international analysis and commentary

Post-election Afghanistan: a new counterterrorism strategy and its meaning for Europe

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For the White House, the momentous policy disaster in Afghanistan looms ever larger. The last few weeks have not been covered in glory. The long-delayed Western offensive in Kandahar is finally set to begin, months late. President Karzai, increasingly giving a creepily first-rate impression of doomed South Vietnamese President Diem, has unilaterally freed a senior member of his foreign policy team, despite the fact that the man is knee-deep in the endemic corruption of the Afghan state. Finally, a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report has put the price tag of the Afghan adventure at $100 billion a year, money America desperately yearns for to begin nation building where it truly needs to succeed… at home.

But in all actuality the writing has been on the wall for some time, as has the ritualized nature of a quiet but momentous policy shift. Washington is preparing for a déjà vu, fighting a bureaucratic battle over Afghan strategy that has never really gone away. For there is little doubt that both elite support and the general American public are giving up on Kabul; support for the counterinsurgency strategy has consistently been sliding. 

A general review of the Afghan surge is due in December, just a year on from President Obama deciding to commit an additional 40,000 troops to fight the Taliban. White House loyalty to the gung-ho approach has always been tepid; last December, Obama merely gave the approach the benefit of the doubt, coupled with a strict deadline to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. General Stanley McChrystal, the conventional warrior, argued that al-Qaeda can only be securely eliminated if the Taliban is defeated. Contrastingly, Vice President Biden, the shrewd politician, instead focused on narrow interests and argued that keeping al-Qaeda on the run was good enough given Afghan nation-building efforts limited chance of success and the huge price tag. For the moment, and before recent bad news anecdotes began to pile on top of one another, the military had its way.

But that was then and this is now. The tables now appear turned and Biden’s cards look good enough to shift the Afghanistan strategy away from counterinsurgency and towards the cheaper and more modest alternative of counterterrorism. For the Vice President has been playing the long game. Recently, he has said as much publicly when he declared that the Afghan strategy was still evolving, meaning in Washington-speak that the bureaucratic battle was still raging. In reality, President Obama has always been more narrowly committed to deter, disrupt and destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, an objective that can easily be facilitated by counterterrorism. So this is the way the wind is blowing.

Fighting a unipolar war in a multipolar world
The fundamental reason for this change of tack is simple: While the war in Afghanistan began under a unipolar system, it is now being waged in a multipolar world. Under a unipolar constellation, waging a protracted stabilization campaign with an uncertain outcome to mold a country could be afforded, as the strategic margin of error was great. For example, it did not matter very much in the fat, happy days of the Clinton administration if nation-building efforts in Haiti, the Balkans and Somalia bore fruit. These were strategic and financial costs easily accepted by the world’s only superpower.

In a multipolar world, such risky thinking leads to expensive and foolhardy adventures not easily borne. It thereby makes sense not to focus on any one problem to the exclusion of the rest of the world, nor to pursue interventions for idealistic purposes. For example, while America has been somewhat myopically (if understandably) chasing al-Qaeda all over the globe, far less time and effort have been made to game out the rise of China, quite possibly America’s most important strategic competitor in the century to come. Given America’s relative decline, at last choices have to be made. The first and easiest one is to stop socially engineering places that have little appetite for it, and where primary interests are not at stake.

For currently, the Afghanistan campaign has left Western militaries stretched without any positive strategic outcome on the horizon. The key objective in a multipolar world is to manage international stability instead of structurally changing the nature of states. Without a change to the current strategy, Afghanistan will confirm its status as graveyard of empires, with Washington merely becoming the latest victim of hubris and overreach.

What counterterrorism looks like
Within this context, a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan makes sense. The mission would focus on al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. It would mean deploying a limited number of Special Forces teams, trainers and base support and a vast amount of intelligence resources and unmanned drones, rather than 100,000 troops. Crucially however, it would mean increased attention to train Afghanistan’s security forces as well. The new strategy would signal a mix of high-end surgical strikes, persistent intelligence gathering and low-end training. As the US focuses on fighting al-Qaeda, the Afghan government would take up the burden to confront the Taliban, attempting to fight it to a standstill so some sort of political equilibrium, excluding al-Qaeda, could come about, with perhaps a soft partition of the country between America’s Northern Alliance cohorts and the Taliban-dominated Pashtun in the south. Though far from a perfect outcome, such an end state would be one the West could live with, and just might be able to achieve. But critically and almost uncommented upon, the new plan would require significant European help.

Playing the European Card
At first sight, a counterterrorist strategy would seem not to appeal to European capitals. For NATO is already on its way out. With European publics ever more skeptical of the mission, which they feel has escalated from stabilization and reconstruction towards combat, governments have grasped at President Obama’s deadline to start withdrawing troops in the summer of 2011. Allied capitals are looking forward to that timeline like high-school students waiting for the end of term. Some like the Netherlands have not waited for the bell to ring and have already skipped class. Very few Europeans are genuinely concerned about al-Qaeda members plotting an attack from Afghanistan on their cities, denying a purely security-driven calculus.

Yet, the basis for supporting Obama should not be common threat perception, but rather pragmatic realism in a multipolar world. For if Europe genuinely wants to matter in the new era, it should be willing to remain relevant to its closest partner, the United States.

Further, Europe has the means and the skills to contribute to the new mission. The major European troop contributors have all deployed Special Forces to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, even a quasi-pacifist state like Germany. Berlin might be coaxed to commit these elite forces again.

Other missions might be extended. For instance, the Dutch deployment of fighter jets to provide close air support would be immensely helpful to a counterterrorism mission. Although European governments so far have been unwilling to cough up all two thousand trainers agreed upon for Afghanistan this Spring, a revamped training mission, coupled with a cut in overall troop numbers, using the infrastructure of current PRT’s as the basis from which to organize the training of the Afghan military, would likely be more palpable to European publics than a mission seemingly without end.

Furthermore, a training mission reinforces talk in Brussels of transitioning responsibility to the Afghan government. Precisely because there would be a clear difference between the al-Qaeda-hunters and the ANA trainers, it would placate the concerns of those Europeans that would only stomach a low-level effort, as well as appeal to those that have an appetite to do more. Finally, most of the major European troop-contributing states now have right-leaning governments that take a more conservative approach to international affairs and are susceptible to the financial argument to economize military deployments, which such an approach would underline.

Europe now has the opportunity to claim a seat at the table in a truly multipolar setting. In a unipolar world, being close to the superpower was enough. In a multipolar world, this is merely a means to an end. Helping make a new counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan a success will do more than anything else to allow Europe to proactively, with enhanced credibility, make its general desires known to an often tone-deaf Washington. If it can summon the will to do so, the positive strategic consequences could enable Europe to snatch diplomatic victory from the jaws of yet another gloomy defeat.