How can NATO succeed in Afghanistan?
Weekly Pulse
February 20-26, 2009
The future prospects of NATO mission in Afghanistan revolve around several crucial questions at this stage, as the process of re-thinking this mission and overall counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan and the region has just begun under Obama Administration. Questions such as, whether or how many more troops the United States will be able to secure from its NATO European allies, and what the nature and scope of their operational engagement in Afghanistan will be. Will a troops’ surge in Afghanistan on the pattern of Iraq make any difference on the ground? President Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke, architect of the historic 1995 Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia, as his personal representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is expected to turn around the deteriorating security in the two countries’ tribal borderlands hit hard by al-Qaeda-inspired and Taliban-led insurgency and terrorism—regions considered by President Obama to be the central focus of his administration’s international counter-terrorism strategy.

The question is whether, or how far, Mr Holbrooke will succeed in solving all those problems identified above which are directly or indirectly impinging upon NATO’s ability to tackle Afghan insurgency. Apart from exercising the troops’ surge option in the short-run, what additional security, political and economic steps the United States and the international community are prepared to take as part of a broader strategy to end the war in Afghanistan and bring peace in its neighborhood. And, finally, will their overall political goal in Afghanistan continue to be determined by idealistic visions such as transforming a tribal society into a modern republic or will it have a pragmatic re-orientation, one that is guided by restrained political ambition and includes unpleasant compromises?

Iraq Diversion

There cannot be two opinions about the fact that the Taliban-led insurgency has gained momentum exactly during the period when NATO took over the command of military missions in Afghanistan and the US diverted its attention to Iraq war. Part of the reason why NATO’s major European members such as Germany and France were reluctant in rendering their soldiers for combat missions or sending additional troops was that United States, which had sought their cooperation in Afghanistan after 9/11, got more involved in Iraq war, which itself was not approved by these countries. Now that the Obama administration wants to make Afghanistan its administration’s top priority and the European Union has started to cooperate with the United States over Iraq, it is reasonable to expect Germany, France, Spain and Italy agreeing at the April NATO summit to contribute additional troops to Afghanistan and remove national caveats restricting their participation in combat operations against Taliban-led insurgents.

President Obama’s personal appeal in Europe, and his instant and bold steps such as the disbanding of Guantanamo Bay, the review of rendition policy, and the serious focus on climate change—all of which seem to indicate multilateral-inclusive trend in US foreign policy—may have helped assuage European public opinion about Washington’s exclusivist, unilateral approach visible mostly during two terms of the Bush Administration. Despite this, if the United States fails to secure greater European military role in the Afghan war, then merely dispatching 30,000 more US soldiers to Afghanistan by the end of this year may not be enough to combat Taliban-led insurgency involving severe tactics such as suicide bombings and surprise hit-and-run maneuvers. On the other hand, if tens of thousands of more European troops also join the military effort, then the international troops’ surge may succeed in revering the course of insurgency in Afghanistan.

Troops Surge

Second, apart from securing the troops’ surge at full scale, there is an equally important question: whether putting more boots on the ground can make a difference in the Afghan war, as the same did in the case of Iraq. Surely the ethno-tribal challenges of insurgency in Afghanistan are much graver than Iraq, even though there may be some similarities in cross-border insurgent-terrorist infiltration between the two cases. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has over 30-year long war history starting from an internationally sponsored jihad to a regionally-sponsored Afghan infighting to al-Qaeda’s sponsorship of international terrorism under the Taliban rule, and finally culminating into another internationally-sponsored war against Taliban-led insurgents that continues until now. This long tale of warfare itself highlights the complexity of the military challenge confronting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan—and Iraq nowhere nears such complexity. Even otherwise, Afghanistan’s tale of warfare goes back to centuries, and modernity has never touched ground there, contrary to Iraq under Saddam Hussain or before.

Does this mean that troops’ surge, even at the level desired by the Obama administration, will not work in Afghanistan? Not necessarily. It can work, provided the exercise of military option at an enhanced level is synchronized with an over all diplomatic strategy of accommodating the aggrieved sections of Afghan society, primarily the Pashtun, in Afghanistan’s political, security and economic structure. If the ultimate aim behind intensifying the Afghan war effort is to exert so much pressure on Taliban-led insurgents that they eventually agree to negotiate peace largely on the terms and conditions of the international forces or state parties fighting against them, then there are chances that such an effort will succeed. But if the troops’ surge is not used as a short-term military means to achieve a long-run political goal, which may necessitate making some pragmatic and unpleasant compromises, and is solely aimed at militarily crushing an enemy, then its chances of success are relatively bleak in view of the historically-rooted intricacies of the current Afghan insurgency.

