Eliminating al Queda’s stronghold in Pakistan and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan has moved to the top of President-elect Barak Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Circumstances on the ground in Central Asia have grown increasingly grave as a resurgent al Queda has pivoted toward a new strategy in Central Asia; destabilizing the nuclear armed government of Pakistan. In Afghanistan the Taliban’s offensive has rendered key provinces ungovernable and pushed President Hamid Karzai’s government to the abyss of collapse. Al Queda and the Taliban are stretching the global battlefield and redefining Central Asia’s geo-political map. For Barak Obama, the stakes are enormous. Developments in Central Asia will test the full measure of American hard and soft power and Europe’s resolve to forge a durable global security arrangement.
The emerging Central Asian crisis poses daunting challenges for the incoming Obama administration. President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan are weak leaders of faltering governments that cannot be sustained without unpopular U.S. intervention. Since al Queda and the Taliban launched their ground offensive in May 2006 they now occupy military space in four Southeastern Afghanistan provinces, Baluchistan Province in Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (F.A.T.A.) and growing swaths of the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP). A virtual failed state of Pashtunistan now exists in the majority Pashtun ethnic seam on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While Obama promises to insert 10,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, most NATO countries in-theater refuse to allow their troops to engage the Taliban-leaving the brunt of the fighting to U.S. armed forces. Finally, Iran, Russia, India, China and Pakistan all have strategic designs on Afghanistan backed by armed proxies on the ground; few of which comport with U.S. interests.
The Obama administration’s national security goals in Central Asia have yet to be articulated, but preventing Afghanistan or Pakistan from becoming failed states is foremost on the agenda. The collapse of either government will unleash Al Queda, the Taliban and other extremists to expand their influence across Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Should Pakistan slide into chaos the prospects of loose nuclear technology floating on the black market has ominous implications. The global nerve center of terrorism has relocated to Pashtunistan where terrorist attacks on London, Madrid and Bali were all hatched, and where al Queda makes it new home. Therefore Obama must unite his European allies around a central strategy to bring Pakistan on side, dislodge Al Queda and the Taliban from Pashtunistan (FATA and the NWFP) and reach consensus on a long range plan to rebuild Afghanistan.
Al Queda’s long-term strategy is to draw the U.S. military into the Middle East, spread its forces thin and bleed the U.S. until it withdraws from the region. Weakened regimes left behind would have to fend for themselves against a radicalized Muslim street and potent non-state actors, as is feared in Iraq today. Thus, a sustained al Queda offensive in Pakistan could warrent U.S. intervention in its third Muslim country the past seven years. The alternative would be to risk Pakistan lapsing into a failed state. Aided by the Bush administration’s ill conceived and mismanaged war of choice in Iraq, Al Queda and anti-U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia have seized the initiative. They are selecting the time and place of battle and determining the choice of weapons. Given the magnitude and complexity of the challenges surfacing in Central Asia, how will President Barak Obama’s respond?
While stabilizing Afghanistan will require patience, perseverance and a renewed commitment by NATO, the situation in Pakistan has imparted a great sense of urgency and volatility to the Central Asian equation. The surprising strength of Al Queda’s resurgence in Pakistan and its alliance with the new Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban) poses an immediate threat to Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin, which could fuel more discord among the Pakistani body-politic. Going forward Obama’s biggest problem may not be al Queda as much as the Pakistani Army and the Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISA) whose loyalties remain divided between the Zardari government on the one hand and extremist Taliban and Kashmiri elements on the other. The Army and the ISI sponsored A.Q. Khan’s acquisition of nuclear technology to build Pakistan’s “Islamic” bomb, and provided cover for Khan’s black market sales bazaar of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. All this was done as a matter of state policy. Along with hosting and financing global terrorists since the beginning of Afghanistan’s resistance to the Soviets in 1979, the Army and ISI has done more to advance the cause of global terrorism than any other nation or non-state actor.
Having enjoyed sanctuary in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Territories since 2003, al Queda continues to receive aid and comfort from key sectors of the Army and the Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). Now al Queda has turned on the Pakistani government with a vengeance. Their sponsorship of Muslim extremists that provoked the Red Mosque massacres in Islamabad in 2007 marked a crucial turning point in Pakistan that re-energized the extremist Muslim movement. After the mosque massacre angry volunteers and madrassa students streamed into FATA and the NWFP. In November 2007, al Queda launched its biggest operation ever in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where thousands of Taliban, Chechens, Uzbeks and Arab jihadists joined AQ to blowup police stations, drive out local administrators, burned down girls schools, forced thousands to flee the fighting and shut down the Valley’s tourist economy. The Swat Valley offensive was followed by a wave of suicide bombings and assassination attempts against the military and leading Pakistani officials from Karachi to Rawalpindi to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The scale of the offensive and the damage done to Pakistan’s tottering economy has unsettled Pakistan’s government and illuminated the red lights in the Pentagon’s Situation Room.
