Since the United States first dispatched troops to Afghanistan in October 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been an orphan of U.S. policy. But with the release last week of a revamped U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conflict has, by default, become Barack Obama’s war.
In a Foreign Affairs essay from November/December 2001, I chronicled the disasters that have befallen all foreign invaders of Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. Now, more than seven years into the U.S. intervention, the Obama administration must confront many of the same problems faced by all previous occupiers of this rugged land. How the United States manages its presence there over the next year will determine if it can break the pattern.
When Obama announced his policy for the region, he did not speak of a U.S. exit strategy — a wise decision, as doing so would have diminished the United States’ already limited ability to influence events in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Washington’s allies are deeply suspicious that the United States will once again retire from the field, leaving them holding the bag. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, those fighting the United States are prepared to hunker down and wait for when they sense a U.S. withdrawal policy is in the wind. If the United States were to declare an exit strategy up front, it would only play to those instincts and make the already long odds of success even longer.
Others — especially the anti-war wing of the Democratic party — fear that Obama’s strategy risks pushing the United States deeper into the bog of Afghanistan. But, in fact, the United States is already about as deep in the Afghan bog as a foreign military enterprise can get. The president’s plan and the team that will execute it — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Richard Holbrooke, and David Petraeus — must have a fresh approach and a touch of boldness if they are to have any chance of success.
The United States is already about as deep in the Afghan bog as a foreign military enterprise can get.
At the moment, the snows are melting in the high mountain passes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the new fighting season will soon find its rhythm. As part of the Obama administration’s strategy, the United States will dispatch another 17,000 soldiers to the volatile southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and an additional 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces.
These reinforcements will bring the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 60,000, with NATO countries providing another 30,000 soldiers. Some in Congress — particularly those who supported the troop “surge” in Iraq — have called for a similar increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. These calls, however, ignore the harsh constraints all foreign armies in Afghanistan have faced over the centuries — the nature of Afghanistan’s Pashtun fighters and the tortured terrain that offers them a home-field advantage from hell.
The Soviet Union had 120,000 troops in the country for most of its decade-long occupation, from 1979 to 1989. In the end, it lost. After-action assessments conducted in the Soviet Union and United States of the Soviet failure concluded that about 500,000 troops would have been needed to “pacify” Afghanistan. And even if the Red Army could have mustered some of the extra troops, the country’s terrain would have blocked their deployment; a labyrinth of roadless mountains and twisting valleys denied the Soviet Union the capacity to effectively supply a force larger than about 120,000 soldiers. Two decades later, these realities have not changed much for the current U.S.-led effort.
In June 2008, General Dan McNeill, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told Der Spiegel that it would take 400,000 troops to mollify Afghanistan. Although McNeill’s assertion was challenged at the time by some in the Bush administration, the Pentagon today would probably put the number of troops needed to bring calm to the country — the military solution — even higher: at approximately half a million. These numbers are simply beyond contemplation for the United States and NATO.
In early April, NATO members pledged an additional 5,000 troops and trainers for Afghanistan. Even if these numbers actually materialize, however, they will have little effect on the combat tempo of the war. Some Pentagon officials quietly acknowledge that even the planned increase of U.S. troop levels by another 21,000 may only replace departing NATO forces over the next two years.
With a military solution effectively out of reach, the immediate task for the Obama administration will be to redefine its mission. The first step would be to reclassify its adversaries in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Committed al Qaeda fighters should be shown no quarter. The Taliban, however, range from irreconcilable Salafist fanatics and narco-traffickers to bored punks carrying Kalashnikovs for less than ten dollars a day. Although a small percentage of hardened fighters may need to be hunted down, most Taliban members and sympathizers should be viewed as targets for reconciliation.
