President Obama’s New Strategy in Afghanistan: Questions and Answers

Following President Obama’s announcement to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Vanda Felbab-Brown answers questions on the president’s new strategy and its prospects for creating security and stability in this war-torn country.

Q. What impact will the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops have on Afghanistan?

A. In the complex environment of today’s Afghanistan, there are no guarantees about the outcomes of a policy—even an appropriate one, such as President Obama’s decision to substantially increase the numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, there would have been no chance to turn the security situation around, take the momentum away from the Taliban, and hence, enable economic development and improvements in governance and rule of law, without the surge. Clearly, the surge will make an important difference on the ground. The question remains, however, whether the difference on the ground will be sufficient, and whether the amount of resources dedicated the effort will be sufficient. The critical questions that will be determined by the outcomes of this policy include the following:

  • If the bulk of the forces are deployed to Helmand, Kandahar, and the east of the country, will there be a flare-up elsewhere?
  • Will the Taliban be able to destabilize other areas and strengthen their campaign in the north, for example?
  • Will the existing NATO and Afghan security forces be able to prevent, resist, and defeat a Taliban campaign in the north or the west?
  • Will the 18-month timeline that the president set for drawing troops down be sufficient to enable the development of the necessary state institutions in Afghanistan?
  • Will the hard and specific timeline encourage the Taliban to wait it out until then, and then make a renewed effort?
Q. Is military force effective on its own as a means of counterinsurgency?

A. Counterinsurgency situations are ones where military force is only one component of the strategy. Since in a counterinsurgency effort, the population is the center of gravity, other tools of statecraft are equally important. These include economic development, public diplomacy, strategic communication, and most importantly, the delivery of the necessary public goods. Public safety, rule of law, and economic conditions enabling job generation are also critical. Yet many insurgencies around the world were defeated or severely weakened by military means alone, without the state ever addressing the root causes of violence. This is, appropriately, not the strategy President Obama outlined. Nonetheless, even though military power is far from the sole means to defeat the Taliban insurgency and al Qaeda efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a critical ingredient. Without changing the Taliban's calculus and taking the momentum away from it, the Taliban will not participate in any serious reconciliation effort, nor will the Afghan people risk their lives to resist the Taliban and rebuild their country.

Q. What about alternatives to the announced strategy, such as immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, or continuing with current troop deployments?

A. If the United States withdrew today, significant portions of the country, especially in the south and east, would fall into the hands of the Taliban. Other parts would either become engulfed in Taliban-generated and other local conflicts, or splinter into fiefdoms. Civil war à la the 1990s could easily be envisioned under such circumstances. At the same time, continuing with the current troop deployments would at best mean a stalemate, or at worst, a deepening of a quagmire.

The military and civilian surge that President Obama has decided to undertake is not a guarantee that such a highly dangerous outcome can be avoided. It is, however, the only possible strategy to reverse the momentum on the ground, and it is also the last chance the United States and the international community have to achieve such a strategic reversal. If this large military and civilian push does not work, if the government of Afghanistan does not live up to its commitments to significantly curtail corruption and improve governance, and if the hope of the Afghan people is not restored once more and their aspirations are not harnessed, the patience of the Afghan people will run out, and the U.S. effort in Afghanistan will become unsustainable. In that case, the only opportunity the United States will have to influence events in Afghanistan and Pakistan (including preventing al Qaeda and salafi safe havens in the area) and to influence developments in this region—vital from security, geostrategic, and counterterrorism perspectives—will be from the outside, with even far more limited leverage than the United States currently has.

Q. Can the Taliban be negotiated with?

A. Under the current circumstances, strategic negotiations with the Taliban will not produce any positive results. Mullah Omar has clearly stated many times that the only thing he is willing to negotiate about is how fast the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan. Disarmament negotiations with tribes and individual Taliban fighters are also unlikely to generate significant numbers of defections, if the Taliban members believe that they will ultimately prevail, and that defectors will be killed by the remaining Taliban. A reversal of the military situation on the ground in favor of NATO and the Afghan government will be an important element in inducing a willingness on the part of Taliban members to lay down their weapons.

Q. Will it be possible to deploy the 30,000 additional troops in the specified period?

A. The logistical challenges of deploying 30,000 troops to Afghanistan are significant, but it is possible to deploy the designated 30,000 within the specified period. This level of deployment will be on pace with current deployments this year. It is not only possible to deploy fast, it is also important to do so rather than trickling troops in small increments, so that sufficient momentum on the ground can be achieved, and so that sufficient troop density will be built up in designated districts to hold territory in a clear and consistent manner.

