The Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan is in tatters. This month’s violence, sparked off by the reported burning of Qurans at an American military base, has claimed at least thirty lives. Two of the dead were U.S. Army officers murdered at their post inside the Afghan Interior Ministry, supposedly one of the most secure locations in the country.
The killings prompted General John Allen, who commands U.S. and NATO forces, to pull his personnel from Afghan government buildings, while NATO advisers in Kabul have limited communication with Karzai’s ministries to telephone and e-mail.
The problem is not new. In May 2011 a U.S. Army study established that murders of Westerners by Afghan national security forces did not represent “rare and isolated events”: between July 2010 and May of last year, more than thirty NATO personnel were killed by Afghan soldiers or policemen. Even before the latest incident there had been little trust between U.S.-led coalition forces and their local Afghan “allies” in the elusive quest for peace and stability.
To put it bluntly, the U.S. position is comparable to the predicament of the Red Army in Hungary in October 1956. Fighting the insurgents, while fearing a stab in the back from one’s local partners, is untenable. The Soviets could return with overwhelming force and subdue the revolution because they bordered Hungary, a flat country ill-suited to guerrilla warfare. This is where the parallel ends.
Administration officials have tried to put a brave face on the debacle. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told NPR that “we are still partnering with Afghan security forces across the country” and that “those incidents are isolated in nature.” Defense officials say that coalition training of Afghan security forces is continuing as usual. Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the U.S. is taking “the long view” and declared that the momentum of Taliban insurgents has been reversed.
As noted here recently, this claim is belied by the December 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, which warned that the “gains” have been undercut by “pervasive corruption” and that the war is still essentially a stalemate. The NIE—which reflects the consensus view of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and 15 other agencies—also concluded that the Taliban remain undefeated and determined. Moreover the “State of the Taliban”—a recent classified NATO report—warned that once the coalition withdraws, “the Taliban considers victory inevitable.”
On current form it is unlikely that U.S. troops will be able to hand over security to Afghan forces and complete their withdrawal by 2014. Deputy Assistant Secretary Little hinted that much when he said that strategies are “always evolving.” So they should, except that there is no strategy.
Obama’s withdrawal timetable is predicated upon successful Afghanization of operational tasks, but the effort has been badly behind schedule even before the latest surge of violence. Last summer Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell admitted that the plan to train Afghan soldiers and police to replace the 100,000 American troops remained plagued by high attrition, corruption, attacks on allied troops and assassinations of Afghan officials by “rogue” members of government security forces. He expressed optimism that the Afghan security forces would “absolutely”' be ready to take the lead in combat operations by 2014—but in the same breath, he admitted that only one of the 84 infantry battalions trained and fielded by the coalition—just over one percent of the total!—is ready to operate independently. Left to their own devices, according to off-the-record statements by returning American, French and British officers, those units would disintegrate and a significant minority of their rank-and-file would desert to the Taliban. The French see the writing on the wall: They will be quitting the mission a year earlier than planned, in 2013, according to a surprise announcement last month by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Germans, garrisoning relatively quiet northern areas, are likely to follow suit.
Equally disturbing is the ongoing instability in Pakistan. The problem is threefold: vulnerability of the road from the port of Karachi to the Northwest Frontier; continuing links between the ISI and the Taliban; and the weakness of the government in Islamabad. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, personally unsympathetic to the fundamentalists but corrupt and unpopular, is facing legal challenges and may not last much longer. Moscow is keeping the Northern Supply Route open for now, but it cannot be turned into the only supply route if there is large-scale unrest in Pakistan or if Gilani’s successors cut off the southern lifeline. Furthermore, after being re-elected as president next week, Vladimir Putin may start having second thoughts about the northern route’s utility in view of the barely concealed U.S. support for a “Russian Spring.”
The war in Afghanistan had never made much sense. A surgical operation against al-Qaeda and a brief occupation of Kabul in the aftermath of 9-11 should have been enough to demonstrate American resolve and to satisfy the public opinion at home. Making Afghanistan peaceful, democratic and prosperous (not to forget “liberating” its women), had never been an attainable goal and therefore no “strategy” based upon it could be successful. That war always was, and still remains, a folly.
The American folly is on par with the costly blunders by the British in 1839 (the First Afghan War) and the Soviets in 1979, but it is less forgivable because the lessons of history have been ignored. In all three cases a great power sent troops to Afghanistan, occupied Kabul and installed a puppet leader of its choice. In all three cases the leader had little authority with the influential tribal chieftains and insufficient means to buy their complicity.
It is an even bet that in the third case, too, the great power will cut its losses and leave, and Afghanistan will revert to its usual state of Hobbesian pre-modernity. Pity the dead…