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Category Archives: Taliban

By Kamran Bokhari, Peter Zeihan and Nathan Hughes
On Feb. 13, some 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops launched a sustained assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Until this latest offensive, the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan had been constrained by other considerations, most notably Iraq. Western forces viewed the Afghan conflict as a matter of holding the line or pursuing targets of opportunity. But now, armed with larger forces and a new strategy, the war — the real war — has begun. The most recent offensive — dubbed Operation Moshtarak (“Moshtarak” is Dari for “together”) — is the largest joint U.S.-NATO-Afghan operation in history. It also is the first major offensive conducted by the first units deployed as part of the surge of 30,000 troops promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The United States originally entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days of fear and fury, American goals could be simply stated: A non-state actor — al Qaeda — had attacked the American homeland and needed to be destroyed. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan at the invitation of a near-state actor — the Taliban, which at the time were Afghanistan’s de facto governing force. Since the Taliban were unwilling to hand al Qaeda over, the United States attacked. By the end of the year, al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan and the Taliban retreated into the arid, mountainous countryside in their southern heartland and began waging a guerrilla conflict. In time, American attention became split between searching for al Qaeda and clashing with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.

But from the earliest days following 9/11, the White House was eyeing Iraq, and with the Taliban having largely declined combat in the initial invasion, the path seemed clear. The U.S. military and diplomatic focus was shifted, and as the years wore on, the conflict absorbed more and more U.S. troops, even as other issues — a resurgent Russia and a defiant Iran — began to demand American attention. All of this and more consumed American bandwidth, and the Afghan conflict melted into the background. The United States maintained its Afghan force in what could accurately be described as a holding action as the bulk of its forces operated elsewhere. That has more or less been the state of affairs for eight years.

That has changed with the series of offensive operations that most recently culminated at Marjah.

Marjah Map

Why Marjah? The key is the geography of Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict itself. Most of Afghanistan is custom-made for a guerrilla war. Much of the country is mountainous, encouraging local identities and militias, as well as complicating the task of any foreign military force. The country’s aridity discourages dense population centers, making it very easy for irregular combatants to melt into the countryside. Afghanistan lacks navigable rivers or ports, drastically reducing the region’s likelihood of developing commerce. No commerce to tax means fewer resources to fund a meaningful government or military and encourages the smuggling of every good imaginable — and that smuggling provides the perfect funding for guerrillas.
Rooting out insurgents is no simple task. It requires three things:

  1. Massively superior numbers so that occupiers can limit the zones to which the insurgents have easy access.
  2. The support of the locals in order to limit the places that the guerillas can disappear into.
  3. Superior intelligence so that the fight can be consistently taken to the insurgents rather than vice versa.

Without those three things — and American-led forces in Afghanistan lack all three — the insurgents can simply take the fight to the occupiers, retreat to rearm and regroup and return again shortly thereafter.  But the insurgents hardly hold all the cards. Guerrilla forces are by their very nature irregular. Their capacity to organize and strike is quite limited, and while they can turn a region into a hellish morass for an opponent, they have great difficulty holding territory — particularly territory that a regular force chooses to contest. Should they mass into a force that could achieve a major battlefield victory, a regular force — which is by definition better-funded, -trained, -organized and -armed — will almost always smash the irregulars. As such, the default guerrilla tactic is to attrit and harass the occupier into giving up and going home. The guerrillas always decline combat in the face of a superior military force only to come back and fight at a time and place of their choosing. Time is always on the guerrilla’s side if the regular force is not a local one.

But while the guerrillas don’t require basing locations that are as large or as formalized as those required by regular forces, they are still bound by basic economics. They need resources — money, men and weapons — to operate. The larger these locations are, the better economies of scale they can achieve and the more effectively they can fight their war.

Marjah is perhaps the quintessential example of a good location from which to base. It is in a region sympathetic to the Taliban; Helmand province is part of the Taliban’s heartland. Marjah is very close to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, the religious center of the local brand of Islam, the birthplace of the Taliban, and due to the presence of American forces, an excellent target. Helmand alone produces more heroin than any country on the planet, and Marjah is at the center of that trade. By some estimates, this center alone supplies the Taliban with a monthly income of $200,000. And it is defensible: The farmland is crisscrossed with irrigation canals and dotted with mud-brick compounds — and, given time to prepare, a veritable plague of IEDs. Simply put, regardless of the Taliban’s strategic or tactical goals, Marjah is a critical node in their operations.

The American Strategy

Though operations have approached Marjah in the past, it has not been something NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ever has tried to hold. The British, Canadian and Danish troops holding the line in the country’s restive south had their hands full enough. Despite Marjah’s importance to the Taliban, ISAF forces were too few to engage the Taliban everywhere (and they remain as such). But American priorities started changing about two years ago. The surge of forces into Iraq changed the position of many a player in the country. Those changes allowed a reshaping of the Iraq conflict that laid the groundwork for the current “stability” and American withdrawal. At the same time, the Taliban began to resurge in a big way. Since then the Bush and then Obama administrations inched toward applying a similar strategy to Afghanistan, a strategy that focuses less on battlefield success and more on altering the parameters of the country itself.

As the Obama administration’s strategy has begun to take shape, it has started thinking about endgames. A decades-long occupation and pacification of Afghanistan is simply not in the cards. A withdrawal is, but only a withdrawal where the security free-for-all that allowed al Qaeda to thrive will not return. And this is where Marjah comes in.  Denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley — and areas like them around the country — is the first goal of the American strategy. The fewer key population centers the Taliban can count on, the more dispersed — and militarily inefficient — their forces will be. This will hardly destroy the Taliban, but destruction isn’t the goal. The Taliban are not simply a militant Islamist force. At times they are a flag of convenience for businessmen or thugs; they can even be, simply, the least-bad alternative for villagers desperate for basic security and civil services. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not only pervasive but also the sole option for governance and civil authority.

So destruction of what is in essence part of the local cultural and political fabric is not an American goal. Instead, the goal is to prevent the Taliban from mounting large-scale operations that could overwhelm any particular location. Remember, the Americans do not wish to pacify Afghanistan; the Americans wish to leave Afghanistan in a form that will not cause the United States severe problems down the road. In effect, achieving the first goal simply aims to shape the ground for a shot at achieving the second.

That second goal is to establish a domestic authority that can stand up to the Taliban in the long run. Most of the surge of forces into Afghanistan is not designed to battle the Taliban now but to secure the population and train the Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban later. To do this, the Taliban must be weak enough in a formal military sense to be unable to launch massive or coordinated attacks. Capturing key population centers along the Helmand River Valley is the first step in a strategy designed to create the breathing room necessary to create a replacement force, preferably a replacement force that provides Afghans with a viable alternative to the Taliban.

