international analysis and commentary

The shifting US strategy in Afghanistan: a background


July is approaching fast and so is the decision on whether to start withdrawing some US troops from Afghanistan. Recent events help us understand how policymakers in Washington are developing their future Afghan strategy. The killing of Osama bin Laden is a remarkable foreign policy success that President Barack Obama can use to boost his political consensus. However, from a strategic point of view not much changes: al Qaeda is no monolith; it is a brand with many franchises spread across the world and no single command structure. So the “global war on terrorism” is by no means over: to the contrary, it is very much alive in places like Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. On the other hand, the killing of bin Laden has highlighted more than before the weakness of Pakistan as a strategic partner in the fight against al Qaeda and against the extremist groups that operate in Afghanistan from within its territory. These factors will probably result in a gradual shift in US strategy, from a “troop intensive” quasi counterinsurgency campaign to a counterterrorism approach that relies on fewer troops.  

President Obama reiterated the US goal in Afghanistan in his 2011 State of the Union address: “by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11”. To reach this goal Obama sent 33,000 US troops to Afghanistan in 2009 to fight the Taliban insurgency in the southeast. As highlighted by General David Petraeus during his March 15th Senate hearing, “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country, and reversed in a number of important areas. However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible”. During his strategy review and subsequent troop surge, Obama made it clear to the military that his involvement would not be open ended and that he would begin a “conditions based” drawdown of troops in July 2011. Furthermore, at the 2010 Lisbon summit NATO countries committed their troops to Afghanistan until the end of 2014. By that date a gradual transition to Afghan security forces should be complete. US engagement in Afghanistan after 2014 is still being discussed and will have to be defined in the context of a wider strategic partnership.

For this transition to occur, of course, the Afghan National Security Forces (army and police) must be ready. While training of the ANA and ANP has been significantly boosted in recent years and Afghan forces have started to conduct operations side by side with NATO, the extent to which they are operational is still unclear. The level of corruption and infiltration, especially among police forces, remains high. Moreover, the long-term stability of Afghanistan (and of the region) will only be achieved through a political agreement with the main Afghan Taliban insurgent groups. While efforts have been made in the past, it is only since last September that the Afghan government has taken the lead in establishing contacts with the Taliban groups through the High Peace Council. While the US and the Taliban have always imposed conditions for talks to begin, recent events and the NATO announcement of a timetable to withdraw troops from Afghanistan could bring the parts closer together.

Pakistan clearly has a key role to play in this reconciliation process. It can facilitate and mediate contacts with the Afghan Taliban leaders. Whether Pakistan is willing to play this card is uncertain and the recent role it played (or didn’t play) in the capture of Osama bin Laden only confirms the fragility of the strategic partnership with Washington. One thing is certain, however: the US has no exit strategy from Afghanistan unless Pakistan cooperates.

With this scenario, a number of factors thus point to a change in the US regional strategy. While the July drawdown will be limited and “conditions based”, it will mark a turning point toward the strategy originally advocated by Vice President Joe Biden during the 2009 strategy review. Such a strategy would require fewer troops on the ground and more limited nation-building goals in Afghanistan. It could however be sufficient to deny al Qaeda a safe haven in the region and guarantee long-term US security concerns. Over time, we will probably see a US presence in Afghanistan limited to Special Operations Forces targeting al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan with the help of unmanned drones. With the 2012 election campaign nearing and support for the war in Afghanistan lagging, the President has to show progress and, simultaneously, start bringing the troops home.