During the Bush administration, U.S. efforts at reconciliation with Afghan adversaries were half-hearted at best and either ignorant or dismissive of the rich history of Afghan deal-making. During the Soviet occupation, for example, Ahmad Shah Masoud, a leader in the anti-Soviet resistance, maintained contact with Soviet military intelligence and was able to work out temporary ceasefires when it suited both sides. In recent years, similar agreements between rivals such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader and now militant commander, and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former pro-Soviet warlord and an influential leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community, suggest that the harshest foes can reconcile, however fleetingly. The United States can provide the security conditions for such reconciliation efforts to work — indeed, this may become the prime objective of coalition forces in the coming months.
But it is the Afghans, particularly leaders in the Afghan National Army, who will have to lead. National elections are now set for August. Coalition forces must immediately begin to create security conditions that will allow all Afghans — not just those in the so-called quiet areas — to go to the polls. Without a significant Pashtun turnout in the east and south, the result of the election will be ethnically skewed and almost certain to fuel a continued sense of disenfranchisement and an armed resistance among the Pashtuns. This is especially dangerous given that the election is already viewed by many Afghans as a product of American manipulation.
The United States has declared that it will not support or oppose any candidate for the Afghan presidency. But these declarations of neutrality are undermined by Washington’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Afghan Supreme Court’s decision allowing Hamid Karzai to extend his current term from the end of May — when it expires — until the August elections. The Obama administration’s approval of the court’s decision is already being interpreted in Pashtun circles as coded support for Karzai’s reelection.
Ideally, the Afghan people will elect as their leader in August an admired Pashtun figure — preferably a respected veteran of the resistance against the Soviet occupation. This would give the majority Pashtun population a stake in the political process and initiate the first steps toward national reconciliation. In addition, a strong Pashtun president would be able to develop an indigenous security solution, pursue a dialogue with those Pashtuns bearing arms against government and coalition forces, and be less confrontational with Pakistan.
With a military solution effectively out of reach, the immediate task for the Obama administration will be to redefine its mission.
No matter who is elected president, Kabul will have to adjust the relationship it has with other power centers in the provinces. The appointment of provincial governors by the central government has created a cronyism that encourages runaway corruption in the country. Local elections for governors would lessen the opportunities for corruption and improve regional security — both of which would go a long way toward aiding ongoing reconstruction efforts.
To realize its goals in Afghanistan, the United States will also have to address instability in Pakistan. The war is in essence a Pashtun insurgency that draws fighters from a pool of 15 million ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and 25 million more in Pakistan. It is the same population that worked closely with Pakistan and the United States as it fought the Soviet Army two decades ago. This time, however, the Pakistani government has sided with the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and as a result, the Pashtun insurgency has now spread to Islamabad’s doorstep.
Among many Pakistanis, repeated U.S. lectures about the battle with extremists being as much Pakistan’s war as it is the United States’ are wearing thin. These warnings might elicit more understanding if they included U.S. acknowledgement of the cause-and-effect relationship between Pakistan’s problems within its borders and past U.S. military strategies in Afghanistan. A little honesty on the part of the United States would go a long way.
Regardless of the calls from some members of Congress for a get-tough approach to Islamabad, there is simply no alternative to a strong U.S. alliance with Pakistan. The overwhelming majority of supplies vital to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan flow through Pakistan. The United States is now negotiating with Russia and the Central Asian republics for new supply routes, but they are geographically complex and would come with great logistical costs, not to mention the surely Faustian deal that Russia would likely pursue in exchange for helping U.S. forces in the area of its lost empire.
As the United States deepens its relationship with Pakistan, it will also have to engage India as a regional player in Afghanistan. This should include a frank conversation among India, Iran, Pakistan, and the United States on India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always sought — but never fully achieved — a “safe” western flank in Afghanistan as a hedge against India, its traditional adversary. Pakistanis at all levels view India’s activities in Afghanistan — such as road-building projects, development programs, and military cooperation — as a security threat. Unless the United States takes those concerns seriously, any U.S. effort to convince Pakistan to move more forcefully against Islamic militants in its hinterlands will be undermined.
Every foreign power to enter Afghanistan in the last 2,500 years has faced these challenges in one form or another. All failed to overcome them. The likelihood of the United States breaking this pattern is slight. It is becoming clear, however, that the Obama administration at least understands the odds it faces.