Afghanistan: Hanging in the Balance

May 3, 2012

For more than a decade, the Afghan War has been a costly and difficult campaign for the United States and its NATO allies.  As the United States begins to downsize its force in Afghanistan and turn combat operations over to the Afghan police and army, a persistent question is whether the U.S. strategy will be effective in preventing Afghanistan from slipping back to Taliban control over the long term.  U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has evolved over the past 11 years, and conditions have changed. As the U.S. drawdown picks up pace, success of the entire operation will be dependent on a series of complex variables over which the U.S. and NATO will have little control.  Without continued heavy, long-term support from the United States, it is likely that the current government of Afghanistan will not be sustainable in its current form.

In his remarks at West Point outlining his administration’s strategy, President Barack Obama said, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”  Effectively establishing Afghanistan and Pakistan as the theater of war in which to defeat Al Qaida and the Taliban, Obama set a timetable of 18 months to accomplish a series of ambitious and broadly defined objectives:  “We must deny al Qaida a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility . . .”

Assessing the Obama Strategy.  Now, more than two years later, it is clear that even as the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan is set to begin, and while some headway has been made in some areas, those overarching objectives articulated by Obama have not been met.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported the intelligence community’s assessment that “[the Taliban] remains resilient and capable of challenging U.S. and international goals; and Taliban senior leaders continue to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, which enables them to provide strategic direction to the insurgency and not fear for their safety.”

A leaked U.S. military report on the “State of the Taliban 2012,” confirms that Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency) is encouraging the Taliban to continue fighting.  It goes on to confirm that, “Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remain intact.” 

Negotiating the Retrograde.  Ostensibly in recognition of these shortfalls, the president has announced a “new” way forward in Afghanistan that looks remarkably similar to the counter-terror strategy originally proposed by Vice President Joe Biden. It advocated an escalation of the drone war in Pakistan and direct negotiations with the Taliban.  Broadly stated, the ultimate goal of the strategy — which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as “fight, talk and build” — is to prevent civil war and the reestablishment of terrorist bases in the region.  A key element that has emerged for that strategy is to give the Pakistanis a prominent seat at the table in exchange for their leverage on the Taliban to negotiate in kind.  

The Obama Administration has announced the start of direct trilateral talks between the U.S., the Karzai government and the Taliban’s political front organization, headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Haqqani network.  Under U.S. encouragement, the Taliban has set up an office in Doha, Qatar, explicitly for the purpose of dealing with Washington. 

Yet, with the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan imminent, the Taliban has little incentive to negotiate, believing that it can just wait NATO out.   Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently announced that combat operations would be turned over to the Afghan Army in 2013.  By the end of 2014, all American combat forces are scheduled to be out of the country, with the exception of a small number of Special Operations Forces and trainers.  

The Lessons of History and the Way Ahead.  As the U.S. and NATO retrograde gains momentum, Washington will unquestionably apply billions in military foreign sales, aid, inter-agency coordination, as well as air and military contract support to Afghan security forces to support the current Afghan government.  While the peace negotiations with the Taliban are intended to inject some measure of stability as western troops leave Afghanistan, they are also an implicit recognition that that the Taliban will regain some measure of political power in the country. 

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow also did its best to prop up the Communist government. However, when the aid vanished in 1992 following the Soviet Union’s downfall, Kabul became engulfed in a violent war that placed the reins of power for Afghanistan firmly in the hands of the Taliban.  More than two decades later, Washington is hoping to avoid the same fate for Afghanistan.

Steve Delonga is the president of Prometheus Security International, LLC.