Political Goal

Third, as for the rest of the seven above-mentioned problems impacting NATO mission in Afghanistan, their solution also depends largely on what new security, political and economic steps are taken by the United States and its international counter-terrorism allies, considering Afghan war’s reemergence as a top priority in the international community’s quest for peace and security in South-West Asia. An equally important question in this respect is whether the world will continue to ideally aspire for an Afghanistan that is modern and compatible with Western standards of democracy and freedom; or it will, instead, mellow down its ambitions and seek a pragmatic solution in Afghanistan, one that helps its tribal society to politically evolve and be at relative peace within and, more importantly, pose no threat to regional and international security.

Barnett R Rubin and Ahmed Rashid recently made a strong case for a “grand bargain” in Afghanistan in a Foreign Affairs article, which criticized the United States under Bush administration for its “reluctance to involve competitors, opponents, or enemies in diplomacy.” “Rethinking US and global objectives in the region,” they contend, “will require acknowledging two distinctions: first, between ultimate goals and reasons to fight a war; and, second, among the time frames for different objectives. Preventing al Qaeda from regrouping so that it can organize terrorist attacks is an immediate goal that can justify war, to the extent that such war is proportionate and effective. Strengthening the state and the economy of Afghanistan is a medium- to long-term objective that cannot justify war except insofar as Afghanistan's weakness provides a haven for security threats….This medium- to long-term objective would require reducing the level of armed conflict, including by seeking a political settlement with current insurgents.”

Grand Bargain

Their justification for rethinking these objectives and US counter-terrorism policy in Afghanistan is based is on what they claim to be the growing willingness of Taliban and other insurgent leaders to not let their country become a safe haven again for international terrorism by al-Qaeda. For this reason, Barnett and Ahmed argue, the United States “should seek to separate those Islamist movements with local or national objectives from those that, like al Qaeda, seek to attack the United States or its allies directly—instead of lumping them all together…An agreement in principle to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism, plus an agreement from the United States and NATO that such a guarantee could be sufficient to end their hostile military action, could constitute a framework for negotiation. Any agreement in which the Taliban or other insurgents disavowed al Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat for al Qaeda.”

Fine argument, but the worsening insurgency in Afghanistan’s eastern and southern areas and Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan does not seem to suggest that the security environment there is ripe enough for creating a framework within which the process to negotiate pragmatic deals such as the above can genuinely start right away. As it happened in Pakistan’s case at least from 2005 to 2007, the government’s appeasement of local Taliban in the form of a few pragmatic agreements only enabled the latter to buy time, re-energize and then pose a bigger security danger. Part of the reason was that prior to each deal and in the aftermath of its collapse, Pakistan’s security operation did not intensify as much as it should have. It is only since the start of last year, when the current civilian government took over, that this operation has gained due momentum and creative new strategies such as the launching of tribal Lashkars against Taliban insurgents, such as in the Bajaur agency of tribal areas, have been adopted with relative success. If insurgency has still spread, it is less because of the resolve of the government and more due to the lack of security forces’ ability to fight counter-insurgency warfare.

Al-Qaeda Link

It is true that certain signals are emerging from the interlocutors of Taliban and other insurgents that they have disassociated themselves from al-Qaeda, or are willing to do so; and that they are willing to be part of an interim government in Afghanistan provided the United States and NATO announced a schedule for phased withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan to be replaced by troops from Muslim countries. But, then again, such signals are emanating from a few moderate figures of Taliban—such as Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi and Mulah Abdul Zaeef, former Taliban foreign minister and ambassador to Islamabad—and other groups whom we cannot describe as speaking entirely for the militant leadership of the forces of insurgency in Afghanistan.

