The factor most responsible for the resurgence of the Taliban is the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, explained Gilles Dorronsoro, during a panel discussion of his new policy brief, "Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for Afghanistan." U.S. military and political strategy should concentrate on strengthening the Afghan government and institutions to facilitate future withdrawal of foreign troops. This would allow the U.S. to focus on the central security problem in the region: al-Qaeda and the instability in Pakistan, he concluded.
Dorronsoro, a Visiting Scholar in the South Asia Program, was joined by Carnegie's George Perkovich and Ashley J. Tellis, and General David W. Barno, who commanded international forces in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Conventional Wisdom is Wrong
Dorronsoro began by countering two points of current conventional wisdom about Afghanistan – a) a military victory is still possible within a time-frame of two-three years, and b) negotiations with a "moderate Taliban" are possible.
He argued that it is too late for a quick, comprehensive military win in Afghanistan. U.S. and international troops are faced with a strong, organized, and highly sophisticated insurgency which is active in 50% of Afghanistan and can easily regroup in Pakistan. Even 150,000 troops – a highly unlikely number given the coalition’s resources – will be insufficient for sealing the Pakistan border. Increasing troop levels also raises political problems; more troops means more casualties, which will lead U.S. public sentiment to turn against further involvement.
Negotiations with the Taliban are not currently feasible because insurgent leaders believe they have the upper hand; they think they are winning the war and can outlast the presence of international forces. President Karzai’s endorsement of negotiations is simply a political tactic to increase his chances of wining in the future elections.
Without a viable option for swift military victory and negotiations, there is a desperate need to change the political dynamic in Afghanistan by withdrawing U.S. forces to strengthen the Afghan government. But the Obama administration is currently considering a strategy that would send 30,000 additional troops to the South and East; regions that are the birthplaces of the Taliban and where they are strongest. This plan will have little impact on the overall security of the country because the border with Pakistan will remain unsealed and hence the insurgency will not be quelled.
An alternative strategy being discussed – putting pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban’s sanctuary in FATA – is not likely to bear fruit within the limited time-frame the international coalition is working under. Even if the Pakistani army and government were to radically change their approach to counter-insurgency, stability in the tribal areas will take time. If the army was to undertake a full offensive, it would lead to civil war in a nuclear armed state.
Another common view that holds little merit is the idea that President Karzai is part of the problem in Afghanistan because he cannot provide essential services to citizen. Contrary to popular perception, the majority of resources for economic development are controlled by international agencies and NGOs, which actually weaken the government's ability to deliver social services. Large scale foreign initiatives to eradicate the drug trade or to intervene in Afghan politics are similarly counterproductive because they weaken the Karzai government.
The key to a new Afghanistan strategy is securing Kabul and other urban areas where current troop numbers are not sufficient. These secured areas could then be handed over to the Afghan army as foreign troops withdraw. An essential part of this strategy is to secure the North, which requires retaking places like Mazar-i-Sharif, whose U.S.-backed leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum, helps prevent Kabul’s efforts to centralize power.
There is little room for error with this strategy because the time-frame for its implementation is short. In the summer of 2010, a year after the strategy is put in place, there should be a full review with an eye toward engaging European allies who will be conducting their own assessments to determine their future involvement after nearly a decade in Afghanistan.
Redefining the Problem
Ashley Tellis began by complimenting Dorronsoro on his rich analysis which provides a comprehensive outline of what an alternative strategy might look like. He disputed, however, the idea that U.S. objectives need to be reconciled with available resources. U.S. objectives in Afghanistan need to be clarified, after which the necessary resources to achieve those goals need to be found.
Focus on the Objective, Find the Resources
The current U.S. objective to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist base for attacks against U.S. interests is well defined and achievable with available resources. The real problem is that the Afghanistan war remains inadequately funded. The U.S. must decide whether this is a fight worth winning, and if so, prepare to go it alone even if its allies choose to leave.
To understand how U.S. policy should adapt, it is necessary to recognize the Taliban’s three functional components: hardcore foot soldiers allied with the Haqqani Hekmatyar networks in Pakistan, tribal chiefs who support Taliban operations, and the renter Taliban - $5-a-day foot soldiers who fight for financial reasons.
Each Taliban component must be defeated with a different tool. The hardcore foot soldier must be confronted militarily. The renter Taliban can be minimized by providing financial incentives and other economic opportunities. Afghan tribal chiefs who provide the Taliban with access to their social networks have to be co-opted by convincing them that the U.S. is not going to withdraw without defeating the Taliban. Tribal leaders made the strategic choice to support the Taliban in 2005 only when the U.S. made the announcement that it was leaving the battlefield and handing over responsibilities to NATO. Feeling vulnerable, the leaders bet on the Taliban because the government in Kabul was ineffective. Neighboring countries like Pakistan also incorporated U.S. withdrawal in their calculations and decreased pressure on the Taliban.
Announcing an Exit Empowers the Enemy
General Barno observed that Dorronsoro’s diagnosis of the problems in Afghanistan is sound but his remedies are problematic. A resource driven strategy may not be compatible with vital national interest. The U.S. does possess the resources to achieve clear and limited objectives, but they should be defined more broadly. The objective should be to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban and put a stable Pakistan in control of its nuclear weapons.
A stable Afghan government supported by U.S. and NATO forces that inspires confidence and stability throughout the region is a necessity. The U.S. must change the narrative in Afghanistan from "we’re leaving" to "we’re staying." A publicized goal of exiting only empowers the enemy.