In the aftermath of Obama and Netanyahu meeting in Washington, the tensions over Iran have receded a little, and the focus is shifting back to Afghanistan. From all indications, the situation there is fast approaching a turning point. The events since the Quran burning in Bagram clearly pose an acute threat for the American strategy. As a result of these developments, the Taliban have suspended talks that had barely started in Qatar. The killing of NATO personnel by Afghan security forces, and Afghan civilians at the hands of coalition forces, both are alarmingly on the increase as the trust deficit widens. The question that will have to be revisited immediately is if the Afghan conflict primarily needs a negotiated settlement or a military one; both can no longer continue at the same time.
At the time of the announcement of the new Afghan strategy, two critical decisions were made: to increase the troop levels and withdraw by 2014. While there was a recognition that a political solution will ultimately be needed, the military operations against Taliban have continued. In addition, to promote a regional approach, the US also launched a strategic dialogue process with Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Since then, the Pakistan leg of the process has collapsed while Afghanistan is moving painfully slow. The recent US and EU sanctions on the import of oil from Iran have added a new dimension to the US-India ties that had not existed in the past.
The dilemma for US strategy has remained whether to focus on fighting or on talking at this stage of the conflict, as both have appeared indispensable. Part of the predicament has resulted from the message of Obama administration to its public and the Congress. It has maintained that the surge in troop has taken away the initiative from the Taliban and has created a space where Afghan authorities can move in. Moreover, the pace and quality of training being provided to the Afghan security forces is adequate and there are no problems with the forces’ ethnic composition. This depiction, however, negates what has been unfolding on the ground.
As US and the Taliban enter into negotiations, it is not clear who has the upper hand. This is further complicated by the fluidity of the ground situation. Nonetheless, this also confuses which party would have to compromise, and on what. For example, why would Taliban want to talk to and accept the authority of Karzai government, if they retain the position of strength? On the other hand, if the military strategy is working, then why is there a need for negotiations in the first place?
As has happened in Iraq, withdrawal from Afghanistan was to follow by a large embassy and special operations forces continuing the targeted fight against the extremists. However, to achieve this, a strategic deal with Afghanistan is needed. While the contentious issue of the transfer of prisons to Afghan authorities was recently resolved, the matter of nightly raids has remained.
There is a striking similarity between the night-time raids in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan. Both cause civilian causalities but the numbers have remained controversial. Nonetheless, while the NATO forces claim these military tactics to be highly useful, they produce equally damaging political consequences for the respective governments to manage. It was for these reasons that the night-time raids have become a showstopper in the way of a US-Afghan strategic deal. Similarly, the drone attacks are likely to remain a stumbling block between US and Pakistan, as the country unveils its new terms of engagement with the US. It is quite possible that as American strategy falters in Afghanistan, the blame once again shifts towards Pakistan.
Defining Interests And Success
In addition to the above, the American short and long term interests in the region have also complicated its strategy. Is the US goal in Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and other brands of extremists, including Taliban? Or, is it also to maintain a check on Pakistan, Iran and China after withdrawal? In the long run, none of the above objectives can be accomplished by using aggressive military tactics that alienates local populations.
There is also intellectual failure to define what the success would look like. For example, a case can be made that the elimination of bin Laden and weakening of Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the AfPak region, represents a success. On the other hand, it is equally true that due to the military pressure in FATA and Afghanistan, extremists have moved to Yemen and Somalia. As a result, in the next decade we could see the situation deteriorate in North Africa and the Middle East. The cross pollination of the migrated extremists with the dynamics of Arab Spring could potentially produce a perfect storm. In other words, what looks like a short-term achievement may be a long-term disaster in the making.
How success and challenges are being defined, appear more to do with politics than the ground reality. While the Democrats may claim a success and perhaps even win election on the basis of short-term achievements, the military or ‘follow the plan’ approach being favored by the Republicans, may further hurt US long-term goals. In any event, the ground reality is quickly approaching a point that if a political approach is not fully adopted, the benefits of even the short-term accomplishments may be erased.