That is no small task. In recent years, in places where the official government has been corrupt, inept or defunct, the Taliban have in many cases stepped in to provide basic governance and civil authority. And this is why even the Americans are publicly flirting with holding talks with certain factions of the Taliban in hopes that at least some of the fighters can be dissuaded from battling the Americans (assisting with the first goal) and perhaps even joining the nascent Afghan government (assisting with the second).

The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war. Instead, it is part of the application of a new strategy that accurately takes into account Afghanistan’s geography and all the weaknesses and challenges that geography poses. Marjah marks the first time the United States has applied a plan not to hold the line, but actually to reshape the country. We are not saying that the strategy will bear fruit. Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally. In such a place indigenous guerrillas will always hold the advantage. No one has ever attempted this sort of national restructuring in Afghanistan, and the Americans are attempting to do so in a short period on a shoestring budget.

At the time of this writing, this first step appears to be going well for American-NATO-Afghan forces. Casualties have been light and most of Marjah already has been secured. But do not read this as a massive battlefield success. The assault required weeks of obvious preparation, and very few Taliban fighters chose to remain and contest the territory against the more numerous and better armed attackers. The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target.

A “government-in-a-box” of civilian administrators is already poised to move into Marjah to step into the vacuum left by the Taliban. We obviously have major doubts about how effective this box government can be at building up civil authority in a town that has been governed by the Taliban for most of the last decade. Yet what happens in Marjah and places like it in the coming months will be the foundation upon which the success or failure of this effort will be built. But assessing that process is simply impossible, because the only measure that matters cannot be judged until the Afghans are left to themselves.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

As Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi exited the vehicle that brought him onto Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, security guards noticed he was behaving strangely. They moved toward al-Balawi and screamed demands that he take his hand out of his pocket, but instead of complying with the officers’ commands, al-Balawi detonated the suicide device he was wearing. The explosion killed al-Balawi, three security contractors, four CIA officers and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) officer who was al-Balawi’s handler. The vehicle shielded several other CIA officers at the scene from the blast. The CIA officers killed included the chief of the base at Khost and an analyst from headquarters who reportedly was the agency’s foremost expert on al Qaeda. The agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan was allegedly among the officers who survived.

Al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor from Zarqa (the hometown of deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Under the alias Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, he served as an administrator for Al-Hesbah, a popular Internet discussion forum for jihadists. Jordanian officers arrested him in 2007 because of his involvement with radical online forums, which is illegal in Jordan. The GID subsequently approached al-Balawi while he was in a Jordanian prison and recruited him to work as an intelligence asset.
Al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan less than a year ago as part of a joint GID/CIA mission. Under the cover of going to school to receive advanced medical training, al-Balawi established himself in Pakistan and began to reach out to jihadists in the region. Under his al-Khurasani pseudonym, al-Balawai announced in September 2009 in an interview on a jihadist Internet forum that he had officially joined the Afghan Taliban.

A Lucky Break for the TTP

It is unclear if al-Balawi was ever truly repentant. Perhaps he cooperated with the GID at first, but had a change of heart sometime after arriving in Pakistan. Either way, at some point al-Balawi approached the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group, and offered to work with it against the CIA and GID. Al-Balawi confirmed this in a video statement recorded with TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and released Jan. 9. This is significant because it means that al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, and not part of some larger, intentional intelligence operation orchestrated by the TTP or another jihadist entity like al Qaeda.

The TTP’s luck held when a group of 13 people gathered to meet al-Balawi upon his arrival at FOB Chapman. This allowed him to detonate his suicide device amid the crowd and create maximum carnage before he was able to be searched for weapons.

In the world of espionage, source meetings are almost always a dangerous activity for both the intelligence officer and the source. There are fears the source could be surveilled and followed to the meeting site, or that the meeting could be raided by host country authorities and the parties arrested. In the case of a terrorist source, the meeting site could be attacked and those involved in the meeting killed. Because of this, the CIA and other intelligence agencies exercise great care while conducting source meetings. Normally they will not bring the source into a CIA station or base. Instead, they will conduct the meeting at a secure, low-profile offsite location.

Operating in the wilds of Afghanistan is far different from operating out of an embassy in Vienna or Moscow, however. Khost province is Taliban territory, and it offers no refuge from the watching eyes and gunmen of the Taliban and their jihadist allies. Indeed, the province has few places safe enough even for a CIA base. And this is why the CIA base in Khost is located on a military base, FOB Chapman, named for the first American killed in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion. Normally, an outer ring of Afghan security around the base searches persons entering FOB Chapman, who the U.S. military then searches again at the outer perimeter of the U.S. portion of the base. Al-Balawi, a high-value CIA asset, was allowed to skip these external layers of security to avoid exposing his identity to Afghan troops and U.S. military personnel. Instead, the team of Xe (the company formerly known as Blackwater) security contractors were to search al-Balawi as he arrived at the CIA’s facility.

A Failure to Follow Security Procedures

Had proper security procedures been followed, the attack should only have killed the security contractors, the vehicle driver and perhaps the Jordanian GID officer. But proper security measures were not followed, and several CIA officers rushed out to greet the unscreened Jordanian source. Reports indicate that the source had alerted his Jordanian handler that he had intelligence pertaining to the location of al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. (There are also reports that al-Balawi had given his handlers highly accurate battle damage assessments on drone strikes in Pakistan, indicating that he had access to high-level jihadist sources.) The prospect of finally receiving such crucial and long-sought information likely explains the presence of the high-profile visitors from CIA headquarters in Langley and the station in Kabul — and their exuberance over receiving such coveted intelligence probably explains their eager rush to meet the source before he had been properly screened.

The attack, the most deadly against CIA personnel since the 1983 Beirut bombing, was clearly avoidable, or at least mitigable. But human intelligence is a risky business, and collecting human intelligence against jihadist groups can be flat-out deadly. The CIA officers in Khost the day of the bombing had grown complacent, and violated a number of security procedures. The attack thus serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the clandestine service of the dangers they face and of the need to adhere to time-tested security procedures.
A better process might have prevented some of the deaths, but it would not have solved the fundamental problem: The CIA had an asset who turned out to be a double agent. When he turned is less important than that he was turned into — assuming he had not always been — a double agent. His mission was to gain the confidence of the CIA as to his bona fides, and then create an event in which large numbers of CIA agents were present, especially the top al Qaeda analyst at the CIA. He knew that high-value targets would be present because he had set the stage for the meeting by dangling vital information before the agency. He went to the meeting to carry out his true mission, which was to deliver a blow against the CIA. He succeeded.