In the next few months, or perhaps a year or so, therefore, the United States and NATO have no option but to intensify the security operation in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan may need to further intensify its own security operation, and seek urgent counter-insurgency help from the United States and NATO as their strategic ally in the international counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan and its own bordering regions. Such intensified military campaigns on both sides of the Durand Line may crush Taliban-led insurgents sufficiently, separating them from al-Qaeda and creating moderate constituencies in their ranks willing to negotiate pragmatic peace largely on the terms of their legitimate national and international opponents.

A 2008 International Crisis Group report on Afghanistan suggests that “seeking a political solution should not mean negotiations with the Taliban, which would draw more violent extremists into government.” If negotiating peace with Taliban is out of question, then what other alternative course of action is left for the international community to politically resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. The report does not explain. Obviously it is difficult to negotiate with terrorists. In the last few years, Taliban and other insurgents have increasingly resorted to terrorist tactics such as mass suicide bombings targeting security forces and common people alike in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is only through a full-gear counter-insurgency campaign—involving a mix of combat, and intelligence and security measures to prevent and preempt terrorism—that the recent severity in Taliban insurgent-terrorist tactics can be tackled effectively.

Moderate Taliban

However, this does not mean that political and economic incentives should not be offered simultaneously to capitalize upon the opportunities, if and when they come, along the way, as the presently inescapable military push moves forward in future. If and when the intensified military operation starts to break the back of Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the respective international and state parties may have greater avenues and more opportunities for realizing their broader security, political and economic objectives. The troops’ surge in Iraq did help isolate al-Qaeda from Sunni insurgents, curtail sectarian violence and suicide bombings, and create moderate constituencies willing to live in peace with the post-Saddam political reality in Iraq. Achieving the same in Afghanistan may be more difficult, but it is not impossible.

It is clear that NATO has not functioned as a coherent military alliance with a clear mission and objectives in hand and necessary support of governments and people in the region. A security-cum-reconstruction mission led by foreign forces that does not have the required domestic and regional support may not succeed in crushing extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan. Not only does the NATO mission in Afghanistan lack commitment from several of the alliance states for more personnel, money and equipment, it also suffers from a crisis of credibility caused by its failure in realizing the desired goals of reconstruction and security sector reforms.

Intricate Reality

Afghanistan’s present security predicament is caused by a number of intricate factors, mostly rooted in the past over thirty years of warfare. Given that, the recent rise of Taliban militancy in Afghanistan, and its linkage with Pakistan’s tribal belt, cannot be seen in isolation from the 1980s internationally-sponsored jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the regionally sponsored intra-Afghan warfare in the country during the 1990s, which produced the Taliban phenomenon, and the situation in the country since the start of the ant-Taliban war in 2001. It is within this broader historical context that the underlying causes of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan actually lie. Finding a single cause of a complex problem—such as considering Taliban’s re-grouping in Pakistan’s tribal regions and their infiltration into Afghanistan as the principal source of Taliban insurgency there—is simplistic and dangerous.

The aggravating drug problem, the continuing power of warlords, faltering reconstruction and development, un-representative nature of the regime in Pashtun perceptions, the existence of alleged al-Qaeda/Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the rise in civilian casualties in US/NATO operations and its negative impact on the Afghan public opinion are some of the indigenous sources of the growing extremist-nationalist anti-US/NATO movement in Afghanistan today. As long as these issues remain unsettled, Taliban-led militancy will continue to gain momentum. Likewise, the issue of Taliban regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal regions and its linkage with Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan cannot be tackled without the required Afghan-US/NATO response to Pakistan’s proposed measures for tightening security along the Durand Line, in the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s tribal regions, and the continuity of US/NATO “hot pursuit” tactics as well as the absence of development there.

