BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW
Analysis: November 3, 2009
by Webster Brooks
With Hamid Karzai’s re-election as President of Afghanistan guaranteed by Abdullah Abdullah’s withdrawal from the race, President Obama is moving U.S. policy towards the end-game of America’s occupation in Afghanistan. To reverse the Taliban’s momentum, protect Afghanistan’s major population centers and allow more time for President Karzai’s embattled government to be stabilized, President Obama will deploy up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops. By steering a “middle course” with a scaled down version of General McCrystal’s counterinsurgency plan, the President hopes to tilt the battlefield in favor of U.S./NATO forces without launching a forward-based offensive in the Pashtun Belt that will result in heavy U.S. troop losses. The “McCrystal Light” strategy will place more emphasis on containing the Taliban, rather than the U.S. taking aggressive actions to significantly degrade Taliban forces. President Obama’s overarching strategic consideration will be re-setting the battlefield to give Afghanistan’s indigenous anti-Taliban oppostion forces the leverage to militarily engage and nuetralize the Taliban over time as the U.S. starts drawing down forces in 2011.
President Obama’s decision to surge more U.S. troops to Afghanistan was never in question for several reasons. The Taliban’s growing momentum and influence cannot be allowed to expand without a challenge. Troop increases will also forestall a revolt by the U.S. military establishment and the Republican Party that have solidly backing the McCrystal plan. At the same time, a more robust presence of U.S. troops on the ground will send a message to America’s allies (NATO, India and Pakistan) and regional adversaries (Russia, Iran and China) that Afghanistan will not be abandoned.
President Obama’s adoption of the “McCrystal Light” counterinsurgency plan is clearly a gamble to play for more time–more time for fresh U.S. forces to get postioned during the winter lull in fighting; more time to coordinate a new strategic orientation with NATO, and more time for new power sharing arrangements to be forged between Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and the warlord powers. Afghanistan’s fraudulent elections have further undermined President Karzai’s despised government, increased ethnic tension and could still lead to violence between competing warlords if a post-election power sharing arrangement is not reached.
By maintaining control of Afghanistan’s major population centers and key highways between Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar e Sharif, Herat and Kabul, U.S. /NATO forces may be able to bludgeon the Taliban’s advance while containing its presence in Eastern and Southeastern Afghanistan. To disrupt the Taliban and al Queda operations, the U.S. will certainly continue its Drone attacks and Special Forces missions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In the meanwhile, the Obama administration will be forced to rapidly buildup the criminal warlord forces and their militias along with Afghanistan’s National Army as a bulwark against a Taliban takeover. As the warlord forces outside the Pashtun Belt represent Afghanistan’s Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen ethnic groups (60% of the total population), it’s possible that America’s eventual withdrawal could lead to a civil war between Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and the Pashtun dominated Taliban. These non-Pashtun communities that coalesced under the banner of the Northern Alliance to help topple the Taliban in 2001 have no desire to live under Taliban rule again. Thus, to the extent that these forces could re-unite to form an effective anti-Taliban united front, preventing a Taliban takeover of all Afghanistan can be averted even if the Taliban is not completely dislodged from its Pashtun Belt strongholds.
President Obama is also gambling that as U.S. forces begin to draw down troop levels, Iran, Russia and India–three countries that supported the Northern Alliance and have a significant stake in preventing the Taliban’s return to power –may increase support for their various proxy forces within Afghanistan. Thus far Russia and Iran have benefitted strategically from America being pre-occupied and weakened by the conflict in Afghanistan. However, a Taliban takeover would spell trouble for Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, there are realistic scenarios in which the United States can withdraw the majority of its armed forces from Afghanistan and still prevent a Taliban takeover while denying al Queda a safe haven.
Under any of these scenarios, the real tragedy will be the horrible violence and deprevation the majority of Afghan people will continue to endure. The hardship they have suffered since the Taliban was deposed in 2001 has not significantly changed under the corrupt Karzai government. Moreover, the criminal warlords who have privatized the nation’s resources, stolen its mineral wealth, established their own tax collections system, profited from Afghanistan’s booming narcotics industry and crushed the Afghan peoples’ democratic rights have rivaled the Taliban in the art of brutal repression. The much discussed need for a counterinsurgency strategy and increasing U.S. troops to defeat the Taliban while doing nothing to curb the warlords power will leave millions of Afghans defenseless against these henchmen, many of which hold top level positions in the Karzai government today.
President Obama has come under heavy criticism for being indecisive and taking too much time to respond to General McCrystal’s assessment and recommendations on Afghanistan. What may be closer to the truth is that President Obama did not particularly like the options he was presented with. Vice-President Biden’s counterterrorism stategy emphasizing Drone attacks and Special Forces operations to subdue the Taliban was nothing more than a quick and dirty withdrawal strategy by another name. Obama will conclude that the situation on the ground does not yet warrant committing 40,000 additional troops. Given the current strain on U.S. armed forces Obama is also clearly concerned about getting bogged down in a long war in Afghanistan when America has other challenges it must prepare for. The situation in Iraq where 130,000 U.S. troops are still deployed remains a fluid and dangerous thearte of war. In steering the “middle course” President Obama will seek to balance all the competing internal forces on the ground in Afghanistan to achieve an outcome that prevents the Taliban from returning to power. This strategy calls for reshaping alliances and weakening forces in some cases, while strengthening forces and even provoking rivalries in others instances. With public support in America waning for the war in Afghanistan, President Obama’s “McCrystal Light” strategy to achieve the same objective of pushing back the Taliban and al Queda with minimal U.S. troop fatalities may also strike an acceptable balance.
Subduing insurgencies in foreign countries is sometimes the burden policing empire. These unpopular conflicts can be lost by the lack of polictical support at home, just as easily as by being defeated by adversaries on the battlefield abroad. President Obama didn’t create American empire or start the war in Afghanistan, but he is now fully immersed in the search for an elegant solution to a very thorny crises in the Central Asian Great Game.