Hitting the brick wall in Afghanistan
The United States and its allies appear to be preparing for a significant U-turn in their Afghan policy. When President Obama enunciated his new policy in his West Point speech in November 2009, he announced a big increase in US and ISAF troops there. Their mission would be to turn the war around and hand it over to an Afghan government and army able to continue it in order to achieve full control of their country.
Within a couple of months this policy has hit the ‘brick wall’ of harsh reality, and all the rosy assumptions upon which it was based (many of them deliberately manufactured by the war party) lie in tatters.
The first reality-check was provided by the Afghan elections and their aftermath. They proved that there was no chance of a legitimate, reasonably effective Afghan government emerging to which a handover could take place in two years, as the policy envisaged. This realisation probably led to another, and harder, look at the wildly unrealistic assumptions relating to the setting up of a strong Afghan military able to take over security in the country from foreign troops at the same time. The election left the political strategy of the new policy in tatters.
The success of the new military strategy depended on Pakistan clearing out Taliban insurgents in its tribal areas and establishing control over them (the ‘anvil’ to McChrystal’s ‘hammer’). The Pakistanis have now made it clear (embarrassingly, quite publicly) that they are not prepared to extend their operations to the areas the US wanted them to occupy. (This was predicted in a pieceon this website, which went on to warn that, if the US sought to strong-arm Pakistan into taking such action, it would greatly increase the risk of the country being taken over by Islamic nationalists. The US has wisely decided not to try this hazardous tactic). With the Pakistan ‘anvil’ gone, and no viable Afghan army in sight, the rest of the military strategy is now seriously compromised.
Meanwhile, the governments of countries whose soldiers were doing some real fighting (Britain, Canada, and more recently, France) made it clear to Obama that it was not going to be politically feasible for their troops to stay on beyond 2011. All these developments opened up the likely prospect of another Vietnam quagmire, with the generals endlessly pursuing the chimera of victory in an unwinnable war, continuously asking for more time and resources (and threatening to blame him for the defeat if they didn’t get what they wanted).
Other reality checks came closer at home. Obama’s economic advisers probably told him that the war was not economically sustainable beyond next year. His political advisers must have told him that he didn’t have enough political capital left to support the continuation of an unpopular war. The Pentagon probably indicated that keeping up this level of operations in Afghanistan after 2011 would bust the US army. The State Department would have made clear that it wasn’t getting the volunteers it needed to staff the civilian ‘surge’.
Faced with all this harsh reality, it looks as though Obama asked Petraeus and McChrystal whether they could deliver what they’d promised in the next two years with the resources that they had asked for, which he had provided. Realising that there was no prospect of a blank cheque upon which they could draw in the future, and that the inevitable failure would result in their heads being handed to them on a platter, they appear to have backed off. The best available option then remaining was an indigenous political settlement including the Taliban and other insurgents (this course was advocatedas the only realistic solution possible on this website over an year ago, and several times since). This course has now apparently been accepted behind the scenes at the recent London conference, and has in turn led to this sudden change of tune by various generals (wily politicians have either kept their mouths shut, or created verbal smokescreens).
As reported in the New York Times recently, here is some of what they are saying:
Petraeus: "The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility."
McChrystal: " As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting......... I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," (when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government).
To these blunt admissions they add various caveats regarding weakening the Taliban, and negotiating from a position of strength. These may be just about saving face, or they may be lingering remnants of past illusions. They do not change the basic reality, namely, that a decision has been made to negotiate the best possible deal with the Taliban and other insurgents, thereby allowing for a pullout of US and INSAF troops some time next year. The Pakistan military appears to have been asked to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, and to lean on them to come to a settlement.
There is, of course, no guarantee that a deal will be struck. The primary condition of the insurgents for entering into negotiations is that foreign troops depart, though they will likely accept a firm (and limited) timetable for this to happen. If the US hedges on the issue, or seeks an extended draw down period, this could scuttle the talks before they even begin. Karzai’s allies from the former Northern Alliance would be opposed to a Taliban return to the corridors of power and they will attempt to abort the exercise (their realization that the US is pulling out will considerably limit the latter’s ability to influence them). Pakistan will influence the insurgents in the direction of its own security interests, and these may not conform to those of the US (or Hamid Karzai’s); they could conceivably even act as a spoiler. Above all, Karzai knows that, for the insurgents, a deal with him would be a temporary arrangement till they could get rid of him. If he thinks he’s not getting sufficient safeguards, he could sabotage the peace process.
But the greatest threat to the prospects of a negotiated settlement could come from ambitious generals with too many troops and no war to win. McChrystal seems to realise this (“You just really don’t make progress, politically, during fighting”) yet he talks about “shaping conditions”. Trying to do this through offensive operations (which other generals are already talking about) would be like sending in a bull to ‘shape’ your china shop before putting it on the market. The US cannot come anywhere near the ‘shaping’ the Russians attempted, but that didn’t save them from having to leave with their tail between their legs.
However events actually play out, it seems fairly certain that the United States will be out of Afghanistan in a couple of years. Sadly, even if a deal is finally struck, the war will still go on for many more months in blighted Afghanistan, and many more men, women and children will needlessly die. On the other hand, if no agreement is reached, the civil war there will go on and on, with neighbouring powers aiding their own proxies. And so even more people will die, or be maimed, or become wandering, hopeless refugees.
And the Great Game will go on.
© FB Ali (January 2010)