Making good on a central campaign promise in his first week on the job, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to send approximately thirty thousand additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year. With another American aid worker having just been abducted in Pakistan last week, Obama is also wasting no time in sending Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy for south Asia, to a series of meetings in the region.
Afghanistan may be the right war, but the United States could very well fight it in the wrong place. Present plans call for most of the new troops to be deployed to the southern and eastern regions of the country, where they could win every battle and still fail to hold the ground. In a land already notoriously averse to foreign invaders, the southern province of Kandahar is particularly hostile to outsiders. In the 1980s, when the Soviets or the Afghan government wanted to punish one of their soldiers, they sent him there. Helmand, the other hot spot in the south, has no cities and few towns—very little of strategic value, except the road to Herat.
In the eastern provinces, it’s important for Obama and his team to recognize that regardless of how the United States revises its strategy, American troops and their NATO allies will still face “hit and run” attacks from across the Pakistani border to the east. There is no quick fix to this situation: even with the full support of the Pakistani government and military (a very optimistic hypothesis) the border will stay out of control for years.
And even if Kandahar and Helmand could be secured, U.S. troops would be stuck there, unable to prevent a stubborn Taliban infiltration and progression in the north. And when U.S. troops inevitably withdraw, what little order had previously existed would dissolve overnight. Regardless of how well U.S. troops there fare, the Afghan National Army forces that eventually replace them will be simply unable to ward off the Taliban. This is the Taliban’s historical base and they understand the political dynamics of these regions better than any foreign forces ever could.
Instead, the United States should concentrate its efforts in and around Kabul, where it can provide security for the people and win a peace it can pass on to the Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA will most likely never be an offensive army, but it could be trained and built up to provide security for the capital region within two years and then be free to secure other areas. The Afghan population and its elites, most of whom live in and around Kabul, don’t want the Taliban to come back, and they are inherently more supportive of the NATO mission than people in the south and east of the country. True, the United States is sending at least three thousand troops south of Kabul, which is a good start, but not enough to secure the city and the important roads from Kabul to Jalalabad, and Jalalabad to the Pakistani border.
When you’re firing your last bullet, you can’t afford to miss. More resources and casualties mean less time to succeed. It will take at least one year for the United States to build new bases and establish a stable presence for additional troops in Afghanistan, meaning it will be summer 2010 before the Obama administration can assess progress on the ground. If another strategic shift is required at that time, it will be well into 2011 by the time it can happen—ten years after the September 11 attacks.
Meanwhile, as Robert Gates recognizes, U.S. casualties will likely grow significantly. And while the United States might be able to put in another twenty thousand or thirty thousand troops now, it will probably be politically—if not militarily—impossible for Obama to put in another twenty thousand troops two years from now. In addition, the European militaries serving in Afghanistan are already exhausted, and amid the economic downturn they’re even less likely to stay longer if the situation deteriorates.
The strategic calculations are uncertain, but the bottom line is clear: the overconcentration of troops and resources where the Taliban are already dominant is risky and does not lay the necessary groundwork for the Afghanization of the war. If the United States wishes to empower its Afghan partners, it must secure the strategic area around Kabul and the big cities, where civil institutions can be revived.
In a few years, with enough money and enough foreign advisors, the United States can achieve this goal and make a responsible exit.
Gilles Dorronsoro is a visiting scholar in the south Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This article first appeared in the National Interest Online on February 9, 2009.