Obama could dramatically increase the military presence in Afghanistan. But would a larger U.S. occupation eliminate the safe havens of "al Qaeda and extremists that would do us harm"?
I believe the Obama administration's thinking is the 17,000 additional troops will create a window of opportunity for a new policy to be set in place.
"What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last month.
2008 was the single most deadliest year yet for the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan civilians. There were 294 coalition combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2008 according to iCasualties.org, including 155 U.S. combat deaths. With the Bush administration preoccupied by Iraq, coalition military control in Afghanistan steadily ebbed away and without soldiers on the ground, the coalition relied heavily on aerial bombardment.
According to the United Nations, 2,118 Afghans were killed in the fighting last year. 1,160 people (55 percent) were killed by anti-government forces, 828 people (39 percent) were killed by pro-government forces, and 130 people (6 percent) were killed in the crossfire or by unexploded ordinance. Of the pro-government caused deaths, U.S-led coalition air strikes caused 64 percent of the casualties.
The additional troops could allow the coalition to reduce the use of air strikes. However, McKiernan, believes 10,000 to 30,000 more troops may be needed to remove the Taliban from the southern part of Afghanistan for 2009 and beyond.
At first glance, removing the Taliban from their stronghold in the south should meet with popular support form the Afghans with 91 percent of Afghans having a somewhat to very unfavorable view of the Taliban, according to a February 2009 poll (pdf) for BBC/ABC/ARD conducted by World Public Opinion. But for the first time since the 2001 invasion, 52 percent of Afghans have a somewhat to very unfavorable view of the United States. This is significantly up from 2005, when only 14 percent of Afghans had an unfavorable opinion of the U.S.
The increased casualties from air strikes are blamed for the growing number of Afghan civilian deaths. 77 percent of Afghans think the air strikes are not worth the costs even if it helps the coalition defeat the Taliban and 44 percent blame the coalition for targeting civilians.
Coalition military-caused civilian deaths are undermining Afghan support for the occupation and causing divisions within the NATO alliance. "Most of the Nato nations here have 'caveats' on the use of the force, limiting the conditions in which they can be deployed."
Plus, "each national taskforce tends to run its own province like an independent fiefdom, with completely different approaches to the central and provincial government, and to the insurgency."
The Poles, for example, have been responsible for military options in the Ghazni province since October. Col. Rajmund Andrzejczak, the commander of the Polish taskforce, stressed "non-kinetic" -- non-shooting --tactics.
"After a couple of operations, we realised the less aggressive we were the more effective we were. I recommend not so many troops knocking down doors every night, but instead to sit down and drink tea, discuss what the people need, and bring them closer to the coalition," he said.
The reference to knocking down doors at night is clear to anyone who has spent more than a couple of days here. It is a dig at US special forces, who have a reputation for raiding Afghan houses in the middle of the night, on the basis of intelligence that can be accurate or inaccurate, causing a disproportionate number of civilian casualties.
Last month, U.S. Special Operation forces in Afghanistan halted most commando raids over "a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there."
The two week halt, "came after a series of nighttime raids by Special Operations troops in recent months killed women and children, and after months of mounting outrage in Afghanistan about civilians killed in air and ground strikes."
The raids have now resumed, however, and last week, the Washington Post suggested Afghan outrage at a U.S. raid highlighted the challenges facing a new military push. So while violent military actions are successful, they are also highly visible and quite often make the U.S. look bad, even when capturing bomb makers and Taliban fighters.
"We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are more afraid of the Americans now," said Abdul Ghaffar, a truck driver in the raided village. "The foreign forces are killing innocent people. We don't want them in Afghanistan. If they stay, one day we will stand against them, just like we stood against the Russians."
Having stood up to the Soviets is a rallying point for some Afghans. The Russians, for their part, advise More troops won't help in Afghanistan.
"As the Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan from 1979 to 1986, Fikryat Tabeyev saw the numbers rise to more than 100,000 troops without any possibility of victory against a growing insurgency." The Soviets believed superior numbers, firepower, and training would reward them with success in Afghanistan.
