AfPak’s Strategic Blinders

One month after the Obama administration's strategic review of the Afghan war, it's become clear that there's little willingness to change what increasingly looks like a failure in the making.


As the past year came to a close, most commentators were pessimistic in their assessments of security in Afghanistan. A typical take came from Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes security risks for aid organizations: "Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year."

But the analysts who mattered most — those who were working on the Obama administration’s review of the Afghan war — had a very different view. The final report summary made public on Dec. 16 declared that NATO forces in Afghanistan have been succeeding in their mission and will continue to execute their current plan. Vice President Joseph Biden’s sudden visit to Afghanistan this week serves to reinforce that decision.

While acknowledging that the gains were fragile and reversible, the report did not recognize that the plan depends heavily on military and political conditions that are quickly losing all credibility. A successful strategy would begin by acknowledging, rather than ignoring, all the uncertainties at the root of the current mission of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Let’s take these one at a time. First, the Obama administration’s strategy assumes that NATO is in a position to fundamentally "degrade" enemy Taliban militarily — to the point that Afghan National Security Forces can be solely responsible for dealing with them. But as long as the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan, the Taliban can choose when they will fight and how many casualties they are willing to sustain. In essence, at this point, it’s the Taliban who decides how "degraded" they will let themselves become. The White House report admits that "the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan." But the government doesn’t hint at how the administration will manage in the next four years to finally convince Pakistanis to change their fundamental strategic calculus after nine years of repeatedly failing to do so.

The issue here is the conviction among Pakistani elites that India is their country’s long-term existential threat. Pakistan has maintained a long-term relationship with the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, in a bid to gain strategic leverage in Afghanistan over its rival to the south. Biden’s trip to Pakistan this week will simply be the latest in a long series of trips by senior U.S. officials. The renewed U.S. commitment to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government does not provide a reason for Pakistan to change its strategic appreciation or actions.

The administration also overlooks the probability that, even if Pakistan decides to control traffic across its porous and remote border with Afghanistan, it may well lack the capability to do so. Previous attempts by outside powers to close the same frontier have failed. Indeed, the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan fell apart because the United States was able to arm mujahideen fighters in Pakistan, from which they traveled into the border regions. Senior Pakistani officers have complained to me in several venues that Pakistani militants have retreated to sanctuaries in Afghanistan despite Pakistani requests that the United States prevent border crossings from the Afghan side. That may sound like an expedient excuse, but U.S. commanders have admitted similar difficulties with closing the border. The limited willingness of security forces to reach into the country’s hinterlands is an even greater problem: Although Pakistan is completing operations in South Waziristan, it has indicated publicly that it is not ready yet to commence operations in North Waziristan — and has not been willing to discuss the need for operations or even permission to fly drones in the Quetta region, the headquarters for Mullah Omar and his Taliban organization.

The U.S. government also admits that its military goals will have to be advanced by "effective development strategies." But that matter-of-fact description belies the fact that economic development in the primary terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan can’t begin until Pakistan conducts major military operations to secure the region. Lasting economic development is a decades-long process in the best of situations. In the absence of basic security, it is an impossibility.

NATO’s plan also depends on Karzai’s government in Kabul developing the willingness and capacity to extend effective governance nationwide. That’s a remarkably optimistic assumption given both its failure to do so for the last nine years and its current lack of legitimacy and popular support throughout the country. There’s little to suggest that Karzai is preparing to improve his government’s accountability and competency: He is still actively resisting ISAF efforts to prosecute corrupt officials. Even if NATO continues to bear the brunt of the battle against the Taliban, outside military forces can at best only provide an opportunity for indigenous governance to develop. The idea that Karzai will suddenly change his approach seems to be a very thin reed on which to build a strategy.

Even if Karzai does have a change of heart, it is very unlikely that the Afghan government will have the capacity to extend its reach across the entire country by the end of 2014, the date at which the Obama administration aims to conclude its "path to complete transition." Indeed, the Afghan government has still failed to fill most government jobs in Kandahar, a task that has been one of NATO’s highest priorities. If after nine years of mentoring, Kabul still cannot find a couple of hundred officials to fill key positions in a critical province, how can it possibly be ready to govern the entire country in four years?

The administration makes another leap of faith concerning the future capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. The United States has been training the Afghan National Army (ANA) since 2003 and professes great hopes about its future. But one can only wonder how NATO reconciles its positive reports on the ANA’s performance with the fact that Afghan forces have been notably absent in recent key operations. In October, NATO kicked off its offensive to clear Panjwai, a vital Taliban stronghold. Despite Panjwai being declared a critical campaign, apparently none of the ISAF-trained Afghan National Security Force units were up to leading this critical offensive. Because the NATO commander thought it important that Afghan forces lead, he turned to Abdul Razziq, a self-appointed "colonel" who raised and trained his own force to control a border crossing near Kandahar. At NATO’s request, Razziq brought about 500 men to provide an Afghan lead for the operation. In short, though NATO has contributed six years of mentoring and claims to have trained 235,000 Afghan troops, the ANA still cannot contribute a single battalion to lead the most important military operation in the country. The Obama administration’s strategic review gave no indication of how that dreadful record can be turned on its head over the next four years.

When there’s a strong possibility that the key assumptions underlying a military strategy are mistaken, it is time to reframe the problem and rethink the strategy. Unfortunately, where the Obama administration’s strategic-review panel ought to have challenged the assumptions underlying the current Afghan strategy, it instead offered unquestioned acceptance. Despite a steady stream of pessimistic reports, including the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and countless testimonies from NGOs and independent experts in Afghanistan, the administration has not challenged its basic assumptions about Karzai and Pakistan. The West has hitched its wagons to political leaders in Kabul and Islamabad who don’t share its long-term strategy and don’t have the capabilities to realize it in any case. That’s an oversight likely to doom the war effort. If Washington is wise, it would organize another strategic review to correct the failures of the last.

A clear-eyed auditing of the West’s current mission may well conclude with a sobering reduction of its goals — perhaps the United States shouldn’t be developing nation-building plans for Afghanistan at all, but rather be focusing on how to ensure stability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Certainly, there’s a strong argument to be made that regional and global security would be better served that way. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seemed less interested in delivering a candid assessment than in providing justification for continuing its current strategy.

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