The narrative is set for the Administrations pending Afghanistan Policy Review slated for this December – who to believe whether sufficient progress is currently being made, the lack of viable options to address the ongoing threat that emanates from Pakistan’s tribal regions, and how soon will Karzai’s government be capable of providing security on its own? The following news reports provide background on this Gordian Knot.
- The recent reports circulating in Washington’s national security establishment about the Afghan battleground of Marja show glimmerings of progress: bazaars are open, some 1,000 children are in school, and a new (and only) restaurant even serves goat curry and kebabs. In Kandahar, NATO officials say that American and Afghan forces continue to rout the Taliban. In new statistics offered by American commanders in Kabul, Special Operations units have killed 339 midlevel Taliban commanders and 949 of the group’s foot soldiers in the past three months alone. At the Pentagon, the draft of a war assessment to be submitted to Congress this month cites a shift in momentum in some areas of the country away from the insurgency.
- But as a new White House review of President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan gets under way, the rosy signs have opened an intense debate at the Defense Department, the White House, the State Department and the intelligence agencies over what they really mean. Are they indications of future success, are they fleeting and not replicable, or are they evidence that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is simply more masterful than his predecessor at shaping opinion?
- The debate centers on the resiliency of the Taliban and the extent to which the group can rebuild from the hammering it is taking. Most involved say that there are positive trends for the Americans, but that the real answer will not be clear until a new fighting season begins as the weather warms next year. “The fundamental question is how deep is their bench,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who led last year’s extended White House review of Afghan strategy that resulted in Mr. Obama’s ordering 30,000 additional United States forces to the country. “By next summer we should have a pretty good idea. If they’re having trouble replacing people that we’re killing on the battlefield, then we’re on the right track. But if by next summer they’re producing new cadres that are on the same order of quality, then we’re in deep trouble.”
- A former C.I.A. official with longtime experience in Afghanistan said that the recent statements about American progress in Afghanistan reminded him of what was sometimes written about the Russians before they began withdrawing from Afghanistan in defeat in 1988, when they had been at war there for nearly 10 years. “I don’t find many people I talk to who really believe any of this,” he said. The military’s more positive view is hardly monolithic; doubts also exist within its ranks. The Defense Department’s coming war assessment says that violence once again increased in Afghanistan in the past year, in large part because of the aggressive American military operations in the south, while Pentagon officials readily acknowledge that security has deteriorated in previously quiet areas of the north.
- “It is certainly true that Petraeus is attempting to shape public opinion ahead of the December review,” said an administration official who is supportive of the general. “He is the most skilled public relations official in the business, and he’s trying to narrow the president’s options.” But national security officials across Washington are already saying that the December review will only tweak the policy, not change the strategy, and that the real assessment will come in July 2011, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal of American troops. “The bidding is still out,” the White House official said.
- If the data in December proves that the most effective means of reducing the threat has been through targeted Counter-terrorism (CT) operations versus Counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, then “a shift of strategy” to recalibrate CT with more resources and effort should be considered – ultimately reducing the threat through increased CT will provide more “security” to the populace which COIN strives for.
- COIN will naturally continue but the focus should be on those areas where gains can be marginally made and be “tweaked” so that the Administration can “off-ramp” forces as scheduled in July 2011. The “tweaking” in December 2010 should be made to support CT, not vice versa, which reports indicate is the objective.
- Waiting until July 2011 to determine whether COIN is the proper strategy and then make a decision then may be too late to create the conditions for Afghan Security Forces to take the lead.
- The U.S. has been trying to stamp out the Haqqani network, which attacks coalition forces in Afghanistan from its base in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. Now its fighters, fleeing drone strikes, are setting up in the highlands of Kurram. The militant network that is a major Western adversary in Afghanistan is expanding its reach into tribal badlands outside its longtime sanctuary in Pakistan, a move that could complicate U.S. efforts to eradicate the group.
- Pakistani tribal elders in the Kurram region along the Afghan border say large numbers of fighters from the Haqqani network, an ally of Al Qaeda, have been stationing themselves in the highlands of their rugged district and are demanding the freedom to move in and out of Afghanistan at will to carry out attacks in the neighboring country.
