An advantageous U.S. exit

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — America’s war in Afghanistan is approaching a tipping point, with doubts about President Barack Obama’s strategy rising. Yet, after dispatching 21,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan, Obama is considering sending another 14,000 combat troops there. Let’s be clear: America’s Afghan war is just not winnable.

First, Obama has redefined U.S. goals too narrowly. America’s primary goal now is not to defeat the Taliban but to prevent al-Qaida from using Afghanistan as a base to launch an attack on the United States.

Obama told the Associated Press in a July 2 interview, “I have a very narrow definition of success when it comes to our national security interests, and that is that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot set up safe havens from which to attack America.”

But al-Qaida is not really a factor in the Afghan war, where the principal combatants are the U.S. military and the Taliban plus associated militias. Rather than seek to defeat the Taliban, Washington has encouraged Pakistani, Afghan and Saudi intelligence to hold proxy talks with the Taliban’s top leadership holed up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Second, the U.S. is fighting the wrong war. After the American invasion drove al-Qaida leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan has emerged as the main base and sanctuary for transnational terrorists. Support and sustenance for the Taliban and many other Afghan militants also comes from inside Pakistan. Yet Obama pursues a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, to the extent that Islamabad is being made the single largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the world.

In that light, Obama’s war strategy is questionable. To defeat al-Qaida, the U.S. doesn’t need a troop buildup — certainly not in Afghanistan. Without a large ground force in Afghanistan or even major ground operations, the U.S. can hold al-Qaida remnants at bay in their havens in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan through covert operations, Predator drones and cruise-missile attacks. Isn’t that precisely what the CIA already is doing?

U.S. intelligence believes that al-Qaida already is badly fragmented and weakened and thus is in no position to openly challenge American interests. According to the 2009 Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community: “Because of the pressure we and our allies have put on al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan . . . al-Qaida today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago.”

Had the Obama goal been to rout the Taliban, a further military surge may have made sense because a resurgent Taliban can be defeated only through major ground operations, not by airstrikes and covert actions alone. Yet, the Obama administration presses ahead with a “clear, hold, build” strategy.

When the administration’s principal war target is not the Taliban but rather al-Qaida remnants on the run, why chase a troop-intensive strategy pivoted on protecting population centers to win grassroots support? In reality, what it calls a “clear, hold, build” strategy is actually a “surge, bribe, run” strategy, except that the muddled nature of the mission and the deepening U.S. involvement crimp the “run” option.

America’s quandary is a reminder that it is easier to get into a war than to get out. In fact, Obama undermined his unfolding war strategy last March by publicly declaring, “There’s got to be an exit strategy.” The message that sent to the Taliban and its sponsor, the Pakistani military, was that they ought to simply out-wait the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.

Before Afghanistan becomes a Vietnam-style quagmire, Obama must rethink his plan for another troop surge. Gradually drawing down U.S. troop levels indeed makes more sense because what holds the disparate constituents of the Taliban syndicate together is a common opposition to foreign military presence.

An American military exit from Afghanistan will not come as a shot in the arm for the forces of global jihad, as many in Washington seem to fear. To the contrary, it will remove the common unifying element and unleash developments whose significance would be largely internal or regional. In Afghanistan, a vicious power struggle would break out along sectarian and ethnic lines. The Taliban, with the active support of the Pakistani military, would certainly make a run for Kabul to replay the 1996 power grab.

But it won’t be easy to repeat 1996. For one, the Taliban is splintered today, with the tail (private armies and militias) wagging the dog. For another, the non-Taliban and non-Pashtun forces now are stronger, more organized and better prepared than in 1996 to resist the Taliban’s advance to Kabul, having been empowered by the autonomy they have enjoyed in provinces or by the offices they still hold in the Afghan federal government.

Also, by retaining Afghan bases to carry out covert operations and Predator missions and other airstrikes, the U.S. military would be able to unleash punitive air power to prevent a 1996 repeat. After all, it was the combination of American air power and the Northern Alliance’s ground operations that ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

Against this background, the most likely outcome of the Afghan power struggle triggered by an American decision to pull out would be the formalization of the present de facto partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. Iraq, too, is headed in the same direction.

The Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities would be able to ensure self-governance in the Afghan areas they dominate, leaving the Pashtun lands on both sides of the British-drawn Durand Line in ferment. Thanks to ethnic polarization, the Durand Line, or the Afpak border, exists today only on maps. On the ground, it has little political, ethnic and economic relevance.

As in Iraq, an American withdrawal would potentially let loose forces of Balkanization in the Afpak belt. That may sound disturbing, but this would be an unintended and perhaps unstoppable consequence of the U.S. invasion.

An American pullout actually would aid the fight against international terrorism. Instead of staying bogged down in Afghanistan and seeking to cajole and bribe the Pakistani military from continuing to provide succor to Islamic militants, Washington would become free to pursue a broader and more-balanced counterterrorism strategy.

Also, minus the Afghan-war burden, the U.S. would better appreciate the dangers to international security posed by Pakistani terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e- Mohammed. The threat of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan comes not from the Taliban but from these groups that have long drawn support from the Pakistani army as part of the deep-rooted military-mullah alliance.

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.