The Obama Strategy’s Weakness

In discussing the core weakness in the Afghan strategy U.S. President Barack Obama has chosen, we identified the basic problem as the intelligence war. We argued that establishing an effective Afghan army would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because the Americans and their NATO allies lacked knowledge and sophistication in distinguishing friend from foe among those being recruited into the army. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are very few written documents in a country like Afghanistan that could corroborate identities. The Taliban would seed the Afghan army with its own operatives and supporters, potentially exposing the army’s operations to al Qaeda.

This case takes the problem a step further. The United States relied on Jordanian intelligence to turn a jihadist operative into a double agent. They were dependent on the Jordanian handler’s skills at debriefing, vetting and testing the now-double agent. It is now reasonable to assume the agent allowed himself to be doubled in an attempt to gain the trust of the handler. The Jordanians offered the source to the Americans, who obviously grabbed him, and the source passed all the tests to which he was undoubtedly subjected. Yet in the end, his contacts with the Taliban were not designed to provide intelligence to the Americans. The intelligence provided to the Americans was designed to win their trust and set up the suicide bombing. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that al-Balawi was playing the GID all along and that his willingness to reject his jihadist beliefs was simply an opportunistic strategy for surviving and striking.

Even though encountering al-Balawi was a stroke of luck for the TTP, the group’s exploitation of this lucky break was a very sophisticated operation. The TTP had to provide valuable intelligence to allow al-Balawi to build his credibility. It had to create the clustering of CIA agents by promising extraordinarily valuable intelligence. It then had to provide al-Balawi with an effective suicide device needed for the strike. And it had to do this without being detected by the CIA. Al-Balawi had a credible cover for meeting TTP agents; that was his job. But what al-Balawi told his handlers about his meetings with the TTP, and where he went between meetings, clearly did not indicate to the handlers that he was providing fabricated information or posed a threat.

In handling a double agent, it is necessary to track every step he takes. He cannot be trusted because of his history; the suspicion that he is still loyal to his original cause must always be assumed. Therefore, the most valuable moments in evaluating a double agent are provided by intense scrutiny of his patterns and conduct away from his handlers and new friends. Obviously, if this scrutiny was applied, al-Balawi and his TTP handlers were still able to confuse their observers. If it was not applied, then the CIA was setting itself up for disappointment. Again, such scrutiny is far more difficult to conduct in the Pakistani badlands, where resources to surveil a source are very scarce. In such a case, the intuition and judgment of the agent’s handler are critical, and al-Balawi was obviously able to fool his Jordanian handler.

Given his enthusiastic welcome at FOB Chapman, it would seem al-Balawi was regarded not only as extremely valuable but also as extremely reliable. Whatever process might have been used at the meeting, the central problem was that he was regarded as a highly trusted source when he shouldn’t have been. Whether this happened because the CIA relied entirely on the Jordanian GID for evaluation or because American interrogators and counterintelligence specialists did not have the skills needed to pick up the cues can’t be known. What is known is that the TTP ran circles around the CIA in converting al-Balawi to its uses.
The United States cannot hope to reach any satisfactory solution in Afghanistan unless it can win the intelligence war. But the damage done to the CIA in this attack cannot be overestimated. At least one of the agency’s top analysts on al Qaeda was killed. In an intelligence war, this is the equivalent of sinking an aircraft carrier in a naval war. The United States can’t afford this kind of loss. There will now be endless reviews, shifts in personnel and re-evaluations. In the meantime, the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be attempting to exploit the opportunity presented by this disruption.

Casualties happen in war, and casualties are not an argument against war. However, when the center of gravity in a war is intelligence, and an episode like this occurs, the ability to prevail becomes a serious question. We have argued that in any insurgency, the insurgents have a built-in advantage. It is their country and their culture, and they are indistinguishable from everyone else. Keeping them from infiltrating is difficult.
This was a different matter. Al-Balawi was Jordanian; his penetration of the CIA was less like the product of an insurgency than an operation carried out by a national intelligence service. And this is the most troubling aspect of this incident for the United States. The operation was by all accounts a masterful piece of tradecraft beyond the known abilities of a group like the TTP. Even though al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, not the result of an intentional, long-term operation, the execution of the operation that arose as a result of that lucky break was skillfully done — and it was good enough to deliver a body blow to the CIA. The Pakistani Taliban would thus appear far more skilled than we would have thought, which is the most important takeaway from this incident, and something to ponder.

Political Season reaction: The sophisticated tradecraft on this op by the Pakistan Taliban leaves me to wonder if they didn’t have help, perhaps the Pakistani security services?

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Taliban fighters before they ever gave a damn about Taliban fighting
A reminder, in a world filled with war and violence, of our common humanity

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

U.S. President Barack Obama announced the broad structure of his Afghanistan strategy in a speech at West Point on Tuesday evening. The strategy had three core elements. First, he intends to maintain pressure on al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border and in other regions of the world. Second, he intends to blunt the Taliban offensive by sending an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, along with an unspecified number of NATO troops he hopes will join them. Third, he will use the space created by the counteroffensive against the Taliban and the resulting security in some regions of Afghanistan to train and build Afghan military forces and civilian structures to assume responsibility after the United States withdraws. Obama added that the U.S. withdrawal will begin in July 2011, but provided neither information on the magnitude of the withdrawal nor the date when the withdrawal would conclude. He made it clear that these will depend on the situation on the ground, adding that the U.S. commitment is finite.

In understanding this strategy, we must begin with an obvious but unstated point: The extra forces that will be deployed to Afghanistan are not expected to defeat the Taliban. Instead, their mission is to reverse the momentum of previous years and to create the circumstances under which an Afghan force can take over the mission. The U.S. presence is therefore a stopgap measure, not the ultimate solution.

The ultimate solution is training an Afghan force to engage the Taliban over the long haul, undermining support for the Taliban, and dealing with al Qaeda forces along the Pakistani border and in the rest of Afghanistan. If the United States withdraws all of its forces as Obama intends, the Afghan military would have to assume all of these missions. Therefore, we must consider the condition of the Afghan military to evaluate the strategy’s viability.

Afghanistan vs. Vietnam

Obama went to great pains to distinguish Afghanistan from Vietnam, and there are indeed many differences. The core strategy adopted by Richard Nixon (not Lyndon Johnson) in Vietnam, called “Vietnamization,” saw U.S. forces working to blunt and disrupt the main North Vietnamese forces while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would be trained, motivated and deployed to replace U.S. forces to be systematically withdrawn from Vietnam. The equivalent of the Afghan surge was the U.S. attack on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in Cambodia and offensives in northern South Vietnam designed to disrupt NVA command and control and logistics and forestall a major offensive by the NVA. Troops were in fact removed in parallel with the Cambodian offensives.

