Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is America Retreating in Afghanistan?

US and Afghan troops have abandoned a remote village in eastern Afghanistan where militants killed nine US soldiers and wounded a dozen more on Sunday, according to media reports today. On Sunday, 100-200 insurgents had stormed the small combat outpost in the village of Wanat on the border of Nuristan and Kunar provinces.

Another report today indicates that Nato-led forces in Afghanistan fired into Pakistan after coming under attack from there by suspected militants. NATO troops used attack helicopters and artillery to fire from Paktika province after the militants fired rockets. Nato said it had closely co-ordinated with Pakistan's military, who agreed to help if firing from Pakistan continued.

Just looking at these two reports coming out the same day, one gets the impression that, while the US is retreating inside Afghanistan, it is threatening to get tougher with the militants inside Pakistan. Is there a contradiction here? Does the US believe that the only way to fight the Taliban is to expand the war into Pakistani territory. Is there a feeling that what the Taliban do inside Afghanistan is inconsequential? That the prolific poppy profits from the highly lucrative drug trade do not really matter? Why is the US not acting on its own advice to follow the money to cut off the funds for terrorists? The terrorists seem to be awash in drug money. They are well-equipped, well-organized and quite sophisticated, as demonstrated by their recent attacks on the US and Pakistani troops on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It seems to me that the US war on terror in Afghanistan is in complete disarray. With the Bush-Cheney team essentially lame-duck, there is an apparent leadership vacuum in Washington. There is not much of a strategy to deal with the resurgent Taliban, other than to blame Pakistan and to make demands on its new government. The reluctance or the inability to send more US troops to Afghanistan speaks louder than any words. Even the Obama promise to deploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan seems hollow, given that he won't be able to do anything until late January, 2009. And then he is talking about a 16-month time-table for withdrawal from Iraq. Are the Taliban going to stand still for this period while the US takes its time to redeploy from Iraq to Afghanistan? Are the they not going to continue and get stronger to launch more attacks resulting in higher casualties on both sides of the Durand line?

All the reports and data lead to one conclusion: There is no confidence in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the ability of the United States to seriously deal with the Taliban threat. Those sitting on the fence in Afghanistan or Pakistan have no incentive to side with the United States. They know the Taliban are there to stay. They fear the consequences for siding with the US, once the US leaves the area, like it did the last time.

The only way to successfully deal with the Taliban threat for Afghans and Pakistanis is to see it as their own fight, with or without the United States. Unfortunately, I do not yet see any signs that it is happening. It seems that the US has lost the most important of all battles: The battle for the hearts and minds of the local population. You can blame it on general mishandling of the war. Or lack of any serious reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, Or you can blame it on excessive reliance on frequent air strikes that cause many innocent civilian casualties. What I do see is the possible return of the pre-911 situation in Afghanistan.


Anonymous said...

People underestimate US resolve. US knows that the next attack is going to come from tribal areas of Pakistan. US is not chicken enough to flight from an existential battle, Vietnam was ideological one.People just extrapolate from Vietnam that US flights as soon as body bag count goes up. Again ppl say look at Iraq, whole electorate says get out of there. That is becoz, ppl understood that they were fed lies/half-truths abt Iraq being terror haven and all & US has no business holding that place. But u can see that everyone is crystal clear abt what to do in Afghanistan,i.e. to stay put,slug it out and straighten up the country. Soviet experience is not gonna mirror in case of US coz the precision strike capability and targeting tech hav improved heavily. So an asymmetrical warfare though bloody is not insurmountable.The thing is as a mature society US values human life unlike India,Pak and most developing countries where soldiers and ordinary ppl are treated with contempt or disdain. This was proved in Kargil where Indian Army fed Pak machine-gun positions in elevated-attack positions with brave soldiers like cannon fodder and desisted from calling in IAF due to ego probs(initially). Even when we thought all is lost in Iraq, they reversed it with the "surge". This is precisely the strategy used in Kashmir(though not a fully-militarized CI) i.e. to get boots on ground and dont leave after every that militants don't come back and terrorize population.

Riaz Haq said...

The US has so far not inspired any confidence by its handling of Afghanistan. The national government of Hamid Karzai is limited to Kabul and the rest of the country is ruled by a mix of the Taliban and the unruly warlords. There's been a massive increase in poppy cultivation and drug trade which is funding the insurgency. The US and NATO have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people in the region because of their terrible track record in containing the Taliban or reducing civilian casualties in their air strikes. Under such conditions, it would take a miracle for the US to turn things around. It's a really sad situation that is more of an existential threat for the people of the region rather than the Americans or the Europeans.