"History didn't listen to us," Tabeyev said. "All our efforts to restore peace in the country ... this was a flop in the end."
Instead, several Soviets veterans of their Afghan war believe only economic development has any hope of improving security in the country. Retired Russian Gen. Pavel Grachev agreed with what some Afghans have advocated.
"Pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure would be a lot more productive than firefights in far-flung villages, he said." Instead, "Post soldiers to guard road projects and irrigation systems, and send in an army of engineers, doctors, mining experts and construction advisers."
They see the coalition falling into the same trap they did. "The conflict cannot be solved by military means, it's an illusion," retired Russian Col. Oleg Kulakov said. "No-one can reach any political goal in Afghanistan relying on military force. Frankly speaking, they are doomed to repeat our mistakes."
Even in some ways obvious ways, the U.S. is copying the Soviets. In January, the NY Times reported the U.S. was using a new supply routes to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia to supplement the route through Pakistan and the dangerous Khyber Pass.
Even politically, the Russians see the U.S. repeating the same mistakes the Soviets made.
Some Afghan experts are worried that the United States and its NATO allies are making some of the same mistakes that helped the Taliban's forerunners defeat the Soviet Union after a decade-long occupation that bled the Kremlin treasury, demoralized Moscow's military and contributed to the Soviet Union's collapse.
The coalition is "relying too heavily on military force, inflicting too many civilian casualties, concentrating too much power in Kabul and tolerating pervasive government corruption." Absent of an immediate strategic correction, they believe "violence and ethnic tensions will worsen".
Likewise, many Afghans oppose deploying more soldiers to their country. "Send us 30,000 scholars instead. Or 30,000 engineers. But don't send more troops - it will just bring more violence," Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian, told the CS Monitor last month.
"I can't find a single man in the entire province who is in favor of more troops," says Awal Khan, a tribal leader from Logar province. "They don't respect our tradition, culture, or religion."
Finding money for economic development will likely be difficult in the post-global financial market meltdown. The United States, like most other nations, have pressing domestic economic needs and Afghanistan has serious concerns with corruption that limit the benefit to Afghans from economic aid money and projects.
According to a BBC News analysis of the recent Afghan poll, "despite the billions of dollars which have been spent in aid, many people say they personally have not felt any direct benefit" even though the availability of clean water had improved since 2005 and supply of electricity is slightly better.
The Afghans are losing hope the occupation will make a positive change in their lives. "Of those questioned, 40% said the country was going in the right direction, down from nearly 80% just three years ago... Corruption is endemic and people are suspicious about where all the foreign aid money has gone."
In order for Western development to work, the U.S.-led coalition would need to solve the wide scale corruption in Afghanistan. In January, CBS News reported corruption in Afghanistan allegedly runs rampant. "Most Afghan families survive on about $350 a year" and "they pay almost a third of that in bribes."
"In Afghan Parliament, in Afghan justice, in Afghan court: we have corruption. The corruption becomes practically legal in Afghanistan," said Ramzan Bashardost, an Afghan politician fighting against corruption.
"'Transparent' is not an apt description of the general business culture of Afghanistan. Corruption and collusion between government and business is believed to be commonplace.", explains GlobalSecurity.org.
"The judicial branch is quite weak and regarded as corrupt... The war criminals of the post-Soviet period have gone unpunished; indeed, many of the worst offenders are now members of the current local, provincial or national administrations."
The Obama administration, I think, understands corruption is destroying Afghanistan. Last February, Afghan President Hamid Karzai explained to then-Senator Joe Biden "that there was no corruption at all and that, in any case, it was not his fault." Biden walked out of the dinner.
Any positive impact from development projects will be muted without dramatically reducing corruption in Afghanistan, but this is not stopping China from opening a new copper mine south of Kabul.
According to McClatchy News, "the U.S. Army is providing the security that will enable China to exploit one of the world's largest unexploited deposits of copper... The U.S. deployment wasn't intended to protect the Chinese investment -- the largest in Afghanistan's history -- but... if the mission provides the security that a project to revive Afghanistan's economy needs, the synergy will be welcome."