All of these are very complex, historically rooted problems characterizing the current ground realities in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. Each one of them requires a long-term agenda for its settlement, something that NATO’s current mission in Afghanistan lacks acutely. It is not that NATO needs to make a drastic increase in troops to make a difference in its war effort in Afghanistan, the main problem, as identified above, is the unwillingness of several NATO members to commit more troops for combat role. NATO has to overcome this problem, by convincing all of its members to lift respective restrictions imposed on their operational role in Afghanistan. For the purpose, however, the Alliance has to address all of the concerns being expressed by its European members regarding the war effort in Afghanistan. Accommodating Pashtun interests in the power structure of Afghanistan is another precondition for NATO’s success in Afghanistan, one that cannot be realized as long as genuine representatives of Afghanistan’s majority population remain politically an aggrieved party in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s NATO-led security sector reforms, including the expansion of Afghan national army and police and realization of Afghan reconstruction goals, depend upon how quickly the manifold causes of Afghanistan’s insecurity dilemma are addressed effectively. Apart from Pashtun alienation from the country’s power structure, these include the culture of warlordism and its close affinity with the drug problem, the continuing problem of refugee presence in Pakistan’s tribal region and its linkage with insurgency in Afghanistan, and the negative local and regional perceptions about NATO’s Afghan mission. By using force alone as a principal counter-insurgency means, and without taking forceful steps to combat drug problem and warlords involved in it, NATO cannot hope to achieve credible results in its current security-cum-reconstruction mission in Afghanistan. And, obviously, if NATO fails in Afghanistan, it cannot hope to play an effective role in international peace and security.

Final Thoughts

US/NATO and Afghan authorities in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions and Pakistani government in the country’s tribal and frontier regions can win the battle against Taliban-led insurgents if they resolve to undertake a decisive military push not to achieve a military victory, but to facilitate a pragmatic political resolution of the conflict. A twin-pronged strategy based on the use of force against the Taliban and their extremist affiliates directly engaged in terrorism, and the pursuit of dialogue with those among the Taliban who are willing to compromise for the sake of legitimate political and economic benefits, has greater chances of success. Barnett and Ahmed have argued for expansion in the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) and the gradual transfer of Afghan security to them. The Afghan National Army is set to increase up to 134,000 by 2011. The Afghan police will have a similar strength by then. However, as the Afghan national security apparatus expands and assumes greater responsibility, its composition has to extend to those among Taliban and other insurgents vow for peace as a result of the intensified military campaign this year and beyond. In my own conversations with top Pakistani and Afghan diplomats, it appears that Taliban and other insurgents are particularly aggrieved at the domination of non-Pashtun people in Afghan national army and police. That is why one of their key demands will be to give them their due share in the Afghan National Security Forces, whenever the process of peace-making in Afghanistan begins.

Apart from expanding Afghan security forces, the deployment of troops from relatively neutral Muslim countries like Tunisia and Morocco in Afghanistan remains a viable option. The United Arab Emirates already has a small contingent of forces in the war-torn country. Including a credible Muslim component in the international security forces operating in Afghanistan will provide them greater legitimacy and improve local and regional public and state perceptions about them.

2009 is a crucial year in post-Taliban politics in Afghanistan, as the forthcoming presidential polls may facilitate the emergence of a more credible leadership and representative government in Afghanistan. It is only then that the international community’s broader agenda of achieving political stability, economic development and social progress in Afghanistan can be realized effectively. A Contact Group mandated by the UN Security Council, as suggested by Barnett and Ahmed, cannot achieve such goals, nor can it assuage regional concerns, such as those of Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia. We need to remember that none of the UN envoys and plans in the past made any difference on the ground in Afghanistan. Diego Cordovez left behind a messy Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Mahmud Mestri and Dr Norbert Holl played a disastrous role during the Taliban rule. The UN six-plus-two plan proved a non-starter until the end. Each time the UN got involved in political resolution of the Afghan conflict, it only re-enforced competing and conflicting external interests in the war-torn country.

Instead of a UN Contact Group, the United States and its NATO and non-NATO allies have to handle the Afghan project with greater commitment and resolve. Mr. Holbrooke is a great negotiator. His diplomacy in the Balkans was guided by pragmatism and multilateralism, and decisiveness—and the same principles seem to guide the Obama Administration, as it undertakes the greatest of all American missions in the post-Cold War period. He has just concluded a trip to the region, listening to the leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and making a sense of the ground realities there. Mr Holbrooke did go to India as well, because the Obama Administration thinks the peace process between India and Pakistan, especially over the Kashmir dispute, is crucial for winning the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. We shall wait and see as to what sort of broader policy changes the Obama administration undertakes in the coming months to combat Taliban-led insurgency and explore the possibility of peace and development in the region. If these policy changes pragmatically aim to solve all the factors undermining NATO mission in Afghanistan and limiting Pakistan’s success in the tribal regions, then there is hope that the situation in the case of Afghan war may start to make similar progress as has been the case in Iraq recently.

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