The Afghanistan Campaign, Part 1: The U.S. Strategy

11 MINS READFeb 15, 2010 | 14:50 GMT
The United States is in the process of sending some 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and once they have all arrived the American contingent will total nearly 100,000. This will be in addition to some 40,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel. The counterinsurgency to which these troops are committed involves three principal players: the United States, the Taliban and Pakistan. In the first of a three-part series, STRATFOR examines the objectives and the military/political strategy that will guide the U.S./ISAF effort in the coming years. Editor's Note: This is part one in a three-part series on the three key players in the Afghanistan campaign.
Click here to download a PDF of this report Maj. Gen. Flynn's Report at the Center for a New American Security In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States entered Afghanistan to conduct a limited war with a limited objective: defeat al Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from ever again serving as a sanctuary for any transnational terrorist group bent on attacking the United States. STRATFOR has long held that the former goal has been achieved, in effect, and what remains of al Qaeda prime — the group's core leadership — is not in Afghanistan but across the border in Pakistan. While pressure must be kept on that leadership to prevent the group from regaining its former operational capability, this is an objective very different from the one the United States and ISAF are currently pursuing. The current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to use military force, as the United States did in Iraq, to reshape the political landscape. Everyone from President Barack Obama to Gen. Stanley McChrystal has made it clear that the United States has no interest in making the investment of American treasure necessary to carry out a decade-long (or longer) counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign. Instead, the United States has found itself in a place in which it has found itself many times before: involved in a conflict for which its original intention for entering no longer holds and without a clear strategy for extricating itself from that conflict. This is not about "winning" or "losing." The primary strategic goal of the United States in Afghanistan has little to do with the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. That may be an important means but it is not a strategic end. With a resurgent Russia winning back Ukraine, a perpetually defiant Iran and an ongoing global financial crisis — not to mention profound domestic pressures at home — the grand strategic objective of the United States in Afghanistan must ultimately be withdrawal. This does not mean total withdrawal. Advisers and counterterrorism forces are indeed likely to remain in Afghanistan for some time. But the European commitment to the war is waning fast, and the United States has felt the strain of having its ground combat forces almost completely absorbed far too long. To facilitate that withdrawal, the United States is trying to establish sustainable conditions — to the extent possible — that are conducive to longer-term U.S. interests in the region. Still paramount among these interests is sanctuary denial, and the United States has no intention of leaving Afghanistan only to watch it again become a haven for transnational terrorists. Hence, it is working now to shape conditions on the ground before leaving. Immediate and total withdrawal would surrender the country to the Taliban at a time when the Taliban's power is already on the rise. Not only would this give the movement that was driven from power in Kabul in 2001 an opportunity to wage a civil war and attempt to regain power (the Taliban realizes that returning to its status in the 1990s is unlikely), it would also leave a government in Kabul with little real control over much of the country, relieving the pressure on al Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and emboldening parallel insurgencies in Pakistan. The United States is patently unwilling to commit the forces necessary to impose a military reality on Afghanistan (likely half a million troops or more, though no one really knows how many it would take, since it has never been done). Instead, military force is being applied in order to break cycles of violence, rebalance the security dynamic in key areas, shift perceptions and carve out space in which a political accommodation can take place. (click here to enlarge image) In terms of military strategy, this means clearing, holding and building (though there is precious little time for building) in key population centers and Taliban strongholds like Helmand province. The idea is to secure the population from Taliban intimidation while denying the Taliban key bases of popular support (from which it draws not only safe haven but also recruits and financial resources). The ultimate goal is to create reasonably secure conditions under which popular support of provincial and district governments can be encouraged without the threat of reprisal and from which effective local security forces can deploy to establish long-term control. The key aspect of this strategy is "Vietnamization" — working in conjunction with and expanding Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) forces to establish security and increasingly take the lead in day-to-day security operations. (The term was coined in the early 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon drew down the American involvement in Vietnam by transitioning the ground combat role to Vietnamese forces.) In any counterinsurgency, effective indigenous forces are more valuable, in many ways, than foreign troops, which are less sensitive to cultural norms and local nuances and are seen by the population as outsiders. But the real objective of the military strategy in Afghanistan is political. Gen. McChrystal has even said explicitly that he believes "that a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome." Though the objective of the use of military force almost always comes down to political goals, the kind of campaign being conducted in Afghanistan is particularly challenging. The goal is not the complete destruction of the enemy's will and ability to resist (as it was, for example, in World War II). In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the objective is far more subtle than that: It is to use military force to reshape the political landscape. The key challenge in Afghanistan is that the insurgents — the Taliban — are not a small group of discrete individuals like the remnants of al Qaeda prime. The movement is diffuse and varied, itself part of the political landscape that must be reshaped, and the entire movement cannot be removed from the equation. At this point in the campaign, there is wide recognition that some manner of accommodation with at least portions of the Taliban is necessary to stabilize the situation. The overall intent would be to degrade popular support for the Taliban and hive off reconcilable elements in order to further break apart the movement and make the ongoing security challenges more manageable. Ultimately, it is hoped, enough Taliban militants will be forced to the negotiating table to reduce the threat to the point where indigenous Afghan forces can keep a lid on the problem with minimal support. Meanwhile, attempts at reaching out to the Taliban are now taking place on multiple tracks. In addition to efforts by the Karzai government, Washington has begun to support Saudi, Turkish and Pakistani efforts. At the moment, however, few Taliban groups seem to be in the mood to talk. At the very least they are playing hard to get, hinting at talks but maintaining the firm stance that full withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces is a precondition for negotiations. The current U.S./NATO strategy faces several key challenges: For one thing, the Taliban are working on a completely different timeline than the United States, which — even separating itself from many of its anxious-to-withdraw NATO allies — is poised to begin drawing down forces in less than 18 months. While this is less of a fixed timetable than it appears (beginning to draw down from nearly 100,000 U.S. and nearly 40,000 ISAF troops in mid-2011 could still leave more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan well into 2012), the Taliban are all too aware of Washington's limited commitment. Then there are the intelligence issues:
  • One of the inherent problems with the Vietnamization of a conflict is operational security and the reality that it is easy for insurgent groups to penetrate and compromise foreign efforts to build effective indigenous forces. In short, U.S./ ISAF efforts with Afghan forces are relatively easy for the Taliban to compromise, while U.S./ISAF efforts to penetrate the Taliban are exceedingly difficult.
  • U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan who is responsible for both ISAF and separate U.S. efforts, published a damning indictment of intelligence activity in the country last month and has moved to reorganize and refocus those efforts more on understanding the cultural terrain in which the United States and ISAF are operating. But while this shift will improve intelligence operations in the long run, the shake-up is taking place amid a surge of combat troops and ongoing offensive operations. Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. McChrystal have both made it clear that the United States lacks the sophisticated understanding of the various elements of the Taliban necessary to identify the potentially reconcilable elements. This is a key weakness in a strategy that ultimately requires such reconciliation (though it is unlikely to disrupt counterterrorism and the hunting of high-value targets).
The United States and ISAF are also struggling with information operations (IO), failing to effectively convey messages to and shape the perceptions of the Afghan people. Currently, the Taliban have the upper hand in terms of IO and have relatively little problem disseminating messages about U.S./ISAF activities and its own goals. The implication of this is that, in the contest over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, the Taliban are winning the battle of perception. The training of the ANA and ANP is also at issue. Due to attrition, tens of thousands of new recruits are necessary each year simply to maintain minimum numbers, much less add to the force. Goals for the size of the ANA and ANP are aggressive, but how quickly these goals can be achieved and the degree to which problems of infiltration can be managed — as well as the level of infiltration that can be tolerated while retaining reasonable effectiveness — all remain to be seen. In addition, loyalty to a central government has no cultural precedent in Afghanistan. The lack of a coherent national identity means that, while there are good reasons for young Afghan men to join up (a livelihood, tribal loyalty), there is no commitment to a national Afghan campaign. There are concerns that the Afghan security forces, left to their own devices, would simply devolve into militias along ethnic, tribal, political and ideological lines. Thus the sustainability of gains in the size and effectiveness of the ANA and ANP remains questionable. This strategy also depends a great deal on the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, over which U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has expressed deep concern. The Karzai government is widely accused of rampant corruption and of having every intention of maintaining a heavy dependency on the United States. Doubts are often expressed about Karzai's intent and ability to be an effective partner in the military-political efforts now under way in his country. While the United States has already made significant inroads against the Taliban in Helmand province, insurgents there are declining to fight and disappearing into the population. It is natural for an insurgency to fall back in the face of concentrated force and rise again when that force is removed, and the durability of these American gains could prove illusory. As Maj. Gen. Flynn's criticism demonstrates, the Pentagon is acutely aware of challenges it faces in Afghanistan. It is fair to say that the United States is pursuing the surge with its eyes open to inherent weaknesses and challenges. The question is: Can those challenges be overcome in a war-torn country with a long and proven history of insurgency? Next: The Taliban strategy

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