Geopolitical Diary: U.S. Limitations in Afghanistan
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Washington on Sunday rejected Afghan President Hamid Karzai's demands to halt air strikes – a day after the Pentagon acknowledged that a recent U.S. strike killed as many as 130 civilians in western Afghanistan. That was the largest number to die in a single operation since the U.S. invasion in 2001. National Security Adviser James Jones said U.S. forces would use extra caution to avoid such fatalities in the future, but noted that Washington cannot tie the hands of its commanders and still expect them to fight the Taliban. Sunday's development highlights the extreme difficulty of the situation the United States faces in Afghanistan. Given the limited military capabilities at its disposal and the realities on the ground, Washington has said that it is seeking a political solution to the problem. This entails building up its allies in attempts to weaken the insurgents — a goal that becomes increasingly elusive as collateral damage (which works to the insurgents' advantage) mounts. Before they can create an environment conducive to a political settlement, the United States and its allies must use military power to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table. But Washington has made it clear that it will have no more than 100,000 troops (counting both U.S. and NATO forces) available for this purpose. This deployment is not enough to make a difference on the battlefield. Consequently, the United States will have to rely more heavily on air power in its campaign to degrade Taliban capabilities and confidence. Many challenges come with this strategy. To begin, intelligence on Taliban facilities is sparse. The Taliban do not gather in large numbers on the battlefield; they are well aware of the attending risks. Instead, the Pashtun jihadists favor classic guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks. In the areas where the Taliban control territory, they are indistinguishable from the local populations in villages and towns, which also serve as their bases of support and supply. If air power is to be the mainstay of the U.S. military strategy, civilian casualties are all but inevitable. This kind of collateral damage, however, undermines the overall counterinsurgency strategy, which involves winning hearts and minds. On the contrary, civilian casualties both strengthen the argument that Taliban forces are fighting against foreign occupiers and further erode whatever legitimacy Karzai's regime can claim. In other words, the United States does not have good options for leveling the battlefield and bringing the Taliban into negotiations. Add to this recent comments by U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, who said the United States lacks intelligence to distinguish between reconcilable and irreconcilable Taliban, and it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will be able to turn things around in Afghanistan as the Bush administration did in Iraq.