Saturday, February 21, 2009

New Strategies in Afghanistan and America’s Relation with Its Allies

In view of growing influence of insurgents in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced to send more troops there. New troops will be deployed in southern and eastern area to bounce back Taliban attack in the warmer season. Also, they will provide trainings for the Afghan army, and security for national elections in August. Obama will request NATO allies to follow his approach (“More Troops Headed to Afghanistan: Obama Boosting U.S. Force by Nearly 50% to Address 'Deteriorating Situation'”; Washington Post; February 18, 2009). Also, some allies such as Japan will be asked contributions to the US-NATO mission in Afghanistan. This is not so surprising. Obama insisted that the United States focus on Afghanistan and withdraw troops from Iraq, in the War on Terror.

Prior to the announcement by President Obama, new Afghan strategy was discussed at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As new policy brief, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War” was released this January, the Carnegie Endowment held an event on February 3 (See the video here). Gilles Dorronsoro, the author and a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie, recommends substantial renewal of counterterrorist strategies in Afghanistan. Currently, Doronsoro is an associate member of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies.

In the policy brief, Dorronsoro insists that a mere surge will not improve things in Afghanistan, and the focus of Western strategy be defined clearly. The West should not expand operations to marginal issues like counternarcotics, he says. The main objective, he argues, is to make the Afghan government self-sustainable after a US and NATO withdrawal. In addition, Dorronsoro argues that the Western pressure on Pakistan is inefficient. He also recommends talking with Afghan neighbors, including India, Iran, and Russia. Dorrnsoro insists on Afghanization of this war eventually.

Meanwhile, Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, and David Barno, Retired Lieutenant General of the US army and Director of the Near East South Asia Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, raise some concerns to Dorronsoro’s Afghanization strategy. Let me review the event.

First, Gilles Dorronsoro expressed his viewpoints. He argued that the West should focus on security around the Kabul area, instead of expanding the war into traditional Taliban home ground of southern and eastern area, or even in the Tribal Area of Pakistan. Dorronsoro says that it is too late for the West to pursue the victory, because neither the United States nor NATO allies have sufficient resources to defeat insurgents completely. Therefore, he insists that the Western coalition give priority in empowering the Afghan government to build a real nation state, before the withdrawal.

On the other hand, Ashley Tellis insists that this is a war, which the United States must win. If allies cannot afford to make further contributions to surge, the United States must act by itself to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan, he says. Tellis argues that the United States misuses its resources for the war in Afghanistan.

It is noteworthy that Tellis categorized the Taliban into three groups, and insisted on applying different strategies to each of them. The first category is hardcore foot soldiers. The second is tribal and village chiefs who support the Taliban within their territories. The third one is cheap day-to-day mercenaries, and he calls them Rent-a-Taliban.

Tellis says that the United States must never allow terrorists use Afghanistan to attack the homeland. Quite importantly, he points out that terrorists were invigorated in 2005 to hear that the United States would transfer responsibility for the war to the coalition and Pakistan. According to Tellis, insurgents understood that the United States was quitting the war. I find some overlaps between his argument and the Iraq debate. Prior to the surge, liberals insisted on something similar to this on Iraq, which turned out to be wrong later.

Lieutenant General David Barno agrees with Ashley Tellis mostly. As a former commander in Afghanistan, he points out that the Taliban is increasingly invigorated because Afghanistan is poorly governed, not because they have grown in response to foreign forces. Regarding the resource, the budget for operations in Afghanistan is in competition with Iraq and economic bailout. Lieutenant General Barno emphasizes the vital strategic interest of the war in Afghanistan, and insists that the United States must defeat Islamic radicals there.

Most importantly, David Barno said the following.

Sending a message that our ultimate goal is leaving simply empowers the enemy to wait us out. Several months back, I was at a dinner with a group of international officers who had served in Iraq, and one of them was an American brigade commander who had served out in Anbar province. And he said the situation in Anbar with regard to working with the tribes didn’t change and we didn’t have any leverage at all in trying to approach the tribes until we, the Americans, changed our narrative from, don’t worry, we’re leaving to a narrative that said, don’t worry, we’re staying. And when we changed that narrative, all different manner of tribal entities were willing to partner with us to move in some new directions to have confidence in what we were saying with them.”

Barno concludes that the United States can win this war through effective and properly organized strategy.

Three panelists presented vital points, but it seems to me that they are preoccupied with military strategy. This is a kind of Cold War approach, focusing on defeating communists. In the War on Terror, empowerment is a critical issue, because failed governance provokes terrorist activities.

Satifar Harshimi, a staff of Voice of America in Afghanistan, asked a question about civil development. Dorronsoro replied that Western aid should go through the Afghan government as the coalition lost the war. Barno argued against it, and said that the Western forces could win.

The difference of viewpoints among the panelists results from assessment of cause and effect. I think Lieutenant General Barno’s comment the most persuasive, as the surge and the strategy renewal have made success in Iraq. Also, when 9-11 terrorist attack happened, there were not any foreign forces in Afghanistan.

The problem is, NATO allies are reluctant to expand their commitments. At the NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Krakow, Poland, from February 18 to 20, British Defence Secretary John Hutton endorsed US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that European allies send more troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda (“Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine Top Agenda For NATO Defense Ministers”: Radio Free Europe, 19 February 2009). The rift between American (and British) sheriff and European bar master over Iraq has not resolved. The Afghan War reveals the gap again.