- American military commanders regard the group as a major roadblock to concluding the nine-year war in Afghanistan. Though the U.S. has endorsed Karzai’s push for peace talks with insurgent leaders, many in Washington see the Haqqani network as inextricably linked with Al Qaeda and therefore irreconcilable. Haqqani militants have long maintained bonds with Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has allowed the insurgents to use the North Waziristan region as their nerve center. A dramatic increase in U.S. drone missile attacks on the network’s compounds and training centers there this fall has helped trigger the movement of the militants during the last two months, experts and Kurram tribal leaders say. Tribal elders in Kurram, who are sectarian rivals of the Haqqani network, say they believe the Islamic militant group views the snowcapped region as an ideal vantage point from which to launch forays into Afghanistan. Haqqani movement into Kurram could force the United States to expand its missile strike campaign there, a move that might further inflame anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis who see the drone strikes as a gross violation of their country’s sovereignty. Right now, Islamabad tacitly allows the strikes against Al Qaeda, Taliban and Haqqani network targets in North and South Waziristan, and at times even facilitates those strikes with intelligence.
- Meanwhile, the appearance of Haqqani network fighters has exacerbated simmering sectarian frictions within Kurram. Large swaths of the region are populated by a Shiite Muslim tribe, the Turi, which has been fending off attacks from local Taliban for years. Like the Haqqanis, the Taliban is Sunni Muslim. The influx of Haqqani fighters has sparked fierce clashes with Turi tribesmen, said Musarrat Hussain Muntazir, a tribal elder. After the fighting, Turi tribal elders began negotiations with a Haqqani contingent in hopes of ending a four-year, Taliban-imposed blockade of the only road that connects Turi lands in upper Kurram with the city of Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan’s major hub. The blockade has forced Turi villagers to take a circuitous, 230-mile trek into Afghanistan’s eastern provinces and then back into Pakistan in order to buy supplies or get to a hospital.
- Pakistan, which regards the Haqqani group as a valuable hedge against Indian influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, has so far resisted repeated urgings from Washington to launch a major offensive against Haqqani network hide-outs in North Waziristan. A U.S. offer to Pakistan of $2 billion in military aid is seen by many as an incentive for Pakistan to mount an attack on the Haqqani network. Pakistan has told the U.S. it will eventually carry out that offensive, but only when it believes the time is right. “I think they’ll start the operation,” said Hussain, the think tank analyst, “once every single fighter has moved out of North Waziristan and into Kurram.”
- Too often the numerous threats to Afghan stability are labeled as “Taliban”, which can distort the “purpose” of the mission while failing to properly address the scope of the conflict – the Haqqani network is an example.
- If it is true tha the Haqqani network is decamping from current safe-havens to the Kurram Agency, then critical intelligence and targeting resources that are currently fighting under economy-of-force constraints, may have to shift from the South to the East to counter the network while delicately balancing Af-Pak-US relations.
Pentagon chiefs: Afghans can manage by 2014
- Afghanistan should be ready to handle its own security by the year 2014, the top U.S. defense chiefs said Monday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said NATO should endorse the 2014 timeline proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai when the alliance holds its annual summit later this month. “As a target at this point that makes sense, so I am comfortable with it,” Mullen said. The 2014 date would give a symbolic deadline for ending the war and bringing most combat forces home. The war is already in its 10th year and unpopular in the U.S. and Europe.
- U.S. responsibility will extend for years, Gates said Monday. President Barack Obama and other NATO allies will consider plans for transition of security control at the November 19-20 summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Although Gates had once said he hoped a few districts could be transferred this year, NATO is now looking at beginning the process in the spring. U.S. officials say the war is beginning to turn around after two years of stalemate. Although eager to underscore that claim of progress by handing over some security control, military officials are worried about backsliding. The first districts to move under Afghan police and Army control will probably be in safer areas far from front line fighting in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
- Gates also said that although he welcomes preliminary talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the insurgency isn’t likely to cut a deal unless it is weakened further. “The Taliban need to clearly see that the prospects for success have diminished dramatically, and in fact that they may well lose,” before senior leaders would be ready to negotiate a lasting political settlement, Gates said. That tipping point would be difficult to foresee at least until next spring, Gates added. The Taliban deny they are being beaten down.
- The fight in Afghanistan has metastasized to an all encompassing Afghanistan wide provincial 360 degree – north, south, east, and west. Every province and every district.
- The start of transferring a few districts to Afghan control was supposed to begin in 2010, but will not begin until spring 2011. If NATO/ISAF cannot hand off a “few” districts anywhere in Afghanistan until spring, then clearly this is another indicator that the “progress” being made is at odds with the reality on the ground. Not a single district!
- A “symbolic” deadline for ending the war and bringing most combat forces home by 2014 does not make sense nor should we feel “comfortable” about it. A sooner date would force Karzai and the Afghan Security Forces to prepare for and accept responsibility for security. 2014 appears to be a Karzai proposal –when will the US and NATO stop coddling him and tell him “no” for a change?