/ 1 August 2010

Afghanistan: Which way now?

Afghanistan: Which Way Now?

As the British and United States governments ponder their next move, the Observer‘s foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont examines the four most likely scenarios

The Basra option
During the latter period of the British occupation of the Iraqi city of Basra, two questions emerged: whether the high profile of British troops actually provided a target and made the violence worse? And whether the escalating conflict in that area was a direct result of primarily military efforts to bring security to it?

Soldiers in Afghanistan have raised these questions too. They have noted that, the more they go out on operations, the more they are hit; and how, with each escalation on the side of the US and ISAF, far from dampening the conflict, it has been exacerbated.

So will a reduction, perhaps to the point of withdrawal, lead to less violence? Of all the ideas bubbling around potential alternative strategies for Afghanistan, this is the most radical — the antithesis of the present counter-insurgency strategy, designed by the new US commanding officer General David Petraeus with his predecessor, Stanley McChrystal. The latter strategy, criticised by some both inside and outside the military, has been based on increasing the number of soldiers on the ground in the short term to improve security in the hope that political benefits will follow.

What would it look like?
A reverse of the surge ordered by Barack Obama, it would see troops increasingly concentrated in large civilian centres and bases, a policy tried by the British, leading to a gradual withdrawal.

How would it work?
Its proponents, few as there are, have suggested that by putting the Afghan government and forces on the spot, it might create the opportunity for an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, avoiding all the collateral political issues created by foreign forces supporting Hamid Karzai’s government.

It argues, too, that it is the presence of foreign forces that is the catalyst both for a conflict that has succeeded in presenting itself, like the war against the Soviets, as an anti-occupation struggle, as well as standing in the way of inter-ethnic reconciliation.

What are the objections?
As a military strategy, it is based on something of a paradox. Conventional thinking focuses on the control of operational space. By withdrawing, it would potentially hand that space to the Taliban. Then there is the al-Qaeda question. Conventional wisdom has it that such a strategy would allow al-Qaeda to return and establish new bases, although some have argued that the Taliban of 2010 is not the Taliban of the late 90s and might not be inclined to replicate a relationship that led to its first downfall.

Equally problematic is precisely what Afghanistan’s neighbours — Pakistan among them — might do, confronted with such a potential vacuum.

The covert war option
Several variations of this option have popped up in the past few weeks, chief among their proponents Jack Devine, former CIA deputy director of operations, who was also head of the covert Afghan Task Force during the Soviet occupation. Another supporter is David Rieff, an international affairs analyst, writer and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Devine agrees with some of the thinking behind the Basra option: that the “large and visible occupying army” in Afghanistan is the wrong force in the wrong place. “Our presence in Afghanistan,” he argued recently, “is better left unseen. Most Afghans, even those willing to deal with us, would rather we get our military out of their country. A covert action program would address this concern. It would also cost less than a military effort in treasure and lives, and allow the US to continue to protect its interests and the interests of the Afghans.”

Rieff echoes some of Devine’s concerns, arguing — in an article for the New Republic — that he would rather see much less fighting in Afghanistan and more drone strikes in Pakistan, and intelligence missions on home soil against potential terrorist threats.

What would it look like?
In some respects, it would look like other theatres of what used to be known as the “war on terror”, where drone and missile strikes have been used to target wanted suspects. Devine’s model is the CIA’s covert actions of the 80s and 2001, when its officials rebuilt their networks among tribal leaders to help topple the Taliban.

What are the objections?
Well, the CIA’s covert interventions in the 80s hardly left a stable Afghanistan. And a strategy that concentrates on cross-border drone raids is deeply problematic, both because of the unpopularity of the attacks in Pakistan and because the intelligence has not prevented large numbers of civilian casualties.

The save the north option
Unlike the Basra option, this strategy has more visible support, most recently from Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser to George Bush and former US ambassador to India. Blackwill is among the growing group challenging the present counter-insurgency strategy which, he said in a comment piece for the FT earlier this month, is “likely to fail”.

A policy that could also be called “give the Taliban the south”, it is pessimistic, arguing that on the ever-shortening political timeline for finding a successful outcome in Afghanistan, it will be impossible to sufficiently weaken the Taliban to get them to the negotiating table.

Another prominent champion of a similar-looking plan is the Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has suggested reconfiguring the mission in Afghanistan to easier objectives: providing security for large numbers of Afghans in the province around Kabul, where the Taliban is weak and support for the government is strong.

How would it work?
This strategy would see coalition forces abandon the south to the Taliban to prevent the west and north of the country falling to them, too. It would require a long-term military commitment of perhaps tens of thousands of troops. Its aim would be to prevent the further spread of the Taliban while concentrating on the twin tasks of strengthening a weak central government and potentially laying down the ground for future negotiations with the Taliban which — as Rashid argues — would have the south as a future bargaining chip in any political settlement.

What are the objections?
It risks opening up not only the issue of partition but the even more dangerous question of whether there should be a Pashtun homeland — Pashtunistan. When it is discussed, the issue of the Pashtuns living on the other side of the border in Pakistan is invoked.

The steady as she goes option
Given the inherent problems in the other strategies, you might think this was the least problematic. The recent revelations from the WikiLeaks document dump of the faltering progress of the war confirm the futility of just soldiering on.

The counter-insurgency strategy has become increasingly unpopular with soldiers on the ground and its lack of quick successes have led to criticism. Most problematic is that it now has a use-by date, when troops will begin, at least partially, to withdraw.

The relative failure of operations linked to the surge to improve security for more than short periods of time, and at high cost, suggests that a strategy that envisages a similar operation for the Taliban heartland of Kandahar may be fraught with difficulties.

What does it look like?
All too familiar, is the answer. Expect more large-scale operations. An increasing emphasis, too, will be put on training the Afghan security forces, in the hope that they’ll take over in around four years’ time.

What are the objections?
With June the worst month for coalition casualties since 2001, the evidence remains questionable that the Taliban is being substantially weakened or that ISAF operations have succeeded in improving security in the south and east.

The new emphasis on training — as a US report revealed last month — comes after billions of dollars have been spent. Nonetheless, little headway has been made in creating an army and police force capable of taking on the Taliban. – guardian.co.uk