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Filling Holes in Afghan Strategy


Does the Obama administration have a strategy to turn around the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan? Not according to Democratic Senator John Kerry, who returned from a trip to Pakistan this week and promptly told reporters he didn’t think so. CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this month that he doesn’t see much of a strategy either. Instead, what the administration has presented so far is a “range of concepts,” mostly focused at the tactical level, not a strategy.

Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy did her best to fill in some of the blanks on the administration’s Afghan strategy in a presentation this week at CSIS, in Washington. Flournoy said the administration does in fact have a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, along with a newly developed "implementation plan." The "core elements" of that plan are designed to: first, reverse Taliban gains and protect the populace; second, rapidly build the Afghan army and police; and third, create security so governance and development can occur.

Part of the new strategy is shifting the governance focus from Kabul, where the Bush administration concentrated much of their energy, to a "more bottom-up set of efforts," intended to develop some kind of state presence at the district level. Flournoy said the administration hopes the international aid community and NGOs will step up and provide the expertise the military lacks in development and building local level governance. NGOs are notoriously averse to be seen working at all with any military, so I’m not sure how well that will play out.

Defeating what Flournoy called a "complex syndicate" of insurgent groups in Afghanistan will require cutting their ties with the narcotics industry, which provides the militants up to $400 million a year, according to UN estimates. How to do that? Flournoy said the new approach will feature a "more effective" counternarcotics strategy that “goes beyond eradication” to include crop substitution.

She said the U.S. will also support “Afghan-led” reconciliation efforts intended to “flip the foot soldiers” and drain off potential Taliban recruits. Finding the right incentives to pull that off won’t be easy, as there is a glaring lack of intelligence on exactly who we are fighting. Earlier this month, Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, told reporters that intelligence on the makeup and appeal of the Taliban was weak. "I am deeply, deeply dissatisfied with the degree of knowledge that the United States government and our friend and allies have on this subject." Speaking recently at Harvard University, Gen. David Petraeus echoed Holbrooke, saying the U.S. lacks "rigorous, granular, nuanced" intelligence on the enemy in Afghanistan.

Focusing on foot soldiers might be the wrong approach. Power at local levels in Afghanistan typically resides with warlords and tribal leaders who determine who gets work and a paycheck. Noted Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, speaking at the Carnegie Council last year, explained the rise of warlords or the "big man" in Pashtun society like this: "So you get money, then you sell your mules and you buy a pickup, and then you make more money... Then you have a bodyguard. Then the bodyguard develops into a small 50-man band, and then the band develops into a full-scale militia of 3,000 to 5,000 men. You are then the "big man" and you are then responsible. And then you need to fund it and you need to make alliances with people like bin Laden and all who are going to help you fund it."

At least some of those same warlords have, in the past, proven that their loyalties can be swayed by satchels of American dollars, if only temporarily. At least we know how much Taliban fighters are getting paid: about $300 a month. That’s according to Afghan defense minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, from an interview last week with the Council on Foreign Relations (Interestingly, that’s the same we were paying former insurgents in Iraq who flipped over to the government side).

What was so obviously missing from Flournoy’s presentation was any real discussion of Pakistan, parts of which are fast becoming a Taliban state-within-a-state. She said almost nothing about Afghanistan’s porous eastern border with Pakistan across which insurgents move in and out of Afghanistan with considerable ease. She did say the U.S. is trying to shift Pakistan’s "strategic calculus." That’s a neutral way of saying that we’re trying to get the Pakistani military and intelligence services to focus more on the Taliban and other militants and less on India, an effort that Flournoy said remains a “work in progress."

Trying to stem the flow of fighters across that eastern border will be a major task of the 17,000 American reinforcements now flowing into Afghanistan. Most of those American reinforcements will be sent to Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, the "center of gravity" of the Taliban insurgency, said General Michael Tucker, the deputy chief of staff for operations for NATO's International Security Force -- Security Assistance Force, speaking to reporters this week from Afghanistan.

A rapid build up of the Afghan border police is also underway. Tucker said 51 new Afghan border police companies will be stood up by this summer to partner with the additional American troops now arriving. "We have the ability here to clear the enemy from just about anywhere we need to. What we've had an inability to do here is to hold what we've cleared. The additional troops will allow us to hold."

While Kandahar and Helmand are the center of gravity for Taliban operations in Afghanistan, it’s probably more accurate to say the Taliban’s center of gravity is across the border in Pakistan. As far as Pakistani cooperation, Tucker said: "We think that they could probably do less focus on the Indian border and more focus on the border with Afghanistan to help stem the sanctuary that the insurgency enjoys there."

In his congressional testimony, Cordesman said the U.S. odds of success in Afghanistan are better than even but still not good. "We will probably not score significant gains in 2009,” and “We face two to three years of bitter fighting to come."

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