As the war in Afghanistan approaches its ninth anniversary next month, Americans and our allies are looking for alternatives to the high cost of maintaining almost 100,000 American and 50,000 European and other country troops in central Asia. War weariness is growing everywhere for understandable reasons.
For now, U.S. President Barack Obama has embarked on a bold gamble to try to reverse the damage done by seven years of neglect of the war by George Bush. The 90,000-plus documents leaked by WikiLeaks last week reveal tragically how the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) commanders in the field were starved of the resources they needed to fight and watched as the Taliban regrouped across the Durand line in Pakistan and made a spectacular comeback.
By increasing our troops on the ground, adding considerable civilian resources and building a global coalition to back Afghanistan’s recovery (symbolised by the Kabul conference), Obama is rightly trying to revive Afghanistan from the disaster he inherited. Many are proclaiming defeat already but, in a complex insurgency, it is far too soon to call it one way or another.
In the best case, a year from now the president’s strategy will be showing signs of modest success. In Afghanistan, the momentum of the Taliban insurgency will be broken, Kandahar will be a somewhat safer place and perhaps parts of the insurgency will be open to a political dialogue with the Hamid Karzai government.
We will see if the Taliban or part of it is interested in reconciliation once they know that they are not on the path to inevitable victory as they think they are now. In Pakistan, the Taliban may be on the defensive as well and the al-Qaeda will be further degraded from drone operations and counterterrorist measures.
If that is the case, a big if, then the US and NATO can begin the long process of handing gradually more control over to the Afghan national security forces. By increasing the salaries of Afghan troops last year we are already seeing growth in numbers and retention rates. This will take years and even when accomplished will require a substantial NATO residual presence to provide intelligence support and other help to the Afghans. And NATO will have to help fund the Afghan security forces for years to come.
If the situation a year from now is not moving in the right direction, then Obama will face the same tough options he has looked at since his inauguration. He knows he can’t cut and run. That would give al-Qaeda a world-changing victory, threaten the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India and vastly increase the threat to the American homeland from a larger terrorist base. The future of NATO itself will be in doubt.
So the alternative option will be to trim down the NATO presence in Afghanistan and focus on a smaller counterterrorist mission. Several analysts have put forward ways to do so. US vice-president Joe Biden has been associated in the press with this approach although he says he is firmly on board with the president’s approach. But this option still requires America to have a significant military presence in Afghanistan. Ironically, it would look a lot like Bush’s failed approach.
In my view, this option could be best described as Fortress Kabul. NATO would concede much of the south and east of Afghanistan to the insurgents but would maintain a large base or bases in the north to wage drone and Special Forces attacks on al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists to try to keep them off balance. Rather than shortening the time frame for a complete American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would lengthen it.
We would be committed to an open-ended containment approach to fighting terrorism with little hope of destroying the terrorist nest. The counterterrorist focused strategy accepts living in an Afghan quagmire for years. We could hope the Taliban agrees to talks with Kabul but there is no reason to see why they would.
There are many flaws to this plan B but perhaps the worst is that it would remove any incentive for Pakistan to shut down the safe havens it has given the Taliban on its territory. On the contrary, Pakistan would have every reason to strengthen its ties with the Taliban as a hedge against further NATO retreat. It would require even more drone attacks in Pakistan to try to disrupt terror plots. The tension would be a major challenge for both Washington and Islamabad to manage, and increase the risk of another military coup in Pakistan.
India has vital national security interests at stake in the success of Obama’s strategy. When Obama visits New Delhi later this year, the first ever visit by an American president in his first term, he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh need to plan together for success.