The more difficult determination is whether the announcement of the intention to start drawing down U.S. troops in 18 months will be more beneficial than harmful. The dilemma is acute:

On the one hand, the timeline allows the administration to build support domestically and indicate to the skeptical American public that the effort in Afghanistan is not an open-ended commitment, regardless of outcomes; to rein in and limit the economic and political costs in the United States; to indicate to the Afghan government that free-riding and counterproductive behavior on the part of the Afghan state will not be tolerated; and to indicate to the Afghan people that the United States does have no intention whatever of occupying Afghanistan.

On the other hand, setting such a timeline creates a real possibility that the Taliban will lay relatively low for the next 18 months and quietly prepare for the big push when the United States starts drawing down; that the United States will not manage to reassure the Afghan government and people that they will not be abandoned once again, thus failing to strengthen their resolve to undertake difficult and frequently personally risky decisions to resist the Taliban; and that Afghan leaders—government officials and unofficial powerbrokers—will lack the incentives to move beyond short-term narrow horizons of profit and power maximization for the sake of long-term good of their people and countries.

Q. How does President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan compare with that of President Bush?

A. Under President Bush, the strategy remained—even as the security situation was deteriorating steadily and dramatically—an economy of force. The military effort, as well as the development effort, was never sufficiently resourced to allow for a sustainable momentum to develop on the side of the Afghan government and NATO. President Obama's commitment of additional multifaceted resources provides an opportunity—though far from a guaranteed outcome—that such a strategic reversal will be achieved. Also, under President Obama's strategy, there is, for the first time, a clear emphasis on the quality of governance, and a sense that Afghan leaders need to be held accountable to the Afghan people and their international partners. There are no more blank checks. Finally, there is now a far stronger emphasis on the regional aspects of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy and the need to involve all of the important stakeholders in the region and worldwide.

Q. What will the immediate focus of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan be, under the president’s new strategy?

A. The clear and strong emphasis of the president’s strategy is on building up the Afghan state's capacity to take over the administration of the country and the provision of its security. The development of such local capacity is indeed critical—not only from the perspective of the country's long-term development and stability, but also from the short-term perspective of counterinsurgency, since local forces are frequently far more adept at combating insurgents than outsiders.

However, the need to speed up the training of Afghan security forces can not be undertaken at the expense of the quality. While the development of the Afghan National Army (ANA) has widely been considered a success, the ANA still faces major limitations in its regional make-up, its retention capacity, logistics, mobility, operational tempo, and command quality. Addressing these deficiencies, while at the same time producing far greater numbers of troops per unit of time, will be a challenge.

The Afghan National Police (ANP) faces an even greater challenge. Currently, the ANP is far from a success; in fact, many Afghans see it as a key threat to their public safety and economic opportunities, since members of the ANP frequently extort the local population along roads and participate in other crimes. Simply producing greater numbers of bad policemen will only increase problems. A critical question also remains regarding what purposes a better-trained ANP could serve, either in military counterinsurgency operations (in which case, the very high attrition levels of the ANP be reduced) or in ensuring public safety. It is the latter that the Afghan people are desperate to see addressed and that the police needs to be directed toward, given the absence of the rule of law and the prevalence of street crime. So far, however, preventing crime has been only a very marginal element of the police training.

Working with local forces in Afghanistan and actively encouraging their development—currently under the rubric of the Community Defense Initiative—is very delicate, and can also be very problematic. The desire to do so is driven by the recognition that local forces can best recognize the enemy, and by the need to address the lack of NATO and official Afghan security forces in particular areas—a challenge that will persist in large parts of the country, despite the military surge. However, the effectiveness of the community forces—be they called militias, lashkars, arbakai, or community defenses—will depend on several factors:

First, it will depend on to what extent they are subjected to highly kinetic environments, how much they are called upon to take on a direct role in intense military counterinsurgency operations, what kind of support such forces will have from the Afghan state and NATO, and what kind of mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the tribal elders who stand up to the Taliban and raise tribal forces will not be killed by the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban, as well as the mujahideen and the Soviets previously, have systematically decimated the tribal structures and killed tribal elders.

Second, whether building the capacity of such local forces will ultimately be effective in stabilizing Afghanistan will depend on what kind of mechanisms will be in place to ensure that if the local forces succeed against the Taliban in a short-term counterinsurgency effort, they will not turn their communities into fiefdoms or become pernicious warlords. Ensuring that short-term tactical military objectives do not end up jeopardizing governance in Afghanistan in the medium term and do not intensify the fissiparous tendencies that have plagued Afghanistan since its inception, is very difficult. Indeed, every time militias, warlords or other irregular forces - most recently the Afghan Auxiliary Police—have been raised, the consequences in terms of the quality of governance and development have been highly negative.