Nixon faced two points Obama now faces. First, the United States could not provide security for South Vietnam indefinitely. Second, the South Vietnamese would have to provide security for themselves. The role of the United States was to create the conditions under which the ARVN would become an effective fighting force; the impending U.S. withdrawal was intended to increase the pressure on the Vietnamese government to reform and on the ARVN to fight.

Many have argued that the core weakness of the strategy was that the ARVN was not motivated to fight. This was certainly true in some cases, but the idea that the South Vietnamese were generally sympathetic to the Communists is untrue. Some were, but many weren’t, as shown by the minimal refugee movement into NVA-held territory or into North Vietnam itself contrasted with the substantial refugee movement into U.S./ARVN-held territory and away from NVA forces. The patterns of refugee movement are, we think, highly indicative of true sentiment.

Certainly, there were mixed sentiments, but the failure of the ARVN was not primarily due to hostility or even lack of motivation. Instead, it was due to a problem that must be addressed and overcome if the Afghanistation war is to succeed. That problem is understanding the role that Communist sympathizers and agents played in the formation of the ARVN.

By the time the ARVN expanded — and for that matter from its very foundation — the North Vietnamese intelligence services had created a systematic program for inserting operatives and recruiting sympathizers at every level of the ARVN, from senior staff and command positions down to the squad level. The exploitation of these assets was not random nor merely intended to undermine moral. Instead, it provided the NVA with strategic, operational and tactical intelligence on ARVN operations, and when ARVN and U.S. forces operated together, on U.S. efforts as well.

In any insurgency, the key for insurgent victory is avoiding battles on the enemy’s terms and initiating combat only on the insurgents’ terms. The NVA was a light infantry force. The ARVN — and the U.S. Army on which it was modeled — was a much heavier, combined-arms force. In any encounter between the NVA and its enemies the NVA would lose unless the encounter was at the time and place of the NVA’s choosing. ARVN and U.S. forces had a tremendous advantage in firepower and sheer weight. But they had a significant weakness: The weight they bought to bear meant they were less agile. The NVA had a tremendous weakness. Caught by surprise, it would be defeated. And it had a great advantage: Its intelligence network inside the ARVN generally kept it from being surprised. It also revealed weakness in its enemies’ deployment, allowing it to initiate successful offensives.

All war is about intelligence, but nowhere is this truer than in counterinsurgency and guerrilla war, where invisibility to the enemy and maintaining the initiative in all engagements is key. Only clear intelligence on the enemy’s capability gives this initiative to an insurgent, and only denying intelligence to the enemy — or knowing what the enemy knows and intends — preserves the insurgent force.

The construction of an Afghan military is an obvious opportunity for Taliban operatives and sympathizers to be inserted into the force. As in Vietnam, such operatives and sympathizers are not readily distinguishable from loyal soldiers; ideology is not something easy to discern. With these operatives in place, the Taliban will know of and avoid Afghan army forces and will identify Afghan army weaknesses. Knowing that the Americans are withdrawing as the NVA did in Vietnam means the rational strategy of the Taliban is to reduce operational tempo, allow the withdrawal to proceed, and then take advantage of superior intelligence and the ability to disrupt the Afghan forces internally to launch the Taliban offensives.

The Western solution is not to prevent Taliban sympathizers from penetrating the Afghan army. Rather, the solution is penetrating the Taliban. In Vietnam, the United States used signals intelligence extensively. The NVA came to understand this and minimized radio communications, accepting inefficient central command and control in return for operational security. The solution to this problem lay in placing South Vietnamese into the NVA. There were many cases in which this worked, but on balance, the NVA had a huge advantage in the length of time it had spent penetrating the ARVN versus U.S. and ARVN counteractions. The intelligence war on the whole went to the North Vietnamese. The United States won almost all engagements, but the NVA made certain that it avoided most engagements until it was ready.

In the case of Afghanistan, the United States has far more sophisticated intelligence-gathering tools than it did in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: An intelligence tool can be understood, taken into account and evaded. By contrast, deep penetration on multiple levels by human intelligence cannot be avoided.

Pakistan’s Role

Obama mentioned Pakistan’s critical role. Clearly, he understands the lessons of Vietnam regarding sanctuary, and so he made it clear that he expects Pakistan to engage and destroy Taliban forces on its territory and to deny Afghan Taliban supplies, replacements and refuge. He cited the Swat and South Waziristan offensives as examples of the Pakistanis’ growing effectiveness. While this is a significant piece of his strategy, the Pakistanis must play another role with regard to intelligence.

The heart of Obama’s strategy lies not in the surge, but rather in turning the war over to the Afghans. As in Vietnam, any simplistic model of loyalties doesn’t work. There are Afghans sufficiently motivated to form the core of an effective army. As in Vietnam, the problem is that this army will contain large numbers of Taliban sympathizers; there is no way to prevent this. The Taliban is not stupid: It has and will continue to move its people into as many key positions as possible.

The challenge lies in leveling the playing field by inserting operatives into the Taliban. Since the Afghan intelligence services are inherently insecure, they can’t carry out such missions. American personnel bring technical intelligence to bear, but that does not compensate for human intelligence. The only entity that could conceivably penetrate the Taliban and remain secure is the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This would give the Americans and Afghans knowledge of Taliban plans and deployments. This would diminish the ability of the Taliban to evade attacks, and although penetrated as well, the Afghan army would enjoy a chance ARVN never had.

But only the ISI could do this, and thinking of the ISI as secure is hard to do from a historical point of view. The ISI worked closely with the Taliban during the Afghan civil war that brought it to power and afterwards, and the ISI had many Taliban sympathizers. The ISI underwent significant purging and restructuring to eliminate these elements over recent years, but no one knows how successful these efforts were.

The ISI remains the center of gravity of the entire problem. If the war is about creating an Afghan army, and if we accept that the Taliban will penetrate this army heavily no matter what, then the only counter is to penetrate the Taliban equally. Without that, Obama’s entire strategy fails as Nixon’s did.

In his talk, Obama quite properly avoided discussing the intelligence aspect of the war. He clearly cannot ignore the problem we have laid out, but neither can he simply count on the ISI. He does not need the entire ISI for this mission, however. He needs a carved out portion — compartmentalized and invisible to the greatest possible extent — to recruit and insert operatives into the Taliban and to create and manage communication networks so as to render the Taliban transparent. Given Taliban successes of late, it isn’t clear whether he has this intelligence capability. Either way, we would have to assume that some Pakistani solution to the Taliban intelligence issue has been discussed (and such a solution must be Pakistani for ethnic and linguistic reasons).