Fully aware of the implications of Al Queda’s offensive, in October Obama said “We have to make the case that the biggest threat to Pakistan is not India which has been the historical enemy. It is actually militants within their borders. If we get them to refocus on that, that’s going to be critical for our success, not just in stabilizing Pakistan but also in finishing the job in Afghanistan.” Obama’s message to Pakistani Prime Minister Galani and President Zardari was clear; the days of diverting billions in U.S. aid to fund Pakistan’s military operations against India and supporting Kashmir extremists are over. If Pakistan wants the proposed new $15 billion aid package, it must start rooting out Taliban and al Queda forces within its borders and scale back support for Kashmiri terrorists. To undermine al Queda and the army’s support for Kashmiri adventurism, Obama is thinking seriously about appointing a special envoy to finally broker a border settlement between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.
Despite his critics in the U.S. and Pakistan, Obama has refused to backtrack on his statement that if Pakistan doesn’t move on “actionable intelligence” to strike al Queda inside its borders, the United States will. In truth, Drone missile and U.S. helicopter gunship attacks on al Queda positions are increasing as the Bush presidency draws to a close. Should Pakistan’s Army and ISI continue to drag their feet on going after AQ and the Pakistani Taliban, Obama may be confronted with a game changing decision; whether to commit U.S. special forces in Pakistan. Even if bin Ladin is killed, al Queda is not going away. Committing ground forces with coordinated lethal air power may be the only option available to strike a decisive blow to al Queda and the Taliban. It could also ignite a wave of anti-U.S. outrage that threatens the political legitimacy of the Zardari-Galani government. While there are few good options in Pakistan, Al Queda’s operation in Pashtunistan must be shut down.
On the other side of the border Obama’s first move will be carrying through on his campaign pledge to redeploy two U.S. brigades from Iraq to Afghanistan. His objective will be expelling Mullah Omar’s Taliban forces from Kandahar and the poppy rich Helmund Province in Southern Afghanistan that provides millions in narco-trafficking revenue to the insurgency. Obama and his new CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus are both leaning toward a military “surge first” policy that creates conditions for negotiations to bring “moderate Taliban” elements into the government. In October, Obama said “I think that after talking to our commanders on the ground and based on sound intelligence, if we can peel off some support from the hardcore militants that are aligned with Al Qaeda that will be beneficial.”
To make this strategy work, the U.S. must hit the Taliban hard enough militarily to separate the Taliban and Pashtun tribes that truly want to enter a coalition government with Karzai, from diehard Taliban forces determined to undermine the government. The Taliban’s strategy is not to militarily topple the Karzai regime, but to undermine it while extending their influence. By destroying infrastructure, burning down schools, attacking NGO’s and targeting Aghan police officers they seek to make it impossible for Karzai to govern.
Increasing U.S. troop strength to 43,000 soldiers on the ground along with 30,000 NATO forces will allow the U.S/NATO corps to replicate the Iraq strategy of clearing territory; holding ground and building stable protected areas with the support of Afghan people. Implementing the “clear, hold and build” strategy will be far more difficult than it was in Iraq. Afghanistan’s land mass is considerably more vast and the Taliban much stronger and better organized than Iraq’s fractured political forces. Karzai’s government only controls one-third of the country, with warlords, Northern Alliance forces, and Iran wielding tremendous influence in Herat and Western Afghanistan.
The deployment of more U.S. troops and the “surge first” strategy will also send a strong message to Pakistan and others that the U.S. is making a long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s beleaguered government; a commitment the U.S. never made since its 2002 invasion. Karzai needs time and space to reign in the provincial warlords he’s allowed to run roughshod over the country. New estimates for rebuilding a credible the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Police Force has jumped from 65,000 to 200,000. And there are still the challenges of restoring basic services starting with water, electricity, schools and medical services.
Karzai has been widely discredited among Afghans as ineffective against tyrannical warlords, and an enabler of Afghanistan’s massive corruption. Karzai’s own brother has been linked to drug trafficking. Obama could have Karzai on a short leash. Presidential elections are coming in 2009 and Karzai may not survive if an attractive Pashtun leader emerges to challenge for office.
The road forward in Afghanistan will be a long and difficult one that likely spans President Obama’s presidential term, even if re-elected. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, divided by many ethnic groups, warlords and foreign powers. The economic commitment necessary to overcome the effects of three decades of civil war is so large that U.S. and European leaders have yet to live up to their pledges made in of 2002. In the midst of the current global economic crisis, European largesse seems even less likely. The failure to defeat or co-opt the Taliban in Afghanistan will be a devastating blow to the effectiveness of NATO and the European Union, and would have serious repercussions for the future of global security.
General Petreaus, who is conducting a top-down review of CENTCOM operations in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last month that “The effort in Afghanistan is going to be the longest campaign of the long war.” Obama will do well to remember that. After all, he seeks to accomplish what Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Raj and the Soviets could not; subdue Afghanistan’s insurgency with foreign troops and impose a proxy government on Kabul.