Anonymous said...

Quite true. That's exactly what happens in any decent insurgency worth its salt.
The main problem in Afghanistan is, US have absolutely no empathy for Afghan people who unlike hostile Iraqis welcomed their presence. Their highly militarized CI is baffling, given they have the best minds for strategy and tactics. Their high altitude bombing on anything that moves is really pathetic. That sort of stand-off approach shows half-halfheartedness of their military. The recent killing of 67 Afghan wedding party is terribly irresponsible.Though there is reason to believe that there is some sort of training problem since even in Gulf war,all tanks of US were attacked and destroyed by USAF not Iraqis!.These things are occurring at a high frequency,and its strange and scary that they havent fixed it yet. They should try the Indian way of CI,visible infrastructure,poverty alleviation programs,training Afghan army and importantly keep the hope alive. At the end of the day, "grab them by the balls- hearts and minds will follow" approach is terrible.With huge resources US can do a terrific job (like India doing on a small scale) to steal Afghan people's hearts. They should first remember that its not mere CI, but its about re-construction of a decade of bombedout country where people are weary of war. But I think US is getting serious about Afghanistan(previously distracted by Iraq), as they love anything Al-Queda. Since Al-Queda and ideological affiliates have now shifted their attention to Afghanistan, may be there will be more introspection and corrective measures.Nobody in the world will benefit if Afghanistan is screwed up again. There is a hint among strategic community that since 100 year treaty between Mortimer Durand and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan, signed in 1893 has expired on 1993 whereby FATA and NWFP legally becomes part of Afghanistan and rise of Taliban in 1990s in not coincidental then and NOW!

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Dexter Filkins' piece in the New Yorker on America's Afghan end game:

President Barack Obama, in his June 22nd speech announcing the beginning of the end of the American war in Afghanistan, couched the conflict in the most constricted terms. This is no great surprise. Obama’s discomfort with the Afghan war is visible whenever he talks about it. Last week, he spoke with a palpable lack of passion, and indicated no long-term commitment to the country. His message was clinical: Osama bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is disabled, and American troops can begin coming home. “We are meeting our goals,’’ the President said, in his most expansive description of American progress. Certainly, the large majority of Americans who believe that the war isn’t worth fighting will have little inclination to doubt him.

The President’s terseness had a purpose: it allowed him to skirt a more exhaustive, and dispiriting, discussion of Afghan realities. Two years ago, Obama signed off on the surge, which deployed an additional thirty-three thousand marines and soldiers to Afghanistan. Though the surge is now at its peak, almost every aspect of the American campaign is either deeply troubled or too fragile to justify substantial reductions in military support. It’s true that, with the help of extra forces, the Americans have cleared large areas of Taliban insurgents, many of whom had been operating without opposition. This success has opened the parts of the country that are dominated by Pashtuns—its main ethnic group—to Afghan government control, but it hardly constitutes victory. According to American officers, the level of violence in Afghanistan this year is fifteen per cent higher than it was at this time last year. The insurgents, far from being degraded, appear to be as resilient as ever. And their sanctuaries in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership resides mostly unmolested, remain more or less intact.

Nor is there any sign that Afghanistan’s Army will be able to maintain control as the Americans leave. Although Afghan forces are growing in number, they are virtually incapable of planning and executing operations on their own. Exactly one Afghan battalion—about six hundred soldiers—is currently classified as “independent.” Ethnic divisions have made the situation even worse: some units, packed with ethnic Tajiks from the north, are said to need translators to operate in the Pashto-speaking areas of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban predominate. The number of Afghan soldiers who quit or go AWOL remains alarmingly high. Most recruits are illiterate. It is these men, along with members of Afghanistan’s hapless police force, whom Obama expects to take the lead from the Americans three years from now.
For the moment, the prospect of all-out civil war in Afghanistan rests safely on a distant horizon. Even after the thirty-three thousand troops have departed, by the end of 2012, the Americans and their NATO partners will have nearly a hundred thousand soldiers there. The effects of the drawdown might not be visible for years. But the moment of maximum American influence is passing without very much to show for it. “These long wars will come to a responsible end,” the President said toward the end of his speech. That’s an appropriately tortured construction for two badly managed occupations. As a prediction for Afghanistan, though, it seems more like a prayer.