"The region is thought to hold some of the world's last major untapped deposits of iron, copper, gold, uranium, precious gems and other raw materials."
Also of interest are 1.5 billion barrels of oil and 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The economic potential of Afghanistan may help explain the focus of the Obama administration's diplomacy goals.
Both U.S. Vice President Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have clearly been working toward building NATO cohesion.
On Tuesday, Biden met with the 26 national ambassadors to NATO to convey the Obama administration's desire for a common strategy. It is Biden's view that all NATO countries are threatened by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The deteriorating situation in the region poses a security threat from our respect not just to the United States, but to every single nation around this table," he said. "It was from that remote area of the world that al-Qaida plotted 9/11 and subsequent attacks."
Biden said the Obama administration wanted to engage Nato allies in global security discussions, marking a departure from the past eight years when Washington was often on a unilateral course of action that angered some European allies.
A terror attack in Europe would be seen as an attack on the US, he said. "That is not hyperbole ... We view it as a gateway to further attacks on the United States. So please understand that this is not a US-centrist view that only if America is attacked is there a terrorist threat."
The Obama administration is concerned Pakistan may be becoming more unstable. Biden thinks the coalition needs to do a "better job in stopping Afghanistan and Pakistan from being a haven for terrorists."
Biden said the coalition's goals in Afghanistan must be "clear and achievable". At the minimum, Afghanistan must not be a haven for terrorists and the country should be "stable enough to sustain its own development and provide for its own defense."
Clinton described Afghanistan as "NATO's biggest military challenge". She has been meeting with the leaders of NATO countries, pushing for a united strategy on Afghanistan with "downsized goals".
"The previous goal to 'democratize' Afghanistan will probably shift toward 'efficient' and 'achievable' stabilization - avoiding an open-ended mission, but requiring more immediate "heavy lifting" by allies. The strategy will require more troops to achieve a balance of military and civilian help, but also to bring in India, Iran, Russia, and even China." Clinton has also been engaging Russia on Afghanistan.
Absent from Clinton's statement was mention of Pakistan, a country with which Obama said the U.S. needed to have "smarter" policy. Earlier this month, Pakistan announced the Swat "provincial government signed an accord with the local Taliban leader that imposes Islamic law, or Shariah, in the area... Previous accords with the militants in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas have effectively created ministates with sanctuaries for Qaeda and Pakistani militants."
The State Department's reaction was to wait and see how the agreement developed. The administration is concerned about Pakistan's stability. "Obviously, we believe that the activity by the extremists in Pakistan poses a direct threat to the government of Pakistan as well as to the security of the United States, Afghanistan and a number of other nations," Clinton said.
Russia likely desires stable neighbors and NATO success in Afghanistan would be improved stability. The Obama administration is seeking ways to improve relations with Moscow.
"It's time to explore a fresh start. We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan," Clinton said.
With the new copper mine, China's economic incentive should be apparent. Similar economic incentives may exist for India or Russia. Clinton also has made a specific overture to Iran, saying Iran should be invited to a conference on Afghanistan later this month. Clinton described it as "a big-tent meeting with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan."
Attempts to "downsize" expectations have been coming from U.S. allies as well as the U.S. military for the past few weeks. "Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," said Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the start of the month.
Yesterday, Gen. McKiernan told BBC News while there were parts of Afghanistan where the "coalition efforts in support of the government of Afghanistan [are] winning.... there are other areas - large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east - where we are not winning."
And despite his calls for more troops, McKiernan thinks the military is not the solution for Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, there will not be an exclusively military solution," he said, adding: "We should accept the result of the forthcoming elections whatever it is."
"If nationalist-minded Taliban come to power through the ballot-box and respect the constitution, that is the Afghans' business," he said. "What we reject is support for international jihad," McKiernan said echoing Obama's stated objective.
