Obama’s Unfolding Strategy for Victory in Afghanistan

afghanistan_war

August 4, 2009

by Webster Brooks ,

Editor Brooks Foreign Policy Review 

With July marking the deadliest month of combat for U.S. and NATO forces since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, America’s fortitude and patience with an intensifying military conflict will be severely tested in 2009. So too will President Obama’s leadership as a wartime president. England and Canada’s flagging support for the war, rising casualty rates and abducted American soldiers pleading for their lives on cable news channels are already generating concern at the White House and the Pentagon. Because wars can be lost just as easily by the lack of domestic support, more so than military defeats on foreign battlefields, President Obama must continue to forcefully articulate what vital American interests are at stake in Afghanistan. He should answer his critics who question his rationale for escalating a war most experts agree cannot be won militarily against an enemy that poses no existential threat to America. Afghanistan is now Barak Obama’s war. His credibility as Commander-in-Chief and his presidency may well depend on it. 

President Obama came to office with a clear and well conceived strategy to prosecute the “Forgotten War” in Afghanistan; one he has relentlessly pursued in his first six months in office. Having inherited George Bush’s war, he immediately redefined the goal in Afghanistan as defeating al Queda and its extremists Taliban allies, and denying them a sanctuary to launch attacks against America. Obama’s critical first step called for a larger American military footprint on the ground. Not surprisingly, his attempts to persuade our NATO allies to make a similar commitment were not very successful. Although some of his detractors questioned his decision to expand America’s commitment in Afghanistan out of fear that the U.S. would get bogged down in a military quagmire, President Obama had no choice. When he assumed office in January, the Taliban had advanced to the outskirts of Kabul, and were gaining control of more provinces within the country. Not to act quickly and decisively to increase America’s presence on the ground risked the downfall of President Hamid Kharzai’s weak and unpopular government. The possibility of Afghanistan collapsing into a failed state would have dramatically destabilized the region and vastly complicated an already dangerous situation in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.  Since the arrival of additional troops in Afghanistan and Obama’s installation of General Stanley McChrystal to lead the war effort, the Taliban’s offensive has been blunted and President Kharzai’s government has been shored up. The troop surge has also been critical to restoring order across the country in the lead up to the September presidential elections.  

In July, Obama’s troop surge unfolded as the locus of his long-term strategy of unleashing a military offensive to break the back of extremist Taliban forces entrenched in Eastern Afghanistan. President Obama’s goal is not to totally destroy extremist Taliban elements, but to significantly reduce their military capability and influence; thereby creating new conditions to draw “moderate” Taliban elements into Kharzai’s ruling coalition government. July’s ground offensive targeted the Taliban’s most significant stronghold in southeastern Afghanistan’s Helmund Province.  Helmund Province is not only one of the Taliban’s military and cultural centers of gravity, but the most profitable poppy growing region in the nation that finances much of the Taliban’s operations. The Taliban cannot be defeated until its economic lifeline to narcotics trafficking is degraded and U.S./Afghan National Army forces can exert more control over the areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to stem the flow of jihadists, arms and drugs to-and-from Pakistan.  

The costs of taking the fight to the Taliban thus far have been heavy. The spike in U.S. and NATO casualties will undoubtedly continue throughout 2009 as the missions to subdue the Taliban in Eastern Afghanistan continue. In July, NATO and American forces suffered 75 fatalities; 42 two U.S. troops were killed and six more died the first two days in August. Despite the uptick in combat deaths, the U.S. and NATO must continue to press forward on the battlefield. Their failure to do so would send a negative message to the Afghan people who already question America’s commitment and resolve to the future wellbeing of Afghanistan.

Similar to Iraq, the U.S. military is attempting to drive the Taliban out of its areas of refuge and support, and then remain in the “liberated” areas to secure the safety of local inhabitants. This close combat and exposure to enemy fire associated with the “capture, hold and build” strategy is more challenging in Afghanistan which is not only larger but more ethnically and tribally diverse than Iraq. The Afghan Taliban forces are extremely capable and well trained, particularly in using suicide and roadside bombs to kill American soldiers. Thus higher casualty rates must be expected.

By pressing its ground and air offensive early and hard against Taliban strongholds in Helmund Province, President Obama is hoping to score a decisive victory that will create the momentum to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan’s other eastern provinces like Kandahar, while at the same time demoralizing wavering Taliban elements. Key to the success of the Obama’s strategy of winning moderate and wavering Taliban elements over to the Kharzai government is convincing them that the Taliban hardliners cannot win the war or offer its citizens a better life.

As an integral part of this strategy the U.S. is moving to implement a similar tactic that it used with success in Iraq in the Anbar Awakening; putting Taliban insurgents on its payroll to stop fighting the Kharzai government. In Iraq the U.S. coughed up $30 million a month to pay 100,000 Sunni insurgents $300 each. In Afghanistan it has been estimated that its 250,000 insurgents could be paid $120 a month, or the national average of the salary of the lowest ranking members of the Afghan army. In the weeks ahead the Obama administration can be expected to roll out this program after the presidential elections that Kharzai is expected to win.  

A second strategy the Obama administration is reviewing to bring more moderate Taliban elements into Kharzai’s coalition government is “flipping” various Taliban leaders and groups. In Afghanistan’s past twenty years of internal warfare, various warlords, tribal and clan leaders have often “switch sides” in the middle of a conflict based on who they think will win. Warlords and tribal leaders joining the same forces they once fought against has been a constant and peculiar feature of Afghanistan devastating patchwork of civil wars. In short, many Taliban leaders have placed insuring the survival of their own tribes and klans above their loyalty to national Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar or major figures from other provinces. The Obama administration has made it clear to Hamid Kharzai, that if he wins the presidential election, he will have to reach out to various Taliban forces that have opposed him and even fought against him in the past. He will also have to end the rampant corruption that has marked his presidency. Kharzai has already begun making his peace with some of these Taliban leaders by offering them offices in his government in exchange for their support for his candidacy. While “flipping” certain Taliban leaders is an intricate and complex process intrinsic to Afghan culture, the prospects of its success will be dramatically improved the more U.S. and NATO forces are able to rock extremists Taliban elements back on the heels militarily.

Beyond the military component of the Afghanistan War, financial support, NGO involvement, reconstruction teams, education, infrastructure and economic development assistance are needed to stand up a viable functioning state. If the U.S. is going to eradicate poppy fields and production that constitutes 60 percent of Afghanistan’s economy they must also have replacement crops and programs available to poor Afghan farmers to maintain their support. Coordinating and bringing these resources to bear on Afghanistan is far beyond the means of the United States alone. It will require the cooperation and assistance of NATO countries and others like India, Iran and Russia that already have substantial investments and national security interest in a stable Afghanistan. But these massive investments and improvements in the daily lives of the Afghan people can only become tangible in an environment where there is a reasonable hope of long-term security and stability in government. Right now the Afghan people have neither.

President Obama is well aware of the dangers of getting bogged down in a long-drawn out war in Afghanistan; one the United States cannot afford militarily or financially. Afghanistan storied history as being the graveyard of empires from Genghis Khan to the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation has informed his military strategy. President Obama’s troop surge and military offensive to “capture, hold and build” territory while changing facts on the ground in the short run is the only realistic strategy that can create the conditions for a negotiated settlement with moderate and wavering Taliban forces. It is a realistic approach for getting American troops out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later. Whether the American people will demonstrate the resolve to support America’s difficult and painful mission in Afghanistan remains to be seen. As for the Obama Administration, there can be no turning back now.  ******

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