Every war has its center of gravity, and Obama has made clear that the center of gravity of this war will be the Afghan military’s ability to replace the Americans in a very few years. If that is the center of gravity, and if maintaining security against Taliban penetration is impossible, then the single most important enabler to Obama’s strategy would seem to be the ability to make the Taliban transparent.

Therefore, Pakistan is important not only as the Cambodia of this war, the place where insurgents go to regroup and resupply, but also as a key element of the solution to the intelligence war. It is all about Pakistan. And that makes Obama’s plan difficult to execute. It is far easier to write these words than to execute a plan based on them. But to the extent Obama is serious about the Afghan army taking over, he and his team have had to think about how to do this.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Folks are complaining about the President giving a timetable. Get a grip. What the President is really saying is that he plans to finish the job of kicking the Taliban’s ass in 18 months. I’m okay with that.

By George Friedman and Reva Bhalla

The decision over whether to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan may wait until the contested Afghan election is resolved, U.S. officials said Oct. 18. The announcement comes as
U.S. President Barack Obama is approaching a decision on the war in Afghanistan. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Obama argued that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, but Afghanistan was a necessary war. His reasoning went that the threat to the United States came from al Qaeda, Afghanistan had been al Qaeda’s sanctuary, and if the United States were to abandon Afghanistan, al Qaeda would re-establish itself and once again threaten the U.S. homeland. Withdrawal from Afghanistan would hence be dangerous, and prosecution of the war was therefore necessary.

After Obama took office, it became necessary to define a war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan. The most likely model was based on the one used in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, now head of U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility covers both Afghanistan and Iraq. Paradoxically, the tactical and strategic framework for fighting the so-called “right war” derived from U.S. military successes in executing the so-called “wrong war.” But grand strategy, or selecting the right wars to fight, and war strategy, or how to fight the right wars, are not necessarily linked.

Afghanistan, Iraq and the McChrystal Plan

Making sense of the arguments over Afghanistan requires an understanding of how the Iraq war is read by the strategists fighting it, since a great deal of proposed Afghan strategy involves transferring lessons learned from Iraq. Those strategists see the Iraq war as having had three phases. The first was the short conventional war that saw the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s military. The second was the period from 2003-2006 during which the United States faced a Sunni insurgency and resistance from the Shiite population, as well as a civil war between those two communities. During this phase, the United States sought to destroy the insurgency primarily by military means while simultaneously working to scrape a national unity government together and hold elections. The third phase, which began in late 2006, was primarily a political phase. It consisted of enticing Iraqi Sunni leaders to desert the foreign jihadists in Iraq, splitting the Shiite community among its various factions, and reaching political — and financial — accommodations among the various factions. Military operations focused on supporting political processes, such as pressuring recalcitrant factions and protecting those who aligned with the United States. The troop increase — aka the surge — was designed to facilitate this strategy. Even more, it was meant to convince Iraqi factions (not to mention Iran) that the United States was not going to pull out of Iraq, and that therefore a continuing American presence would back up guarantees made to Iraqis.

It is important to understand this last bit and its effect on Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the idea that the United States will not abandon local allies by withdrawing until Afghan security forces could guarantee the allies’ security lies at the heart of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, e.g., before local allies’ security could be guaranteed, would undermine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. To a great extent, the process of U.S. security guarantees in Afghanistan depends on the credibility of those guarantees: Withdrawal from Iraq followed by retribution against U.S. allies in Iraq would undermine the core of the Afghan strategy.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan ultimately is built around the principle that the United States and its NATO allies are capable of protecting Afghans prepared to cooperate with Western forces. This explains why the heart of McChrystal’s strategy involves putting U.S. troops as close to the Afghan people as possible. Doing so will entail closing many smaller bases in remote valleys — like the isolated outpost recently attacked in Nuristan province — and opening bases in more densely populated areas.

McChrystal’s strategy therefore has three basic phases. In phase one, his forces would fight their way into regions where a large portion of the population lives and where the Taliban currently operates, namely Kabul, Khost, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The United States would assume a strategic defensive posture in these populated areas. Because these areas are essential to the Taliban, phase two would see a Taliban counterattack in a bid to drive McChrystal’s forces out, or at least to demonstrate that the U.S. forces cannot provide security for the local population. Paralleling the first two phases, phase three would see McChrystal using his military successes to forge alliances with indigenous leaders and their followers.

It should be noted that while McChrystal’s traditional counterinsurgency strategy would be employed in populated areas, U.S. forces would also rely on traditional counterterrorism tactics in more remote areas where the Taliban have a heavy presence and can be pursued through drone strikes. The hope is that down the road, the strategy would allow the United States to use its military successes to fracture the Taliban, thereby encouraging defections and facilitating political reconciliation with Taliban elements driven more by political power than ideology.

There is a fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, however. In Iraq, resistance forces rarely operated in sufficient concentrations to block access to the population. By contrast, the Taliban on several occasions have struck with concentrations of forces numbering in the hundreds, essentially at company-size strength. If Iraq was a level one conflict, with irregular forces generally refusing conventional engagement with coalition forces, Afghanistan is beginning to bridge the gap from a level one to a level two conflict, with the Taliban holding territory with forces both able to provide conventional resistance and to mount some offensives at the company level (and perhaps at the battalion level in the future). This means that occupying, securing and defending areas such that the inhabitants see the coalition forces as defenders rather than as magnets for conflict is the key challenge.

Adding to the challenge, elements of McChrystal’s strategy are in tension. First, local inhabitants will experience multilevel conflict as coalition forces move into a given region. Second, McChrystal is hoping that the Taliban goes on the offensive in response. And this means that the first and second steps will collide with the third, which is demonstrating to locals that the presence of coalition forces makes them more secure as conflict increases (which McChrystal acknowledges will happen). To convince locals that Western forces enhance their security, the coalition will thus have to be stunningly successful both at defeating Taliban defenders when they first move in and in repulsing subsequent Taliban attacks.

In its conflict with the Taliban, the coalition’s main advantage is firepower, both in terms of artillery and airpower. The Taliban must concentrate its forces to attack the coalition; to counter such attacks, the weapons of choice are airstrikes and artillery. The problem with both of these weapons is first, a certain degree of inaccuracy is built into their use, and second, the attackers will be moving through population centers (the area held by both sides is important precisely because it has population). This means that air- and ground-fire missions, both important in a defensive strategy, run counter to the doctrine of protecting population.

McChrystal is fully aware of this dilemma, and he has therefore changed the rules of engagement to sharply curtail airstrikes in areas of concentrated population, even in areas where U.S. troops are in danger of being overrun. As McChrystal said in a recent interview, these rules of engagement will hold “Even if it means we are going to step away from a firefight and fight them another day.”

