Sowing the Seeds of Disaster in Afghanistan

President Obama’s decision to accelerate the troop drawdown from Afghanistan may help win him next year’s election, but it may just as well help him lose this year’s war.

US troop withdrawal means the Afghan army must step up
George Grant
On 24 June 2011 10:45

On Wednesday Night, President Obama announced the start of America’s troop draw-down from Afghanistan, amidst much rejoicing on both sides of Congress, and indeed, amongst large sections of the American public.

Only one small issue should cloud Mr Obama’s satisfaction at making such a domestically popular decision in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections: this is exactly the kind of politically-motivated act that could cost America the war.

Certainly, it is imperative that this conflict retains legitimacy in the eyes of the American public, but the best way to achieve that is to succeed in stabilising Afghanistan and leaving with U.S. honour and strategic credibility intact. In the long-run, nobody but the Taliban and America’s enemies will thank President Obama for taking decisions that could seriously jeopardise present gains and future success in this conflict.

On paper, reducing the size of the NATO mission from 132,000 to 122,000 might not seem so significant, but if the result of this draw-down is to fuel uncertainty amongst Afghans about NATO’s commitment to succeeding in Afghanistan, then the ramifications will be felt far more widely than in just the patrolling areas of 10,000 men.

Because the key to success in this conflict is not so much the size and strength of the armies ranged against the Taliban, nor is it even the capability of NATO to provide security to Afghan civilians in the here and now, though that is critically important.

The ultimate key to success is the perception amongst the relevant constituencies, principally the Afghan people, the Afghan government, Pakistan and the insurgency, that it is the government-side and not the Taliban who will ultimately prevail and that NATO is committed to seeing the process through to that outcome.

Succeeding in Afghanistan is possible. Since the commencement of the troop-surge at the start of 2010 and the reorientation of the strategy towards a population-focused counterinsurgency approach, impressive gains have been made in the Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar. In many key towns and districts across these provinces, a sense of normality has at last been restored.

Markets and schools have re-opened; people are back out on the streets; and the Damoclean threat of Taliban reprisals has significantly receded. Comments such as those by Ali Ahamd, a councilman from the district of Garmsir in central Helmand, are now not uncommon: “I will say one year ago, we could not come here. We were under siege in this province... I hope you won’t leave us alone again as you did before”.

But these gains are fragile, and all the key constituencies in this conflict know it. If the Afghan people perceive that the U.S. and its NATO allies are committed to an unconditional rush to the exit, then they will be extremely reluctant to afford the Coalition and the Afghan government the support necessary to consolidate these gains to the point of self-sustainability. Wouldn’t you be, if you feared that the potential cost of supporting the Afghan government now would be death for you and your family at the hands of the Taliban later?

Likewise, those concerned about corruption in the Afghan government must recognise that perceptions of NATO commitment have a very important role to play. Afghanistan has always been, and remains, an exceedingly decentralised country with no history of strong national government. Leaders in Kabul have therefore relied on support from influential regional personalities in order to retain power and exert influence, rather than operating through institutions. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s harder still if the dog in question has no confidence that the governmental institutions through which he is now supposed to operate will not likely survive beyond NATO withdrawal in 2015.

The same is true in the case of Pakistan, the Taliban’s historical backer and a fence-sitter par excellence. The only sure way to convince this problematic country to get down off that fence and finally desist in supporting the Afghan insurgency is if the leadership in Islamabad perceives that failure to do so will likely leave it on the wrong side of any future negotiating table.

Lastly, we cannot forget the Taliban themselves. Obama’s troop withdrawal is taking place simultaneously with the opening of negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Last week, the United Nations paved the way by splitting the Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctions blacklist, in an effort to distinguish between the two and encourage the former to join reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban leadership come to the negotiating table confident in the knowledge that NATO is committed to unconditional withdrawal come what may, what possible incentive is there for them to open serious parley now? Only if the Taliban leadership and ground-level fighters perceive that there is nothing more to gain through the continuation of conflict will they ever be serious about negotiations.

The real issue now, therefore, is how this decision is reflected on the ground in Afghanistan. If it is presented as a tactical reorientation as part of a still-resolute commitment to seeing this strategy through, then the damage could be limited. If, on the other hand, it is perceived to be the inevitable beginning of the end, then it may be sowing the seeds of disaster. What is at stake is not just the 2012 presidential elections; it is U.S. and NATO success in this difficult, but still winnable war.

George Grant is the Director for Global Security at The Henry Jackson Society, and the author of Succeeding in Afghanistan

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