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December 16, 2010

The Afghan Strategy Review That Wasn't
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I just got done reading the White House's Afghan Strategy Review and it is as depressing as it is unserious.  In general, this is a report intended more for public consumption than a serious reading of the situation in Afghanistan; and frankly its goal is more to deceive the public than to level with it. (Considering that now 60 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting it's not difficult understand the White House's motivation).

Reading this review one would not know that Afghan governance remains a serious obstacle to this US strategy, relations with the Karzai government are badly frayed, training of the ANSF and Police is showing, at best, halting progress, the Taliban have made significant inroads into Northern Afghanistan, in effect nationalizing the insurgency and as Rajiv pointed out the other day, the tactical gains that the US has made are a result of overwhelming US military power that is likely not sustainable or able to be replicated across the country.

These are all serious impediments to the achievement of US goals in Afghanistan and they go unmentioned in the review. Consider this paragraph:

While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible. Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.

Unmentioned here is that in Northern Afghanistan and elsewhere the security situation has significantly worsened or even that in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan while security in places where US troops are located has gotten better, overall civilian casualties and American military deaths have jumped significantly. 

On the subject of Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan yes more progress needs to be made in dealing with them, but unmentioned in the report is any sense of how that might happen. I see no reason to believe that Pakistan is on the verge of dealing with this problem and if the White House does, it's not saying.

Now I obviously get the fact that the White House wants to put a positive spin on things, but this report presents the American people with a completely one-sided - military-centric - view of the situation in Afghanistan that highlights the halting tactical successes and largely ignored the strategic roadblocks that are undermining US policy objectives. This, to put it bluntly, is not change I can believe in.

Moreover, the report's focus on Pakistan is telling - the report is certainly correct in suggesting that additional pressure is being put on al Qaeda in Pakistan, but what any of this has to do with the war in Afghanistan is not clear. None of the gains made in Pakistan have much of anything to do with the war in Afghanistan - and they could just as easily be accomplished with a smaller military footprint on par to what Vice President Biden was suggesting last year. If anything, the large US troop presence is probably roiling US-Pakistan relations as much as it is helping them. 

Nowhere in the report is a larger explanation for how the giant US presence in Afghanistan is furthering US national security or frankly is necessary to uphold these interests. 

When I read this report I see an Administration searching fitfully for a way to argue progress is being made in Afghanistan and justify a continued US presence and the President's decision to escalate the war- against a lot of evidence to the contrary.

In other words what I see here to coin a phrase from the 2008 campaign is, more of the same.



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India never came up.

Why does Pakistancontinue to support the Taliban and its killing of US troops? It concerns India, Pakistan's arch-enemy, which is increasing its influence in Afghanistan.

from General McChrystal's Aug 2009 report:

"Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India."

Ambassador Holbrooke was no help:

"Holbrooke assured [India FM] Rao that he is in favor of Indian assistance programs in Afghanistan and is not influenced by what he hears in Islamabad." -- wikileaks

This conflict which is based upon Pakistan-India enmity will go on forever. Pakistan will not stand for an India-allied country on its western flank. You can't blame them. The current Kabul "government" is allied with the Northern Alliance which is allied with India.

Under these conditions there is no way US involvement will ever end. The US will continue to be caught between Pakistan and India.

It is not only AfPak, it is really AfPakIndia, or more accurately, PakAfIn -- with Afghanistan (together with its American patron) squarely in the middle and Pakistan (with nukes) most important.

The US needs to exercise some empathy for Pakistan's national interests and stop beating on Pakistan with only US interests in mind.

Holbrooke didn't get it -- but he's gone.

Regarding "The Afghan Strategy Review That Wasn't," Gates made it clear (I took notes) that the purpose of the review was to "identify areas of concern in order to focus on shortcomings and NOT to rethink the strategy."

It was the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review" -- apparently the second strategy Obama came up with is a keeper. "The core goal of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country.

"Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and there are notable operational gains."

Obama never did describe a true strategy.

from the DOD Dictionary
strategy: A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.

The "instruments of national power" are more than military, but currently US security is almost entirely a military matter and the report reflects this, with (as you point out) no concern for the COIN-important host government's effectiveness, nor any regional political concern as I illustrate above.

Speaking of military primacy, the QDDR exercise illustrates how State wants to be a Pentagon adjunct -- for nation-building and not diplomacy -- but that['s another matter.

Obama Strategy #1
Mar 27, 2009

. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region -- our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.

Obama Strategy #2
Dec 1, 2009

Second, we will work with our partners, the United Nations, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security. This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over.

Action? None.

Speaking of strategies, during the press conference Clinton claimed that under US pressure Pakistan had pulled 140,000 troops of its India border for an offensive against the Taliban. Gates then countered her and said Pakistan pulled the troops off the border to deal with the extensive flood damage.

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