Belmont Club

The "civilian surge"

The WSJ describes the administration’s plans to counter the opium trade in Afghanistan and stabilize Pakistan. In an article entitled “White House Plans Extensive Afghan Escalation”, Yochie Dreazen wrote:

The Obama administration will unveil a new Afghanistan strategy Friday that calls for devoting significant new resources to counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan and economic development in Pakistan, according to senior U.S. officials. …

Mr. Obama will also significantly expand the American presence in Afghanistan. The president recently agreed to send 17,000 U.S. military reinforcements to Afghanistan in coming months, and officials said the new plan will add roughly 4,000 military trainers who will be charged with mentoring the nascent Afghan army and police.

The new troops, along with the hundreds of diplomats and civilian officials who will be sent to Afghanistan as part of a so-called “civilian surge,” will begin departing for Afghanistan later this spring.

The new strategy is notable for the emphasis it places on Pakistan, which senior officials now see as critical to determining whether Afghanistan stabilizes or continues its downward spiral. The U.S. has given Pakistan more than $10 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., mostly in military assistance. As part of its new strategy, the Obama administration plans to instead give Pakistan at least $1.5 billion per year in economic-development aid and other non-military forms of assistance.

White House officials hope the money will be used to create jobs and fund construction projects in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region, areas that provide havens to the militants who cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks.

The Obama administration hopes to undercut the Taliban by launching a new counter-narcotics offensive in the Helmand River Valley and other parts of southern Afghanistan. The mission will be the primary focus of the U.S. reinforcements currently streaming into the mammoth military base in the southern city of Kandahar.

Under the planned counter-narcotics mission, U.S. or Afghan troops will first offer Afghan farmers free wheat seed in the hope of persuading them to replace their opium crops. If the farmers refuse, U.S. or Afghan personnel will burn their fields, and then again offer them free replacement seeds. A senior U.S. military official described the approach as a “carrot, stick, carrot” effort.

Despite the tone of the WSJ’s piece, Fred Kaplan in Slate writes that “with just a week until President Barack Obama flies to Strasbourg, France, for his first NATO conference, his top advisers are still divided over what U.S. policy should be on the summit’s No. 1 issue: how to fight the war in Afghanistan.” Kaplan says that President Obama has not yet made the fundamental choice between what he terms the CT or Counterterrorist strategy or COIN (counterinsurgency). Kaplan writes:

According to close observers, the key debate in the White House is whether the United States and NATO should wage a counterinsurgency campaign—securing the Afghan population, helping to provide basic services, and thus strengthening support for the government—or whether we should devote most of our resources to going after al-Qaida terrorists directly. Obviously, any plan will wind up doing at least a bit of both; the debate is over priorities and emphasis.

Andrew Exum, writing in the Small Wars Journal, is appalled by the idea that this debate can still remain unresolved at so late a date. He says, “the distinction between COIN and CT, however, is poorly understood. For one, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between the two – a fact that Kaplan and other longtime defense correspondents largely understand but which policy-makers must understand as well. If what Kaplan writes is true, and policy-makers are stuck thinking of their policy options as either/or propositions, we are in more trouble in Afghanistan than I thought.”

But the real choice is more basic. It’s not between CT and COIN. It is between a decision to stay until the Taliban are meaningfully defeated or simply to prepare for a withdrawal ‘with honor’. At a talk I recently attended a senior retired military officer argued that neither counterinsurgency nor nation building could be achieved unless the Taliban, who are largely founded upon the Pashtun tribal structures, are militarily brought to heel. So the hidden choice in the Obama strategy is whether or not it is willing to invest the resources and undertake the political risks necessary to defeat the Taliban, even in their sanctuaries across the border. From the scant detail reported in the WSJ article, the Obama administration appears to have accepted the necessity of dealing with the sanctuaries across the border, albeit indirectly, by assisting the Pakistanis. However, it is unclear at present how aggressive it will be in actually breaking the combat capability of the Taliban.  The difficulties of accomplishing that task were highlighted by a recent accusation by Afghanistan that the Pakistanis were helping the Taliban.

KABUL – Afghanistan’s intelligence chief accused Pakistan’s spy agency of helping Taliban militants carry out attacks in his country, highlighting one of the biggest challenges facing the Obama administration as it prepared Thursday to launch a new strategy for the Afghan conflict. …

Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, told parliament Wednesday that the spy agency provides support to the Taliban leadership council in the Pakistani city of Quetta headed by the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. He said the council sends militants into Afghanistan to attack Afghan and international forces.

The New York Times reported that Pakistani spy operatives provide money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders, with evidence of the ties coming from electronic surveillance and trusted informants. The report cited American, Pakistani and other security officials who spoke anonymously because they were discussing confidential intelligence information.

In any case, if the Administration does not plan to degrade the Taliban’s power to the point where Pashtun tribal chiefs can switch allegiance without fear of sudden and painful death, then Kabul will never acquire control on the ground and the Obama civilian surge may simply be an exercise of going through the motions to disguise the goal of realizing an exit strategy. Then the “civilian surge” would simply be “the long goodbye”.