This strategy poses two main challenges. First, it shifts the burden of the fighting onto U.S. infantry forces. Second, by declining combat in populated areas, the strategy runs the risk of making the populated areas where political arrangements might already be in place more vulnerable. In avoiding air and missile strikes, McChrystal avoids alienating the population through civilian casualties. But by declining combat, McChrystal risks alienating populations subject to Taliban offensives. Simply put, while airstrikes can devastate a civilian population, avoiding airstrikes could also devastate Western efforts, as local populations could see declining combat as a betrayal. McChrystal is thus stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place on this one.

One of his efforts at a solution has been to ask for more troops. The point of these troops is not to occupy Afghanistan and impose a new reality through military force, which is impossible (especially given the limited number of troops the United States is willing to dedicate to the problem). Instead, it is to provide infantry forces not only to hold larger areas, but to serve as reinforcements during Taliban attacks so the use of airpower can be avoided. Putting the onus of this counterinsurgency on the infantry, and having the infantry operate without airpower, is a radical departure from U.S. fighting doctrine since World War II.

Seismic Shift in War Doctrine

Geopolitically, the United States fights at the end of a long supply line. Moreover, U.S. forces operate at a demographic disadvantage. Once in Eurasia, U.S. forces are always outnumbered. Infantry-on-infantry warfare is attritional, and the United States runs out of troops before the other side does. Infantry warfare does not provide the United States any advantage, and in fact, it places the United States at a disadvantage. Opponents of the United States thus have larger numbers of fighters; greater familiarity and acclimation to the terrain; and typically, better intelligence from countrymen behind U.S. lines. The U.S. counter always has been force multipliers — normally artillery and airpower — capable of destroying enemy concentrations before they close with U.S. troops. McChrystal’s strategy, if applied rigorously, shifts doctrine toward infantry-on-infantry combat. His plan assumes that superior U.S. training will be the force multiplier in Afghanistan (as it may). But that assumes that the Taliban, a light infantry force with numerous battle-hardened formations optimized for fighting in Afghanistan, is an inferior infantry force. And it assumes that U.S. infantry fighting larger concentrations of Taliban forces will consistently defeat them.

Obviously, if McChrystal drives the Taliban out of secured areas and into uninhabited areas, the United States will have a tremendous opportunity to engage in strategic bombardment both against Taliban militants themselves and against supply lines no longer plugged into populated areas. But this assumes that the Taliban would not reduce its operations from company-level and higher assaults down to guerrilla-level operations in response to being driven out of population centers. If the Taliban did make such a reduction, it would become indistinguishable from the population. This would allow it to engage in attritional warfare against coalition forces and against the protected population to demonstrate that coalition forces can’t protect them. The Taliban already has demonstrated the ability to thrive in both populated and rural areas of Afghanistan, where the terrain favors the insurgent far more than the counterinsurgent.

The strategy of training Afghan soldiers and police to take up the battle and persuading insurgents to change sides faces several realities. The Taliban has an excellent intelligence service built up during the period of its rule and afterward, allowing it to populate the new security forces with its agents and loyalists. And while persuading insurgents to change sides certainly can happen, whether it can happen to the extent of leaving the Taliban materially weakened remains in doubt. In Iraq, this happened not because of individual changes, but because regional ethnic leadership — with their own excellent intelligence capabilities — changed sides and drove out opposing factions. Individual defections were frequently liquidated.

But Taliban leaders have not shown any inclination for changing sides. They do not believe the United States is in Afghanistan to stay. Getting individual Taliban militants to change sides creates an intelligence-security battle. But McChrystal is betting that his forces will form bonds with the local population so deep that the locals will provide intelligence against Taliban forces operating in the region. The coalition must thus demonstrate that the risks of defection are dwarfed by the advantages. To do this, the coalition security and counterintelligence must consistently and effectively block the Taliban’s ability to identify, locate and liquidate defectors. If McChrystal cannot do that, large-scale defection will be impossible, because well before such defection becomes large scale, the first defectors will be dead, as will anyone seen by the Taliban as a collaborator.

Ultimately, the entire strategy depends on how you read Iraq. In Iraq, a political decision was made by an intact Sunni leadership able to enforce its will among its followers. Squeezed between the foreign jihadists who wanted to usurp their position and the Shia, provided with political and financial incentives, and possessing their own forces able to provide a degree of security themselves, the Sunni leadership came to the see the Americans as the lesser evil. They controlled a critical mass, and they shifted. McChrystal has made it clear that the defections he expects are not a Taliban faction whose leadership decides to shift, but Taliban soldiers as individuals or small groups. That isn’t ultimately what turned the Iraq war but something very different — and quite elusive in counterinsurgency. He is looking for retail defections to turn into a strategic event.

Moreover, it seems much too early to speak of the successful strategy in Iraq. First, there is increasing intracommunal violence in anticipation of coming elections early next year. Second, some 120,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq to guarantee the political and security agreements of 2007-2008, and it is far from clear what would happen if those troops left. Finally, where in Afghanistan there is the Pakistan question, in Iraq there remains the Iran question. Instability thus becomes a cross-border issue beyond the scope of existing forces.

The Pakistan situation is particularly problematic. If the strategic objective of the war in Afghanistan is to cut the legs out from under al Qaeda and deny these foreign jihadists sanctuary, then what of the sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal belt where high-value al Qaeda targets are believed to be located? Pakistan is fighting its share of jihadists according to its own rules; the United States cannot realistically expect Islamabad to fulfill its end of the bargain in containing al Qaeda. The primary U.S. targets in this war are on the wrong side of the border, and in areas where U.S. forces are not free to operate. The American interest in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda and prevent the emergence of follow-on jihadist forces. The problem is that regardless of how secure Afghanistan is, jihadist forces can (to varying degrees) train and plan in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia — or even Cleveland for that matter. Securing Afghanistan is thus not necessarily a precondition for defeating al Qaeda.

Iraq is used as the argument in favor of the new strategy in Afghanistan. What happened in Iraq was that a situation that was completely out of hand became substantially less unstable because of a set of political accommodations initially rejected by the Americans and the Sunnis from 2003-2006. Once accepted, a disastrous situation became an unstable situation with many unknowns still in place.

If the goal of Afghanistan is to forge the kind of tenuous political accords that govern Iraq, the factional conflicts that tore Iraq apart are needed. Afghanistan certainly has factional conflicts, but the Taliban, the main adversary, does not seem to be torn by them. It is possible that under sufficient pressure such splits might occur, but the Taliban has been a cohesive force for a generation. When it has experienced divisions, it hasn’t split decisively.

