Obama Can Win Afghanistan With Soft Partition & the “Reverse McCrystal Strategy”
by Webster Brooks
Today, the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) released its recommendations to abate the Taliban insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan with a new strategy paper called “Obama Can Win Afghanistan with Soft Partition & the Reverse McCrystal Strategy” (RMS). The RMS report highlights recommendations to halt the Taliban’s momentum, reconfigure US/NATO force structure on the ground with 20,000 additional troops, stabilize Afghanistan’s post-election government and maximize vital reconstruction efforts to unleash Afghanistan’s state building efforts. The Reverse McCrystal Strategy provides a framework for President Obama’s efforts over the next 18 months to achieve his central goal of preventing a Taliban takeover and denying al Queda a platform in Afghanistan to launch attacks against the United States. The report was drafted by Senior Fellow Webster Brooks, Director of Brooks Foreign Policy Review; the international affairs arm of the Center for New Politics and Policy. The following summary of the Reverse McCrystal Strategy was released on October 19, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
The critical moment for President Obama to announce a decision on America’s strategy to win the war in Afghanistan is fast approaching. In the ongoing series of White House war councils, debate continues on General Stanley McCrystal’s August report that stated “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12-18 months)….risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Over the next 18 months President Obama faces four critical questions: 1) Developing a response to stem the Taliban’s growing influence and putting the insurgency on the defensive, 2) Redeploying U.S./NATO/ANA forces to tilt the battlefield in their favor, 3) Brokering an agreement to form a power-sharing post-election government and 4) Reorganizing state building and reconstruction efforts to create the foundation needed to sustain Afghanistan. The Reverse McCrystal Strategy (RMS) represents the best and most realistic strategy to achieve these objectives in the next 18 months and prepare for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops over the long run (3-4 years).
The centerpiece of the Reverse McCrystal Strategy calls for redeploying U.S./NATO military and economic power to consolidate Northern, Central and Western Afghanistan into a “maximum safety zone.” Securing these three regions now where 65% of all Afghans live, and linking them to vital reconstruction efforts is the most effective way to diminish the Taliban’s momentum and solidify critical mass around the central government. Supported by 20,000 additional American troops, U.S./NATO operations would shift from conducting “clear, hold and build missions” inside the Taliban dominated Pashtun belt to providing maximum security to Kabul and the 23 identified “median and low-risk” provinces where the Taliban’s presence is minimal but spreading (see map). Recent Taliban advances outside the Pashtun belt suggest that U.S. forces engaging their adversaries from Kunduz in Northeastern Afghanistan to the southern province of Helmand are overstretched and under resourced. General McCrystal’s request for 40,000 to 80,000 troops to pursue the elusive Taliban plays directly into the Taliban’s hit and run strategy. Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to maneuver and expand the battlefield, launching surprise offensives in new areas. What is most important now for President Obama and the faltering Afghan government is reversing the Taliban’s momentum by consolidating order, safety and stability over a significant section of Afghanistan. Demonstrating real progress and a model of a viable state is of the utmost urgency. Securing Northern, Central and Western Afghanistan would not only demonstrate tangible success, it would decisively impact the balance of power on the ground.
The Reverse McCrystal Strategy also calls on U.S./NATO forces to scale back forward operations for one year in the Pashtun belt where the Taliban enjoys real support, superior battlefield knowledge and strategic depth with supporting rear-guard bases in Pakistan. The tactical pullback in the Pashtun belt would be done in conjunction with the mass redeployment to Northern, Central and Western Afghanistan. A “demilitarized zone” and safe transit corridors to-and-from the Pushtun-belt provinces would be established for commercial purposes and safe passage. In addition, US/NATO forces would continue the “limited use” of Drone attacks and Special Forces operations on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border to interdict arms shipments and infiltrating al Queda elements. Redoubled efforts in cooperation with Pakistan’s government to destroy critical Taliban support networks in Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is of critical importance. Concurrent with these changes, Afghanistan’s government would open discussions with Pashtun tribal leaders, parliamentary officials and “willing” Taliban elements over a potential framework for regional autonomy and other national reforms.
While the RMS embraces General McCrystal’s call for a shift from defeating the Taliban by force of arms to creating safe havens, it reverses the battlefield deployment and political focus by winning the hearts and minds of two-thirds of Afghanistan’s provinces first. It optimizes opportunities to contain and undermine the Taliban by negating the most compelling factor powering its surge; the prevailing state of chaos across Afghanistan led by an incompetent and corrupt Karzai government and criminal warlords.
By increasing troop levels, resetting US/NATO/ forces and tactically pulling back in the Pashtun Belt, President Obama will gain valuable breathing room to bring America’s allies on side, settle the post-election political governmental crisis and train additional Afghan National Army troops. Whether there is a run-off election or not between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, it is critical that both men participate in a new coalition government. The effort to stabilize Northern, Central and Western Afghanistan will require significant compromise between Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and Turkmen who were the core of the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001. Many of these forces also supported Abdullah Abdullah in the first round of the presidential elections. For better or worse, as a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai can still be a valuable asset in talks with provincial leaders on instituting various forms of autonomy in Pashtun communities. While the character of the Taliban’s insurgency is Islamic-based, the Taliban has remained a predominately ethnic-Pashtun movement. Increased autonomy may create new vehicles and greater choice to incorporate Pashtun cultural, religious and traditional practices into provincial governance structures, thereby dispelling notions that only the Taliban can fulfill these aspirations. The essential point of autonomy in the Pashtun belt is that increased empowerment at the provincial level will afford Pashtun more choices and resources to exert independence from the Taliban.
Critics of the Reverse McCrystal Strategy will undoubtedly claim that any pullback-temporary or otherwise- from taking the fight to the Taliban is tantamount to capitulation or surrender. But there is no purely military solution to end the war in Afghanistan. The consensus view is that sufficient damage must be inflicted on extremists Taliban elements to create conditions that will compel moderate and wavering Taliban elements to align themselves with the central government. By creating a safe and viable Afghanistan state in Northern, Central and Western Afghanistan supported by a majority of the Afghan people, the Taliban’s rationale that they are the only force that can restore order will be severely undermined. Containing the Taliban’s advances by a soft partition of the Pashtun belt will halt their expansion and reverse their momentum. Increased efforts with Pakistan to neutralize their rear-guard support bases will bottle the Taliban up in a confined space. Offers of greater autonomy and redefining their relationship to the Afghan government will stimulate more debate among the Pashtun people about where their future interests lie and further undercut support for the Taliban. The Reverse McCrystal Strategy in its initial phase will significantly weaken the Taliban militarily and drain its political support among the Pashtun people. Moreover, RMS can accomplish all these achievements with the lowest possible U.S./NATO casualty rates. With public opinion weakening in America and Europe for the war, tangible success in stabilizing 65% of Afghanistan today combined with minimum casualties is the formula to sustain support for the cause in Afghanistan. If and when US/NATO forces have to move decisively to fully re-engage militarily in the Pashtun belt they would confront a far less formidable adversary.
Prosecuting unpopular wars against insurgencies that cannot be won militarily is sometimes the burden of policing empire. There are no easy options for President Obama in Afghanistan. What is required now is an imaginative approach that breaks with conventional thinking. The Reverse McCrystal Strategy offers both. ******