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January 22, 2010

Defining What We Can Achieve in Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

Patrick smells the odor of pessimism on me because I've noted below that the Pakistan Army seems to have a "preference for mopping up groups that actually threaten its country" as opposed to the Afghan Taliban. He's right; it makes me pessimistic . . . about US policy in Afghanistan! 

Of course, Patrick is correct that Pakistani efforts to go after Pakistan Taliban militants is a good thing. I would hardly argue otherwise. But the issue I'm talking about is US policy in Afghanistan; and if the Pakistanis aren't going to dismantle Afghan Taliban safe havens - or even stanch the flow of arms and supplies going across the border - then a full-fledged counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan is doomed to fail. 

For example, if the Quetta Shura will remain basically unmolested does it really make sense to send the lion's share of the US surge to Helmand and Kandahar? Not really - because you're unlikely to maximize any gains you make; especially when the Taliban can simply bide their time across the border or use the free flow of arms, men and weapon across the Durand line to disrupt US and Afghan hold and build efforts (not there is any Afghan support for hold and build . . . but that is another issue).

From every indication the US military continues to don their rose-colored COIN glasses and operate under the assumption that counter-insurgency can succeed even though a growing amount of evidence suggests otherwise - Pakistani reluctance is yet another example.

And right on cue, more evidence in today's Washington Post - with the news that we're pulling back on the idea of reaching out to local militias . . . because we don't understand local militias:

Afghan officials and Eikenberry have expressed concern that unless there is a detailed plan to connect these village security forces to Ministry of Interior oversight, they could fuel the rise of warlords and undermine the already fragile government in Kabul. Another worry is that the local tribal leaders could manipulate U.S. officers who do not understand politics and tribal grievances in a particular area, U.S. officials said.


"Our level of intelligence is so lacking," said an adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. "We could be supporting people whose interests are not what we think they are." Eikenberry has argued that without Afghan government support, the program could be quickly disbanded if one of the village security forces is turned by the Taliban or gets into a dispute with government security forces.


And we also read that there is a "difference of opinion at the highest levels of the U.S. military and diplomatic headquarters in Kabul about new approaches to combating the Taliban insurgency." Well that makes me feel much better. Military tactics and political strategy should be based, at least in some measure, on what you can actually achieve - not merely what you want to achieve.  U.S. policy in Afghanistan today sure feels like more of the latter than the former; and that's not a good thing.

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