On the other hand, it is not clear that Western forces in Afghanistan can sustain long-term infantry conflict in which the offensive is deliberately ceded to a capable enemy and where airpower’s use is severely circumscribed to avoid civilian casualties, overturning half a century of military doctrine of combined arms operations.

The Bigger Picture

The best argument for fighting in Afghanistan is powerful and similar to the one for fighting in Iraq: credibility. The abandonment of either country will create a powerful tool in the Islamic world for jihadists to argue that the United States is a weak power. Withdrawal from either place without a degree of political success could destabilize other regimes that cooperate with the United States. Given that, staying in either country has little to do with strategy and everything to do with the perception of simply being there.

The best argument against fighting in either country is equally persuasive. The jihadists are right: The United States has neither the interest nor forces for long-term engagements in these countries. American interests go far beyond the Islamic world, and there are many present (to say nothing of future) threats from outside the region that require forces. Overcommitment in any one area of interest at the expense of others could be even more disastrous than the consequences of withdrawal.

In our view, Obama’s decision depends not on choosing between McChrystal’s strategy and others, but on a careful consideration of how to manage the consequences of withdrawal. An excellent case can be made that now is not the time to leave Afghanistan, and we expect Obama to be influenced by that thinking far more than by the details of McChrystal’s strategy. As McChrystal himself points out, there are many unknowns and many risks in his own strategy;
he is guaranteeing nothing.

Reducing American national strategy to the Islamic world, or worse, Afghanistan, is the greater threat. Nations find their balance, and the heavy pressures on Obama in this decision basically represent those impersonal forces battering him. The question he must ask himself is simple: In what way is the future of Afghanistan of importance to the United States? The answer that securing it will hobble al Qaeda is simply wrong. U.S. Afghan policy will not stop a global terrorist organization; terrorists will just go elsewhere. The answer that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is important in shaping the Islamic world’s sense of American power is better, but even that must be taken in context of other global interests.

Obama does not want this to be his war. He does not want to be remembered for Afghanistan the way George W. Bush is remembered for Iraq or Lyndon Johnson is for Vietnam. Right now, we suspect Obama plans to demonstrate commitment, and to disengage at a more politically opportune time. Johnson and Bush showed that disengagement after commitment is nice in theory. For our part, we do not think there is an effective strategy for winning in Afghanistan, but that McChrystal has proposed a good one for “hold until relieved.” We suspect that Obama will hold to show that he gave the strategy a chance, but that the decision to leave won’t be too far off.

By George Friedman~Honorary Political Season Contributor

After U.S. airstrikes killed scores of civilians in western Afghanistan this past week, White House National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones said the United States would continue with the airstrikes and would not tie the hands of U.S. generals fighting in Afghanistan. At the same time, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus has cautioned against using tactics that undermine strategic U.S. goals in Afghanistan — raising the question of what exactly are the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan. A debate inside the U.S. camp has emerged over this very question, the outcome of which is likely to determine the future of the region.

On one side are President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a substantial amount of the U.S. Army leadership. On the other side are Petraeus — the architect of U.S. strategy in Iraq after 2006 — and his staff and supporters. An Army general — even one with four stars — is unlikely to overcome a president and a defense secretary; even the five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur couldn’t pull that off. But the Afghan debate is important, and it provides us with a sense of future U.S. strategy in the region.

Petraeus and U.S. Strategy in Iraq

Petraeus took over effective command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2006. Two things framed his strategy. One was the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm congressional elections, which many saw as a referendum on the Iraq war. The second was the report by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of elder statesmen (including Gates) that recommended some fundamental changes in how the war was fought.

The expectation in November 2006 was that as U.S. President George W. Bush’s strategy had been repudiated, his only option was to begin withdrawing troops. Even if Bush didn’t begin this process, it was expected that his successor in two years certainly would have to do so. The situation was out of control, and U.S. forces did not seem able to assert control. The goals of the 2003 invasion, which were to create a pro-American regime in Baghdad, redefine the political order of Iraq and use Iraq as a base of operations against hostile regimes in the region, were unattainable. It did not seem possible to create any coherent regime in Baghdad at all, given that a complex civil war was under way that the United States did not seem able to contain.

Most important, groups in Iraq believed that the United States would be leaving. Therefore, political alliance with the United States made no sense, as U.S. guarantees would be made moot by withdrawal. The expectation of an American withdrawal sapped U.S. political influence, while the breadth of the civil war and its complexity exhausted the U.S. Army. Defeat had been psychologically locked in.

Bush’s decision to launch a surge of forces in Iraq was less a military event than a psychological one. Militarily, the quantity of forces to be inserted — some 30,000 on top of a force of 120,000 — did not change the basic metrics of war in a country of about 29 million. Moreover, the insertion of additional troops was far from a surge; they trickled in over many months. Psychologically, however, it was stunning. Rather than commence withdrawals as so many expected, the United States was actually increasing its forces. The issue was not whether the United States could defeat all of the insurgents and militias; that was not possible. The issue was that because the United States was not leaving, the United States was not irrelevant. If the United States was not irrelevant, then at least some American guarantees could have meaning. And that made the United States a political actor in Iraq.

Petraeus combined the redeployment of some troops with an active political program. At the heart of this program was reaching out to the Sunni insurgents, who had been among the most violent opponents of the United States during 2003-2006. The Sunni insurgents represented the traditional leadership of the mainstream Sunni tribes, clans and villages. The U.S. policy of stripping the Sunnis of all power in 2003 and apparently leaving a vacuum to be filled by the Shia had left the Sunnis in a desperate situation, and they had moved to resistance as guerrillas.

The Sunnis actually were trapped by three forces. First, there were the Americans, always pressing on the Sunnis even if they could not crush them. Second, there were the militias of the Shia, a group that the Sunni Saddam Hussein had repressed and that now was suspicious of all Sunnis. Third, there were the jihadists, a foreign legion of Sunni fighters drawn to Iraq under the banner of al Qaeda. In many ways, the jihadists posed the greatest threat to the mainstream Sunnis, since they wanted to seize leadership of the Sunni communities and radicalize them.

U.S. policy under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been unbending hostility to the Sunni insurgency. The policy under Gates and Petraeus after 2006 — and it must be understood that they developed this strategy jointly — was to offer the Sunnis a way out of their three-pronged trap. Because the United States would be staying in Iraq, it could offer the Sunnis protection against both the jihadists and the Shia. And because the surge convinced the Sunnis that the United States was not going to withdraw, they took the deal. Petraeus’ great achievement was presiding over the U.S.-Sunni negotiations and eventual understanding, and then using that to pressure the Shiite militias with the implicit threat of a U.S.-Sunni entente. The Shia subsequently and painfully shifted their position to accepting a coalition government, the mainstream Sunnis helped break the back of the jihadists and the civil war subsided, allowing the United States to stage a withdrawal under much more favorable circumstances.

