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More Troops Won't Fix Afghanistan

"Beyond Troop Increases"

A major troop buildup in Afghanistan would prolong the war at a moment when the U.S. should be looking for ways to end it. Worse, military escalation could further destabilize South Asia and hinder the Obama administration’s larger efforts to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda.

How might things unravel? Consider the last eight years of conflict in the region. In 2001, U.S. troops and their allies routed much of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite this, many militants—especially key al Qaeda leaders—escaped into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where they still enjoy relative sanctuary.

A large infusion of American forces could have the same effect today. Escalation might drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan but push additional insurgents across the border and further destabilize the already volatile FATA, now the epicenter of global terrorism.

This would occur in the midst of Islamabad’s recently begun military offensive there—the type of campaign that U.S. officials have long encouraged Pakistan to undertake. Preventing this sort of consolidation of militant strength in northwestern Pakistan is crucial to America’s counterterrorism efforts. Up to now, however, U.S. policy has rested heavily on the premise that the best way to counter al Qaeda is to deny the group a “haven” in Afghanistan. This approach ignores the obvious reality that al Qaeda already has an adequate base of operations in northwestern Pakistan, where the intensity of any ground offensive is beyond U.S. control.

It also implies a need to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan. For reasons described above, this could make matters worse in Pakistan. But it is also unlikely that coalition forces will ever be able to completely eliminate the Afghan Taliban.

The good news is that the U.S. can adopt a more modest set of goals and still work to confront al Qaeda and other global terrorists in the region.

Such a “strategic reset” would prioritize Pakistan’s stability. Short-term, this would mean continuing to support Islamabad’s campaign against militants in the FATA. More important, though, will be a long-term commitment to help foster the growth of Pakistan’s civil society and economy. In addition, the U.S. should work to broker a rapprochement between Pakistan and India. This, more than any other measure, would encourage Pakistan to spend more time confronting militants in its northwest than preparing for war with India in the east.

What about Afghanistan? Given the unlikelihood of defeating the Taliban, the Obama administration needs to think about how insurgents will figure in the country’s future.

In his recent strategic assessment of the war, General Stanley McChrystal, the overall U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, highlighted the need to reintegrate low- to mid-level Taliban back into Afghan society. This is an important initiative that could be expanded, particularly if recent reports are true regarding a fissure between al Qaeda and Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the most important branch of the Afghan Taliban.

According to Afghanistan expert Ashraf Ali, the Quetta Shura have developed a nationalist program bent on ending what Omar and others see as a foreign occupation. In addition, they appear to be rejecting the global jihadist agenda of al Qaeda and TTP. These circumstances strongly suggest some form of negotiation with the Quetta Shura, which might entail eventual U.S. troop reductions in exchange for Omar’s group laying down its arms and agreeing not to harbor al Qaeda.

Of course, there would surely remain “irreconcilable” Taliban bent on seizing the entire Afghan state. But here, again, there are alternatives to escalation which could check these militants’ influence. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. is aiding a number of locally-based, anti-Taliban militias. With American and NATO backing, these groups could flourish much like the “Sons of Iraq” did in 2006 and 2007. In fact, local empowerment is preferable to American-provided security, because it moves Afghanistan’s tribes and villages closer to the day when they can operate without direct U.S. support.

No single one of these measures is sufficient to ensure success in Afghanistan. But given the costs and risks of a large-scale troop infusion, it is imperative that policymakers consider alternative solutions to the war in Afghanistan. Throughout American history, there has always been the temptation to escalate militarily, especially in dire situations. But a buildup will not solve America’s problems in South Asia or with al Qaeda, and may in fact worsen them.

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was a member of the National Counterterrorism Center’s strategy directorate. Benjamin Bodurian is an intern at CSIS.

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