Even before U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has been sworn in, the contours of his new strategy on Afghanistan have become known: A “surge” of U.S. forces, not to militarily rout the Taliban but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength.
Put simply, the United States intends to pursue in Afghanistan what it has done in Iraq, where it used a surge largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains.
Linking Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together in the same security equation, Obama has made known a dual strategy of outwitting the Taliban while ensuring Indo-Pakistan peace, even if it means the Pakistan-based masterminds of the recent 67-hour Mumbai terrorist attacks are not brought to justice.
This strategy is likely to make things more difficult for Indian security, both by reinforcing U.S. dependence on the Pakistani military (more than three-quarters of all NATO supplies for the war in landlocked Afghanistan are transported through Pakistan) and by seeking to co-opt the Taliban behind the cover of a surge of U.S. forces.
In keeping with Obama’s pledge during the presidential election campaign to send more American combat brigades to Afghanistan, Adm. Michael Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has announced a near-doubling of U.S. troops there by summer. There already are about 33,000 U.S. troops and 35,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.
At issue, however, is not the number of forces (the Soviets couldn’t tame Afghanistan even with more than 100,000 troops), but the strategy. Obama has expressed confidence in the new Centcom commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who is openly looking for ways to win over local commanders and warlords — the mainstay of the Taliban. Petraeus wants to explore truces and alliances with local tribal chieftains and guerrilla leaders to take them off the battlefield.
That is precisely what Petraeus did as the U.S. military commander in Iraq during the surge, and it is a strategy whose extension to Afghanistan has the full backing of Robert Gates, staying on as defense secretary under Obama. The “surge first, then negotiate” plan is to build up security in Afghan cities with new U.S. troop arrivals before initiating talks with the Taliban.
For the talks to be successful, the U.S. intends to squeeze the Taliban first, including by taking another page from its experiment in Iraq (where more than 100,000 Sunni gunmen have been pressed into government service) and setting up lightly trained local militias in every provincial district in Afghanistan. The move turns a blind eye to the danger that such militias could become a law unto themselves, terrorizing local populations.
If a resurgent Taliban is now on the offensive, with 2008 proving to be the deadliest year for U.S. forces, it is primarily because of two reasons: the sustenance the Taliban still draws from Pakistan; and a growing Pashtun backlash against the seven-year-old presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil.
A U.S. surge will not intimidate local Taliban commanders and tribal chieftains to negotiate peace deals, especially when some countries with forces in Afghanistan are exhibiting war fatigue and a desire to pull out troops. If anything, the pressure would be on the Obama administration to show quick results at a time when Afghan popular support for the war is ebbing.
Indeed, it will be naive to expect an Iraq-style surge-and-bribe experiment to work in Afghanistan, whose mountainous terrain, myriad and splintered tribes, patterns of shifting tribal and ethnic loyalties, special status as the global hub of poppy trade and a history of internecine civil conflict set it apart from any other Muslim country. In such a land with a long tradition of humbling foreign armies, payoffs won’t buy peace. Yet Petraeus wants to devise a 21st-century version of a divide-and-conquer imperial strategy.
If there is any certainty, it is that the Petraeus plan will help the already- entrenched Taliban sharpen its claws. However, to help justify “surge and bribe,” a specious distinction is being drawn between al-Qaida and the Taliban to portray the former as evil and the latter as a different force with whom a compromise ought to be pursued.
The blunt fact is that al-Qaida and the Pakistani military-reared organizations like the Taliban, Laskar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad now constitute a difficult-to-separate mix of jihad-spouting soul mates with safe havens in Pakistan. A deal with any one such group will only strengthen the global-jihad syndicate, plus the Pakistani military establishment.
In that light, the surge-and-bribe strategy should be viewed as a shortsighted approach intent on repeating the very mistakes of American policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three decades that have come to haunt U.S. security and that of the rest of the free world.
If America is to reclaim the global fight against terror, it will need to face up to the lessons from its past policies that gave rise to Frankensteins like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar and to “the state within the Pakistani state” — the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, made powerful in the 1980s as a conduit of covert U.S. aid for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas.
The primary lesson is to keep the focus on long-term interests and not be carried away by political expediency. Yet again, Washington is itching to give primacy to near-term considerations.
Even if — in the best-case scenario — the Obama administration managed to bring down violence in Afghanistan by cutting deals, the Taliban would remain intact as a fighting force, with active ties to the Pakistani military. Such a tactical gain would exact serious long-terms costs on regional and international security.
In seeking such short-term success, the Obama team is falling prey to a long-standing U.S. policy weakness: the pursuit of narrow objectives without much regard for regional security or the interests of friends. Why ignore the interests of new strategic partner India, which already is bearing the brunt of the blow-back from past failed U.S. policies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt?
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.