This was a much better outcome than most would have thought possible in 2006. It was, however, an outcome that fell far short of American strategic goals of 2003. The current government in Baghdad is far from pro-American and is unlikely to be an ally of the United States; keeping it from becoming an Iranian tool would be the best outcome for the United States at this point. The United States certainly is not about to reshape Iraqi society, and Iraq is not likely to be a long-term base for U.S. offensive operations in the region.

Gates and Petraeus produced what was likely the best possible outcome under the circumstances. They created the framework for a U.S. withdrawal in a context other than a chaotic civil war, they created a coalition government, and they appear to have blocked Iranian influence in Iraq. But these achievements remain uncertain. The civil war could resume. The coalition government might collapse. The Iranians might become the dominant force in Baghdad. But these unknowns are enormously better than the outcomes expected in 2006. At the same time, snatching uncertainty from the jaws of defeat is not the same as victory.

Afghanistan and Lessons from Iraq

Petraeus is arguing that the strategy pursued in Iraq should be used as a blueprint in Afghanistan, and it appears that Obama and Gates have raised a number of important questions in response. Is the Iraqi solution really so desirable? If it is desirable, can it be replicated in Afghanistan? What level of U.S. commitment would be required in Afghanistan, and what would this cost in terms of vulnerabilities elsewhere in the world? And finally, what exactly is the U.S. goal in Afghanistan?

In Iraq, Gates and Petraeus sought to create a coalition government that, regardless of its nature, would facilitate a U.S. withdrawal. Obama and Gates have stated that the goal in Afghanistan is the defeat of al Qaeda and the denial of bases for the group in Afghanistan. This is a very different strategic goal than in Iraq, because this goal does not require a coalition government or a reconciliation of political elements. Rather, it requires an agreement with one entity: the Taliban. If the Taliban agree to block al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, the United States will have achieved its goal. Therefore, the challenge in Afghanistan is using U.S. power to give the Taliban what they want — a return to power — in exchange for a settlement on the al Qaeda question.

In Iraq, the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds all held genuine political and military power. In Afghanistan, the Americans and the Taliban have this power, though many other players have derivative power from the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; where al-Maliki had his own substantial political base, Karzai is someone the Americans invented to become a focus for power in the future. But the future has not come. The complexities of Iraq made a coalition government possible there, but in many ways, Afghanistan is both simpler and more complex. The country has a multiplicity of groups, but in the end only one insurgency that counts.

Petraeus argues that the U.S. strategic goal — blocking al Qaeda in Afghanistan — cannot be achieved simply through an agreement with the Taliban. In this view, the Taliban are not nearly as divided as some argue, and therefore their factions cannot be played against each other. Moreover, the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep their word even if they give it, which is not likely.

From Petraeus’ view, Gates and Obama are creating the situation that existed in pre-surge Iraq. Rather than stunning Afghanistan psychologically with the idea that the United States is staying, thereby causing all the parties to reconsider their positions, Obama and Gates have done the opposite. They have made it clear that Washington has placed severe limits on its willingness to invest in Afghanistan, and made it appear that the United States is overly eager to make a deal with the one group that does not need a deal: the Taliban.

Gates and Obama have pointed out that there is a factor in Afghanistan for which there was no parallel in Iraq — namely, Pakistan. While Iran was a factor in the Iraqi civil war, the Taliban are as much a Pakistani phenomenon as an Afghan one, and the Pakistanis are neither willing nor able to deny the Taliban sanctuary and lines of supply. So long as Pakistan is in the condition it is in — and Pakistan likely will stay that way for a long time — the Taliban have time on their side and no reason to split, and are likely to negotiate only on their terms.

There is also a military fear. Petraeus brought U.S. troops closer to the population in Iraq, and he is doing this in Afghanistan as well. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deployed in firebases. These relatively isolated positions are vulnerable to massed Taliban forces. U.S. airpower can destroy these concentrations, so long as they are detected in time and attacked before they close in on the firebases. Ominously for the United States, the Taliban do not seem to have committed anywhere near the majority of their forces to the campaign.

This military concern is combined with real questions about the endgame. Gates and Obama are not convinced that the endgame in Iraq, perhaps the best outcome that was possible there, is actually all that desirable for Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, this outcome would leave the Taliban in power in the end. No amount of U.S. troops could match the Taliban’s superior intelligence capability, their knowledge of the countryside and their willingness to take casualties in pursuing their ends, and every Afghan security force would be filled with Taliban agents.

And there is a deeper issue yet that Gates has referred to: the Russian experience in Afghanistan. The Petraeus camp is vehement that there is no parallel between the Russian and American experience; in this view, the Russians tried to crush the insurgents, while the Americans are trying to win them over and end the insurgency by convincing the Taliban’s supporters and reaching a political accommodation with their leaders. Obama and Gates are less sanguine about the distinction — such distinctions were made in Vietnam in response to the question of why the United States would fare better in Southeast Asia than the French did. From the Obama and Gates point of view, a political settlement would call for either a constellation of forces in Afghanistan favoring some accommodation with the Americans, or sufficient American power to compel accommodation. But it is not clear to Obama and Gates that either could exist in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, Petraeus is charging that Obama and Gates are missing the chance to repeat what was done in Iraq, while Obama and Gates are afraid Petraeus is confusing success in Iraq with a universal counterinsurgency model. To put it differently, they feel that while Petraeus benefited from fortuitous circumstances in Iraq, he quickly could find himself hopelessly bogged down in Afghanistan. The Pentagon on May 11 announced that U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan would be replaced, less than a year after he took over, with Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal. McKiernan’s removal could pave the way for a broader reshuffling of Afghan strategy by the Obama administration.

The most important issues concern the extent to which Obama wants to stake his presidency on Petraeus’ vision in Afghanistan, and how important Afghanistan is to U.S. grand strategy. Petraeus has conceded that al Qaeda is in Pakistan. Getting the group out of Pakistan requires surgical strikes. Occupation and regime change in Pakistan are way beyond American abilities. The question of what the United States expects to win in Afghanistan — assuming it can win anything there — remains.

In the end, there is never a debate between U.S. presidents and generals. Even MacArthur discovered that. It is becoming clear that Obama is not going to bet all in Afghanistan, and that he sees Afghanistan as not worth the fight. Petraeus is a soldier in a fight, and he wants to win. But in the end, as Clausewitz said, war is an extension of politics by other means. As such, generals tend to not get their way.