In late December Col Lang posted here a piece of mine entitled Whistling past the graveyard.... This was a reference to the recently published overview of the Obama administration’s review of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even though this summary dealt in very general terms with what path the USA proposed to follow in the future, I commented that it gave little hope that this would be any more effective than past efforts in dealing with the real dangers and problems the US and the West faced in this area.
Since then, various reports appearing in the media, and some actions on the ground, enable one to make a more accurate assessment of what policies are likely to be pursued after this review. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see that the principal players appear to be planning to follow different paths that suit their own particular interests. Since none of their policies are likely to deal effectively with the risks and issues looming in the area, it is apparent that, even though the tunes they’re whistling are different, they are still tiptoeing by the graveyard, each hoping that they’ll be safely past before the ghouls and banshees come charging out.
The White House appears to be focussing mainly on the 2012 elections; their policies are designed to help Obama get re-elected. The goal is to have the situation in the region stabilized enough by the election year so that they can claim sufficient progress to allow a significant number of US troops to be brought home by election time. This is the mission given to Gen Petraeus, along with the assurance that there will be no real draw down of forces up to the end of 2011. However, he has been firmly told that no ground incursions can be made into the tribal areas of Pakistan (in order not to rock that particular boat).
Since the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan could also create problems, the purpose of Biden’s recent trip to the region was to smooth over friction points with them. He probably reassured President Karzai that he would not be pressed any more on corruption and governance issues (provided he and his friends and relations exercised some discretion). In Pakistan, Biden publicly soothed sensitivities about sovereignty, while telling the military that the US would not push them any more on North Waziristan. This issue also did not come up in the subsequent Obama-Zardari meeting.
Gen Petraeus is aiming to achieve a repeat of his Iraq success ‒ bringing down the level of violence sufficiently to enable him to claim victory, and then depart in a blaze of glory. He came to Afghanistan as the wizard of COIN, but soon abandoned it after its failure in Marjah. His brief fling with peace negotiations was aborted by the ISI’s ‘grocer’ caper. He is now pacifying the South with a heavy-handed military operation (an Afghan government commission recently assessed the property damage suffered by civilians in the area at $100 million ‒ that doesn’t sound much like COIN!). At the same time he is building an Afghan army that is overwhelmingly non-Pashtun, and proposes to hand the Pashtun South over to them ultimately ‒ not at all the kind of “transfer” that COIN envisages. To ensure that his personal strategy works out, Petraeus will not be happy with a troop draw down in 2012, and there will be a tussle with Obama over this.
The State Dept is now largely out of the picture in future policy. Even when their point man, the late Richard Holbrooke, was around, he was largely marginalized (that is probably why he was reduced to daydreaming about a repeat of Dayton, with him bullying and browbeating Karzai and Mullah Omar into an agreement). The neocons, who engineered the Afghan and Iraq conflicts and pushed the ‘surges’ there, are also now reduced to singing the praises of COIN, and the virtues of resolve, from the outside in newspaper columns. Even more marginalized are the American people, who want the whole mess to just end. None of these interests can compete against the powerful players who have taken over the game and are pushing it towards their own objectives.
If these policies play out as intended, and nothing upsets the applecart, then their outcome should be as follows. The large US troop presence in the South of Afghanistan will keep levels of insurgent violence low through 2011. When Gen Petraeus does not succeed in persuading Obama to maintain these levels in 2012, he is likely to request that, having successfully accomplished the mission entrusted to him, he be now moved to another position. (It is also possible that, if the political climate is suitable, he will make an issue of it, resign and run for office). As US troops are brought home in significant numbers during 2012 (and NATO troops also thin out), the Afghan army will replace them. Insurgent activity will increase, and the situation will begin to deteriorate, reverting to pre-surge conditions.
However, these well-laid plans are unlikely to unfold in quite the manner their makers hope. There are powerful players on the other side of the field who have their own aims and plans. The insurgents will bide their time till the West’s troop levels decline, and then step up their attacks; the non-Pashtun Afghan army will have a hard time dealing with them in the Pashtun areas. Hamid Karzai knows that he does not have much of a future squeezed between an increasingly powerful (and independent) non-Pashtun army and the Pashtun insurgents. He is likely to move aggressively to come to a settlement with the insurgents before he loses his bargaining clout. Pakistan will help him in this since it would lead to an outcome that suits them.
And then there is Pakistan. Beset by numerous problems, it is a country skating on thin ice. With these internal stresses compounded by the strains imposed by the US’s war in Afghanistan, that ice could crack, and......... That, of course, would be a whole other ball game!