Thoughts on Responsible Transition
Posted by Michael Cohen
The folks over at CNAS have a new report on how the US can responsibly transition its military forces out of Afghanistan. To be sure I like to read anything on Afghanistan that makes the argument for moves away from a large-scale US military presence to a smaller footprint. But that laudable recommendation can't hide the fact that Responsible Transition fails to seriously engage on the most important question facing the US mission in Afghanistan - namely political reconciliation.
This is a rather stunning and glaring omission. Indeed, the CNAS report does more than simply gloss over the issue; it seems openly hostile to the possibility of negotiation with the Taliban and/or potential reconciliation.
In fact, much of the discussion of political strategy in the paper focuses on how the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (ish) can put pressure on the Taliban to make concessions - rather than have the US, NATO or the Afghan government offer any sort of olive branch to the insurgents.
The report argues that their strategy "would add further momentum to prospects for reconciliation by extending the U.S. and allied presence in Afghanistan and disheartening insurgent groups that will have to convince their rank and file that another several years of hard fighting remain on the horizon."
Basically it's all sticks and no carrots for the Taliban.
This approach seems to directly reflect US and ISAF thinking, which according to the recent Wikileaks disclosures, rejects any option short of the Taliban's "surrender."
As I noted recently "what is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future - and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept." Instead the CNAS report seems to reflect a vision of Afghanistan's future in which the US and NATO wins and the Taliban is defeated or at the very least routed.
Clearly that is one way to look at the conflict, but to be honest it doesn't seem like a very serious or realistic approach. I continue to be surprised that after all the setbacks and challenges we have seen in US strategy; after all the unrealized assumptions about US capabilities and power; and considering the ever-ticking political clock there are still Afghanistan analysts who believe that we can prevent the Taliban from playing a significant role in the country's future.
Nearly 18 months ago, CNAS put out another report on Afghanistan called Triage. There it argued that the key to success in Afghanistan would come via protecting the population:
They argued "With a renewed focus on protecting the population and the strengthening government agencies and security forces, the United States and its allies will be better positioned to seize the opportunities to reverse the deteriorating condition in both countries."
We know now that was overly optimistic and rested on a shaky set of assumptions that turned out largely be wrong. It's a compelling reminder of how difficult it is to predict with any certainty the effectiveness of a military strategy in a non-permissive environment like Afghanistan.
My fear is that a year to 18 months from now when we realize that the Taliban cannot be bludgeoned into submission; when we realize the ANSF is unable to take over security from NATO; and when we realize Pakistani remains oblivious to US pressure regarding Afghan Taliban safe havens . . . it will simply be too late.