US’ flawed COIN strategy


Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari

Afghanistan is increasingly becoming a litmus test for the international community in its pursuit of the global war on terror. Since 2005, the Taliban have recuperated and regrouped, and present an existential threat to the current Karzai-led Afghan Administration with every passing year. According to a recent report of International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), the Taliban which maintained permanent presence over 54 percent of the Afghan territory in 2007, not only increased it to 72 percent and 80 percent respectively in 2008 and 2009, but also spread its tentacles to hitherto peaceful parts of northern and western Afghanistan.

Sustained efforts by the US and ISAF-NATO forces to reverse the gains made by the Afghan Taliban have failed to rein in the Taliban surge. The current US Administration led by President Obama ordered a review in 2009, which drew a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy with former US General, Stanley McChrystal, as the main force to implement it on the ground. In order to wrest control of territory from the Taliban, a cornerstone of Obama Administration COIN strategy involved deployment of 30,000 fresh troops to the Afghan theatre, which would increase the total number of international troops to 142,000. There are numbers of challenges which the US and NATO currently faces in Afghanistan:

The recent disgraceful exit of General McChrystal, commander of ISAF-NATO forces highlights the difference of opinion and perception that exist between the State Department and Pentagon. At the core of the debate between the two branches of the US government was the issue of commitment of more resources, such as troops and the timetable for US withdrawal from the country. While Pentagon was in favour of deployment of more US troops and retain a large footprint in the country until the Taliban are defeated and stability is restored, the State Department wants a gradual withdrawal of US troops, starting in July 2011 and handing over the security to the Afghan security forces.

Similarly, the State Department officials have tended to view President Karzai as weak, corrupt and inefficient, while McChrystal was able to forge a strong working relationship with him as well as with Pakistani military leadership. Although the sad departure of McChrystal seems to be a setback, it may prove to be temporary since the appointment of General David Petraeus as head of NATO forces in Afghanistan augurs well for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Petraeus has built a sound reputation due to his outstanding performance in Iraq and turning the tide of the war in Iraq in favour of the US. His voice, therefore, carries significant weight in the decision-making circles in Washington – both the government and the Capitol Hill. Apart from maintaining an influence in Washington, Petraeus has also travelled extensively to Afghanistan and Pakistan recently in the capacity of head of CENTOM. These visits have helped him to comprehend the complicated situation in both the countries, and cultivate close working relationship with Afghan and Pakistani leadership. Petraeus is respected in Kabul and Islamabad for his understanding of the Af-Pak problem. It is hoped that Petraeus will coordinate his policies aptly with both Kabul and Islamabad, which is key to achieve progress in the war on terror being waged in both the countries.

Secondly, the US COIN strategy enunciated under President Obama seems to be failing so far. The main issue behind the failure is a lack of public support, without which any COIN strategy, no matter how cleverly and carefully it is planned, would fail. This was evident in the military operation “Moshtarak” undertaken by US, NATO and Afghan forces in Helmand province in March 2010, which failed to clear the territory of Taliban presence and initiate economic development. To the contrary, the operation brought more miseries to the population in terms of loss of civilian lives and property.

At present, the US is contemplating a major military operation in Kandahar. However, opposition by the civilian population is proving to be a tremendous barrier in carrying out any operation soon. Subsequently, the operation which was supposed to have been carried out in May-June has been postponed to September 2010.

Also, the US decision to withdraw troops from forward operating bases on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to protect population centres/urban cities have the negative consequences of allowing the Taliban to move freely across the border. This may allow the Taliban to establish semi-sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border. Such a development could be deleterious for Pakistan which is conducting simultaneous COIN operations in various parts of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province to destroy the command and control structure of the Pakistani Taliban. It has been seen that the Pakistani Taliban leadership remained elusive during these operations and some of them reportedly took refuge on the Afghan side of the border, and initiate attacks from there – a phenomenon termed as “reverse jihad” by the Pakistani government. A case in point is the military operation code-named “Rah-e-Rast” being conducted in Swat district of Malakand division of KP since May 2009, where the Taliban leadership, such as Maulana Fazlullah and Commander Ibne-Amin, reportedly took refuge in the adjoining Kunar province of Afghanistan. A brief takeover of the Kamdesh and Barg-e-Matal districts of Afghanistan to the Afghan Taliban in June 2010 signifies that withdrawal or reduction of troops by the international coalition on the Afghan border could be fraught with danger.

