international analysis and commentary

Obama’s dangerous Afghan Gamble

President Obama’s long awaited decision to deploy an additional 30,000 soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan by early 2010 came as no surprise. In Obama’s War Cabinet meetings, the question was not whether to send more troops but how many.

Obama’s second major military escalation of the conflict this year, the largest single US deployment since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, will bring the number of US troops in Afghanistan to almost 100,000. There are also 50,000 NATO troops stationed in the country.

Notably, there will be as many troops in Afghanistan as in Iraq at the height of the war between 2003 and 2008.

In his televised speech Tuesday, Obama stressed the limits of the American presence in Afghanistan and set a goal of starting to bring forces home after only 18 months.

“These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011,” he said.

Obama is not seeking to nation-build in Afghanistan, nor is he seeking to establish a democracy. Countering the Taliban surge in the country, strengthening Afghanistan’s security forces and destroying al Qaeda’s network are his priorities. 

If Obama thinks he will be able to transfer security to an Afghan central authority in two years, he will be in for a rude awakening. That tall order requires more than a decade of nation- and institution-building.

By pressing that his strategy has an endgame starting in July 2011 and that he will not pass this military campaign on to the next president, this conflict has the possibility of outlasting his administration, just like Iraq has outlasted his predecessor’s.
Obviously, the Obama foreign policy does not recognize the gravity of the institutional, societal and security crisis in Afghanistan.

It is a broken country. More than 30 years of war and political turmoil have wrecked most of the ties that bind a community together. Civil society is deeply fragmented and splintered along tribal and sectarian lines.

Sadly, Afghanistan is a social and institutional wasteland. Each tribe and sect fends for its own, with no concept of the collective good.

President Hamid Karzai’s government is an empty shell whose authority does not extend beyond the outskirts of the capital, Kabul. Its claim to fame is that it is listed by Transparency International as second only to Somalia in levels of perceived corruption worldwide in 2009.

US strategy includes plans to build up the Afghan army to 134,000 troops in 2010 and increase the size of the police force so that the transfer of authority can begin in the summer of 2011.

It is mind-boggling that the Obama administration intends to begin to secure Afghanistan, a huge, complex and volatile country, with 134,000 troops or even double that number.
At the moment, only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is entirely under Afghan military and police control. Empowering the Afghans themselves will take considerable time, space, setbacks and resources.

The task of building a professional Afghan army is huge in light of its frighteningly high level of desertions. The Afghan National Army lost a fourth of its personnel during the year ending in September, the Asia Times reports, citing US Defense Department figures. As to reforming the hopelessly corrupt police force, that is a Herculean challenge.

Regardless of how powerful they are, the United States and NATO do not possess a magic wand to mold and shape local Afghan life in their image, a lesson, one would have thought, allies painfully and expensively learned in Iraq’s blood-soaked shifting sands.

Military escalation has a life and logic of its own, and everything has to go right for it to succeed. Results can often be very different than what was expected. Military escalation often results in a large check to be paid by the American taxpayer (95 billion dollars for this upcoming year) and costs often escalate beyond original plans. The US has already spent one trillion dollars on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More alarming, Obama has not been forthcoming with the American people about the diminishing nature of the threat posed by al Qaeda Central and like-minded factions.
He has also bought the false, technical claim that the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda function more or less as a single entity. The Obama foreign policy views the Taliban, regressive and brutal at home, through the lens of al Qaeda and the global war on terror.

While at the height of power in the late 1990s, al Qaeda was made up of about 3,000 to 4,000 terrorists. Today, bin Laden’s ranks are down to about 400 to 500. According to the most credible intelligence estimates, perhaps 100 al Qaeda operatives are in Afghanistan and another 300 in neighboring Pakistan.

Does the presence of 100 al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, lethal as they are, justify the new military escalation and its inherent risks and costs? Shouldn’t the US public be fully informed about the changing nature of the threat before plunging into another military venture?

Yes, there are operational links between the Taliban in Afghanistan and some al Qaeda operatives who provide training and expertise in roadside bombs.

The Taliban have recently deployed al Qaeda-style suicide attacks with deadly effect. But few Taliban chiefs publicly boast about their connection with bin Laden’s men.

Notwithstanding, it would be dangerously misleading to lump al Qaeda, a transnational, borderless jihadist group waging a worldwide terrorist campaign, with the Taliban, a local armed insurgency whose focus has always been the home front. US authorities have never accused the Afghan Taliban of carrying out strikes or attacks outside Afghanistan.

In the past year, the Afghan Taliban nearly quadrupled their numbers, going from 7,000 to more than 25,000, according to US intelligence, and have gained more followers from within the Pashtun tribes, who are a majority in Afghanistan. It is unrealistic to assume that the United States could ever “break the back” of the Taliban.

The struggle in Afghanistan is much broader and more complex than al Qaeda pitting Pashtun tribesmen against what they see as a foreign threat to their identity and way of life.

The war has drawn a few hundred militant Islamists, not only al Qaeda types, from Kashmir, the Arab world and even Central Asia. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda is a very small element in this coalition, a side effect, a parasite nourished on lawlessness and instability.
Surely, 100 al Qaeda operatives cannot drive and lead a potent insurgency composed of tens of thousands of fighters and several local groups with their own differing agendas.

A close reading of Obama’s speech and statements by his senior advisers shows conceptual misunderstanding and confusion about the Afghan and Pakistani theaters. They interchangeably use Afghanistan and Pakistan, while in reality they refer to Pakistan.

One gets the impression that the “surge” should be in Pakistan, where al Qaeda rank-and-file is based, rather than Afghanistan.

If the new “surge” in Afghanistan is designed to kill the remnants of bin Laden’s al Qaeda, it might prove to be another catastrophic analytical failure.

Military escalation provides motivation and life support for a parasite group like al Qaeda. It will be empowered by a stepped-up war.

A convincing argument could be made that ridding the Pashtun tribal lands of al Qaeda and other foreign extremists demands a region-wide political settlement that addresses the legitimate grievances of the tribal communities, incorporates the moderate elements of the Taliban, and takes into account the geo-strategic concerns of Pakistan, Iran and India.

One hopes that Obama’s desperate and risky move would succeed in creating favorable conditions for a political settlement in Afghanistan that leads to the formation of a durable representative and legitimate government. A political settlement is the most effective means of cutting any links between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Military escalation has the danger of not succeeding and the US could become trapped in Afghanistan. Afghanistan could ruin the Obama presidency as Vietnam ruined Johnson. Obama is well aware of this and sees this escalation as an “exit strategy”. Obama’s gamble will soon be tested.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations  at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London University. Among his books is The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge University Press, 2005). His website is here.

Further reading
A year and a half for a new Afghan war di Roberto Menotti
Nebbia sull’Hindukush di Emanuele Giordana