- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By J. Dana Stuster
Best Defense jack of all trades
Analysts of the war in Afghanistan are sharply divided between cautious optimism and growing concern. The two panelists at the March 9 event held by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies on "U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Way Forward" were Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal and Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and they both fall into the latter camp. The resumption of the fighting season will determine which of these perspectives is more correct, but until then, here are four broad points where the two sides meet.
Sustainability is the key — So can the much-touted gains in Helmand and Kandahar be sustained? Dorronsoro doesn’t think so. He believes it was a mistake for the surge to emphasize the south while the Taliban’s leadership is based elsewhere. "The moment Obama sent 40,000 troops to Kandahar, the surge was a defeat," he said, explaining that the Taliban is gaining in the northeast. He used his own metric of success: "can I take a taxi there?" According to Dorronsoro, that level of security is a long way off still, in both the south and the northeast. Roggio expressed his doubts in more measured terms, explaining, "The Taliban is patient," and despite efforts to cut off their financing, they can afford to wait because "the money always comes back." "And it’s all about the money," Dorronsoro added, "The Taliban never have a problem finding men."
Deadlines are dangerous — The current strategy has the goal of passing security responsibilities to the Afghan security forces in 2014, but stipulates that this will depend on conditions on the ground. Roggio said that the United States should plan on a longer commitment, maybe a decade. He was careful not to speculate on the means, "but we need to tell Afghanistan and Pakistan that we’re not leaving," he said.
Negotiations with the Taliban should be on the table — Though they agreed that we should be talking to the Taliban, Roggio and Dorronsoro expressed doubts that negotiations could yield an agreement that meets the necessary precondition that the Taliban disassociate itself from al Qaeda. For all the talk of the Taliban being ready to disown al Qaeda and accept a political settlement, Roggio says their signals are still mixed. Instead, the Taliban is pandering to its audience — they may be ready to compromise when they speak to the ISAF or the Afghan government, but when they are talking to al Qaeda and other militant jihadi audiences, the message is reversed. "We need a commitment," Dorronsoro said. He is convinced that "the Taliban will go back to Kabul" and that the only issue is the means. The best-case scenario is a negotiated agreement where the Taliban can enter Afghan politics; the worst-case is more thorough, what Dorronsoro called a "Vietnam style" approach.
We need Pakistan on our side — Safe havens for al Qaeda and the Taliban in northwest Pakistan remain the largest impediment to securing Afghanistan, but Pakistan has been reticent to act on these enclaves, with Inter-Services Intelligence going so far as to provide support to some of the Pakistani Taliban groups despite being a nominal ally of the United States. Dorronsoro believes that if the Pakistan isn’t going to act, the United States should with an expanded drone program, damn the politics, full speed ahead. Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who attended the event, cautioned against recklessness that could alienate Pakistan further, saying, "the situation in Pakistan is dire, probably worse than you’re reading in the press." The best argument for Pakistani action, she continued, is what is occurring on their own soil, a sentiment echoed by Momina Bandey Rathore, a representative of the Pakistan Embassy, who said that Pakistanis are "paying the price" in military lives and popular fear. "We have done a bit, and we’re ready to do more," she said. According to Roggio, this needs to start with the way Pakistan approaches domestic Pakistani Taliban groups. Pakistan, he explained, can’t be selective in which Taliban they target, and must stop giving organizations that only target India and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, but not the Pakistani government, a free pass. It’s unclear whether the Pakistani government has the credibility with its own public to do that, but geographically there’s not a lot of choice. As Rathore observed, Pakistan "is there for keeps. We cannot go anywhere."