Recently, Taliban have started to target US and NATO bases in Afghanistan. The recent attacks on Bagram airbase, Kandahar airbase, Nangarhar airbase and NATO offices in Kabul signifies that the Taliban are becoming emboldened to undertake complex and complicated operations targeting coalition bases in the urban centres. Similarly, Taliban recently announced to target development agencies and NGOs in Afghanistan which are intending to provide good governance to the people. This may see a halt in development activities, which could further alienate the Afghan masses. Another trend witnessed in Afghanistan involves Taliban onslaughts on civilians who are employed by either the Afghan government or the foreign troops. Previously such attacks were confined only to high-level officials. However, recently, low level officials are becoming increasingly targeted, especially in the Kandahar province.

Thirdly, sustained criticism of President Karzai by US and other Western officials tends to erode any prospects of restoring peace in the war-ravaged country. While there is no gainsaying the fact that Karzai Administration is inefficient and corrupt, such weaknesses are attributed to the international community’s failure to honour its commitments to raise or rebuild Afghanistan institutions and deliver economic development, whose impact could be felt on the grassroots level. This failure of the international community to ensure good governance and economic development has factored negatively with regard to its standing in the eyes of the Afghan population.

Fourthly, despite appeals by US government, NATO is not willing to commit more troops to Afghanistan to stabilise the country. In fact, there is a sustained urge by NATO countries to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. A troop to area ratio in Afghanistan puts roughly one soldier for every five km of territory – a figure considered to be extremely low in terms of any COIN strategy.

Fifth, there are differences of approach between the US, NATO and Afghan government with regard to a solution to the problem. While Afghan government wants to initiate peace efforts to reconcile the Taliban, including its top leadership, US is presently averse to such overtures since it believes that such efforts could be construed by the Taliban as a sign of weakness. While the US has declared any such peace efforts to be Afghan initiated, it nevertheless wants to have a final voice in any such effort and its outcome. Repeated criticism of Karzai by US officials and their opposition to Afghan efforts to invite top leadership of insurgent group tends to drive the former away from its international supports.

Recent reports indicated that Karzai has lost his faith on US strategy to defeat the Taliban. Such differences have also been witnessed between the US and its NATO allies. For example, Britain’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, resigned in June 2010 over differences with NATO and the US over the conduct of the war with the Taliban. According to reports, Cowper was insisting that the military campaign against the Taliban was destined to fail and that direct talks with the insurgents should be a solution. Similarly, the collapse of Netherlands’ government in February 2010 over the issue of retaining troops in Afghanistan is another stark example of key differences between NATO alliance members regarding the pursuit of war in Afghanistan.

A positive development has been considerable improvement in Afghanistan-Pakistan bilateral relations. Pakistan is a key to bringing stability to Afghanistan. Recent reports indicating Afghan troops receiving military training in Pakistan would further help both countries to restore mutual trust and coordinate efforts to bring stability to both the countries.

In a nutshell, security situation in Afghanistan remains bleak, with the US COIN strategy failing to make positive imprint in Afghanistan. A US failure to indent Taliban successes coupled with NATO’s countries urgency to withdraw troops from the country may embolden the Taliban to avoid meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government. It seems the time is on the side of the Taliban who would wait long enough to see the foreign troops suffering from fatigue syndrome, and leave the country, thereby allowing them the opportunity to stage a comeback in Kabul.

Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari is a researcher based at Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is reachable at adnanqaim@hotmail.com

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