What the Obama administration would do, however, is try to prevent a Taliban overthrow of the elected Afghan government. "I would say that, at a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan and thus turning Afghanistan, potentially, again, into a haven for al-Qaida and other extremist groups," U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday.
In response to a question from the NY Times this past Friday, Obama explained diplomacy may involve "reaching out to people that that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists" in Afghanistan and Pakistani region too. Obama added:
But the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.
Obama carefully chose his words. In response, Reuters reported the Afghanistan's Taliban rejected the offer, saying it was illogical since there are no Taliban moderates.
"The Taliban are united, have one leader, one aim, one policy...I do not know why they are talking about moderate Taliban and what it means?" said Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a purported spokesman for the Afghan Taliban. According to Yousuf, only the "expulsion of foreign troops" would end the Afghan violence.
With the Afghan's support for the Taliban polling so low, I believe having the U.S.-led coalition welcome the Taliban back to Afghan politics may further decrease the support for the coalition's efforts to support the Afghan government. When asked if the Taliban would negotiate with the Karzai government, Yousuf said, "Afghans know better how to decide about their destiny." Indeed that is the case, but not in the manner Yousuf is likely thinking.
What will be the mix in the Obama plan?
The NY Times question coincided with another story in the newspaper that pitched the angle of splitting the Taliban. I think a key paragraph in the story was:
"The key to winning back the population is to establish legitimate government," says Clare Lockhart, a former adviser to the Afghan government and the co-author of "Fixing Failed States" (Oxford University Press). "If you give people a government with sufficient credibility -- and basic jobs -- you can win back their trust."
In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post this past December, Sarah Chayes, an author and a former reporter for NPR, who lives in Kandahar, wrote of the Taliban, "Negotiating with them wouldn't solve Afghanistan's problems; it would only exacerbate them. Ask any Afghan what's really needed, what would render the Taliban irrelevant, and they'll tell you: improving the behavior of the officials whom the United States and its allies ushered into power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
Again, the corruption of the Afghan government is seen as the problem and since the U.S. helped put the Karzai government in power, the Afghans see that as our responsibility. That the corrupt Bush administration should create a corrupt Afghan government is not a surprise, but if the Obama administration really wants to extinguish the possibilities of the Taliban regaining power again in Afghanistan and providing safe havens for Islamic extremists, then it will need to reduce corruption and improve the economy in Afghanistan.
49 percent of Afghans recently polled think the economy, poverty, and jobs is either the biggest or next biggest problem facing the country, compared to 36 percent of Afghans who think security and violence is the biggest or next biggest problem. Corruption at 16 percent ranked relatively low as a problem in comparison to jobs and security to those polled. Perhaps it is too simplistic to think that Afghans, like Americans, are worried about jobs and their economy and by improving the economic outlook in Afghanistan, the security situation in the country will also improve.
Three weeks after Obama announced an escalation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, there are a few tantalizing hints of what the administration's Afghanistan plan will ultimately be. There is general agreement that a military solution is not possible in Afghanistan. Obama is trying to foster an internationally supported plan for bringing stability to the country. What the Obama administration can do with economic development will depend on Biden and Clinton's diplomatic success.
Approximately three weeks remain in the Obama administration's review of policy for the region, but I think it is clear that he is focusing on better diplomacy with our allies and partners and powers that have a vested interest in the Afghan-region's stability. The administration is also actively scaling down Bush-era expectations of Western-style democracy in Afghanistan to goals that are achievable after approaching eight years of occupation and the neglect of the previous U.S. administration. How the Obama administration will have the United States be "smarter" toward Pakistan is still unclear.
I think the most effective way to improve security in Afghanistan would be to concentrate on meaningful economic development that creates jobs for Afghans while fighting Afghan government corruption. The U.S.-led coalition troops would be best used to protect the development projects. Troop escalations leading to more bombings and ground battles with the Taliban, I think, will be incredibly counterproductive.
Whether or not these will be the conclusions of the Obama administration's policy review, we must wait until the end of March to find out.
Cross-posted from Daily Kos.