According to the schedule set by President Obama, US troops will gradually start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011. The withdrawal will partly depend on the conditions on the ground, therefore the debate on “how” to leave the country is central. This issue has fundamental implications that are often overlooked, such as the question General Petraeus asked a few years back, “when is Iraq good enough?”, whose answer could be applied to the desired end state in Afghanistan. This reminds us that the issue of an exit strategy (the stage which is very much debated in the media) is linked to an end state in which the international coalition can hand over responsibility for governance and security to the Afghan authorities. These two stages should be addressed in the above order, as no realistic exit strategy can be implemented until the end state has been achieved or is at least within grasp. This distinction is key in focusing on two very different aspects of the same problem that are often confused as the same thing. More importantly, are we on a course where the end state will be gradually reached allowing foreign troops to gradually leave the country?
As is now widely recognized, the failure to fully defeat the Taliban in the initial stages of the war allowed them to find a haven in the tribal regions of western Pakistan (with cover from the Pakistani authorities) and regroup. Starting in 2006, Taliban attacks in Afghanistan intensified in what has become a full-blown insurgency aimed at expelling foreign forces and overthrowing the government in Kabul. After the 2009 Afghan presidential election, which was riddled with fraud, the new US administration laid out a new comprehensive strategy based on counterinsurgency tactics aimed at protecting the population centers (not the territory) which were seen as the real centers of gravity and which could tilt the conflict in its favor. To reach this goal President Obama has thoroughly reviewed the strategy trying to involve the Afghan government and President Karzai as a reliable partner in an effort to make the government more accountable and rid it of the endemic corruption that has alienated it from the population.
As President Obama signed off on his reviewed AfPak regional strategy and a surge of 37,000 troops in late 2009, he highlighted that the presence of US troops would be limited in time and that they would start withdrawing in July 2011. Surely Obama was reassuring his internal audience that the US presence in Afghanistan would not be open-ended, but he was also addressing his Afghan counterparts, encouraging them to step up and take responsibility for their country. However, Pakistan – the other key player in this regional strategy – interpreted the move as a sign that the US was preparing to pull out from the region as it did after 1989. Obama went on to say that the deadline would be sensitive to the situation on the ground and to progress made by the Afghan security forces.
This brings us to the initial question: what is the desired end state for Afghanistan? Only once we set criteria to clearly identify when the end state is reached will we be able to devise a rational exit strategy. A definition of end state that has been repeatedly voiced by the US administration is one in which Afghanistan should become a relatively stable country which has good relations with its neighbors and that is able to manage its internal and external security. Most importantly, Afghanistan must no longer be the breeding ground for terrorists. As US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a recent visit to London, “one of the important messages is that we intend, as an alliance and as a large group of nations, to be Afghanistan’s partner for a very long time into the future,” and “I still believe that there’s a national security imperative. I believe that we cannot afford Afghanistan to lapse back into a failed state, which would create a security vacuum which will contaminate the region and possibly well beyond it.”
Will we be able to reach this situation whereby security can be gradually handed over to the Afghan security forces within a year? This is a crucial question to which nobody has a clear answer. Manpower targets for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have been increased to 240,000 and 160,000 respectively; however while progress in training the Army has shown good results, the Police forces lag far behind both in terms of numbers and readiness. The capability of local authorities to deliver services to the population differs widely throughout the country. A major offensive is set to regain the strategically important southeastern part of the country, around Kandahar, where the Taliban historically have a large presence and influence. However, as we have seen in Marja, a military offensive per se might not solve problems that are becoming increasingly regional in scope. President Karzai is now pushing for the reintegration and reconciliation of Taliban fighters and for a political solution to the Afghan crisis. This plan must aim at including all key players except for the irreconcilable extremists that have links to al Qaeda. Unless the majority Pashtun Taliban are included in the future of the country, they will continue to be a destabilizing force and Pakistan’s guarantee for strategic depth. The Taliban therefore represent the conflict’s center of gravity. Until such a negotiated political solution takes place it will be very difficult to reach the end state and as a result we will not be able to truly speak of an exit strategy.