone will possibly boost that to $3.2 billion. You can do the math on a decade or more of that. President Obama reportedly has told congressional leaders that he will need more than $50 billion in the new budget for military and economic efforts in Afghanistan.

In outline, the Obama plan looks like this:

  • ::

• A heavy emphasis will be placed on training the Afghan National Army and the country’s police, with 4000 designated trainers deployed from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
• If the training is successful, 134,000 ANA troops would be in place by 2011, and 82,000 Afghan police. In both cases, that about doubles the current numbers.
• A total of 31,000 additional troops will be added (the 10,000 ordered for deployment by Mister Bush before he left the White House, the 17,000 President Obama has already committed to, and the 4000 trainers).
• 10,000-11,000 more troops could be deployed subsequently, but that decision probably won’t be made until the end of the year. (The British may considering send as many as 2000 more troops, according to the Times of London. Britain’s troop total in Afghanistan is now 8300.)
• Benchmarks for progress in the fight against insurgents will be developed for both Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a “no more blank checks” approach.
• Economic development in Afghanistan will be emphasized, with U.S. funding and money from others, particularly NATO. The administration’s nominee for ambassador of Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, a former top commander in Afghanistan, said in testimony Thursday that such civilian development has in the past been “short-changed,” a comment echoed in Obama’s speech.
• Diplomatic efforts to improve the situation by making it a matter of regional concern will begin in just a few weeks among the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the U.S., Europe, Russia and Iran. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke will meet with the Afghans and Pakistanis in “bilateral” talks every eight weeks.
• An effort will be made to peel off the “reconcilables” from the hard core of Taliban fighters.
• If Congress approves, $1.5 billion a year for five years in economic aid will be added to what Pakistan now receives if it agrees to get tougher with Taliban and al Qaeda fighters on the Afghan-Pakistan border. More military assistance will also be provided.
• “Opportunity zones” will be established in the border areas to improve lives of people there.
• Pakistan will be pressed to give more attention to civilian needs instead of its long-standing military rivalry with India.
• Efforts will be made to reduce the opium trade.
• The rights of women and girls will not be forgotten.

What determines success? “Success would be defined then as an Afghan state strong enough to not become an open safe haven for international terrorism,” according to General Eikenberry in his testimony Thursday. Based on President Obama’s frequent mention of Pakistan in his speech, it might be assumed that Eikenberry’s comments apply to it as well.
Given what’s been said and written over the past several months, progressives are certain to be split on the administration’s plan.

The Center for American Progress issued a proposal Tuesday – Sustainable Security in Afghanistan – that urged the administration to support a 10-year commitment that will “promote a viable Afghan economy that offers realistic opportunities for the Afghan people; sharply curb the poppy trade in Afghanistan and the region; promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Afghanistan and the region…”

That’s considerably further than the Obama administration seems ready to go. However, one foe of a troop escalation and a long-term U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, civil rights and antiwar leader Tom Hayden, challenged the CAP study, and by implication, some pieces of the Obama plan:

As a practical matter, all that is certain is that there will be blood. When the problem is a nail, reach for the hammer. But military occupation, particularly a surge of US troops into the Pashtun region in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the surest way to inflame nationalist resistance and greater support for the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai said last December that “the coalition went around Afghan villages, burst into people’s homes and has been committing extrajudicial killings in our country.” A United Nations investigator made the same point in 2008, accusing the CIA and Special Forces “of conducting nighttime raids and killing civilians in Afghanistan with impunity.”

Dan Simpson, a former career diplomat and U.S. ambassador , who is now associate editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote in Wednesday’s paper:

Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control.

Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can’t get matters in Pakistan under control — and as even Mr. Obama’s own special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has said, the problems in the two countries are inextricably linked — Mr. Obama’s escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work.

If it is not going to work, there is no reason to pursue it, spending more of our money and blood.

Hawkish critics have argued, as was the case in Iraq, that reducing instead of escalating the number of U.S. troops means abandoning Afghanistan and letting the Taliban consolidate gains it has made since the Bush administration transferred its attention to Iraq.

But the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated in its January 2009 report, Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War:

Pressuring Pakistan to attain political objectives in Afghanistan has been U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. Except in times of crisis (2001 and 2002–2003), the results have been extremely limited. Some experts are calling for more pressure, but there is a point at which pressure becomes counterproductive. For the United States, to think of Pakistan only as an instrument in the Afghan war is to forget that Pakistan itself poses serious long-term security concerns. Practically all the major al-Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. …

Historically, the more military pressure is put on a fragmented society like Afghanistan, the more a coalition against the invader becomes the likely outcome. This is what happened in the 1980s with the Soviet occupation and against the British in the nineteenth century. The polarization strategy has historically failed, and the advance of the Taliban proves its inadequacy.

Indeed, as The New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall points out today, Pakistani and Afghan Taliban Unify in Face of U.S. Influx.

Instead of an escalation, according to Carnegie:

… the key idea should be to lower the level of conflict and so reverse the current trend of ever-growing violence.” …

There is an argument against withdrawing combat troops: namely, that al-Qaeda would retain its sanctuary in Afghanistan because the Afghan state would not have control of some parts of the country, especially in the east. Though superficially compelling, this argument is weak for two reasons. First, the international coalition lacks the resources to
control the periphery of the Afghan territory anyway. Second, the withdrawal of combat troops does not preclude targeted operations with the agreement of the Kabul government.

So, in terms of physical security, the withdrawal of combat troops does not bring clear gains for al-Qaeda. …

In his 2009 book, The Unforgiving Minute, U.S. Army platoon leader Lt. Craig Mullaney writes of his experience:

The next generation of Afghans was the one we needed most for Afghanistan’s long-term stability, but it was the hardest demographic of all. Walking through town on patrol, I often felt like the Pied Pipe of Gardez, trailing children behind me in anticipation of more food, water, or candy. How are you? Gimme water. How are you? Gimme food, mister. We must have looked like alien invaders with our laser sights, reflective sunglasses, and dangling antennas. They called us the “Helmeted Ones.”

As I walked the kids laughed and smiled and ran laps around the squad in hand-me-down pajamas and bare feet. Red handed one of the kids some sweets secreted away in his cargo pocket. The flock swarmed around him like a celebrity. Ten steps away stood their elders, their faces spelled indifference. I asked a few questions through my interpreter. Have you seen any bad men in the village lately? Have the police been through recently? The answer was always no, but I asked anyway, for the report I needed to fill out when I returned.

What happened between the ages of eight and eighteen? It occurred to me that it would be the same if strange men with guns and sunglasses walked through my hometown: The strangers would be a curiosity for the young and an intrusion for the old. …

This was the frustration of Gardez in microcosm: how to stay focused on protecting my men while simultaneously engaging the local population. One pundit called this “armed social work,” evoking the image of Peace Corps volunteers with pistols. The real difficulty, however, was psychological: seeing every local as indeterminate, neither friend nor foe, but potentially both, at different times, in different circumstances. Lieutenant Colonel La Camera’s warning echoed in my head: Be polite. Be professional. Be prepared to kill everyone you meet.

It’s been obvious since before election day that the Obama administration would follow a different Afghan strategy and employ different tactics from those of the Bush administration. And so it will. But eight years into what will soon be longest war the U.S. has ever fought – the American Indian wars aside – there is still no exit plan for Afghanistan. And none in sight.

(Cross-posted from Daily Kos.)

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