The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan one year later: Tactical success without strategic progress

One year ago in his speech at West Point, President Obama announced that the United States would pursue three objectives in Afghanistan: 1) to deny al Qaeda a safe haven; 2) to reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government of President Hamid Karzai; and 3) strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take the lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future. In order to do so, he ordered the deployment of an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan. 

One year later, tactical successes on the battlefield do not add up to lasting strategic progress in the war in Afghanistan. Despite a huge infusion of money and troops, we appear to be standing in place. The dynamics driving and enabling the insurgency -- political grievances, weak and illegitimate government, insufficient security, and a safe haven for insurgents in Pakistan -- remain in place, undermining our best efforts to stabilize the country. 

To be fair, the United States has largely met the first goal of the strategy in Afghanistan-to deny al Qaeda a safe haven -- although that was accomplished before the President even stated it. During the summer of 2010, Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA, said that there may be fewer than 50 to 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And al Qaeda appears to have found a more comfortable existence in Yemen and Somalia than in Afghanistan, or even Pakistan.  Meanwhile, other extremist groups threatening the region, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban and others thrive in Pakistan.  

On the second goal, the U.S. military and NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) argue that they are beating back the Taliban, citing the dramatically increased pace of operations against Taliban foot soldiers and leadership figures, operations to capture and kill numbers of insurgents, and the expansion of the international coalition's military presence in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. But this assessment ignores larger trends occurring in the country -- mainly an insurgency expanding north into once secure areas, one with a continued ability to replace fallen insurgent commanders and to wage a violent intimidation campaign against those associated with the Karzai government. Meanwhile, the sanctuary in Pakistan, a steady supply of Afghan recruits internally and a significant flow of financial resources means that the insurgency can continually regenerate. Thus, our security gains, which have come at a real cost in both Afghan and American lives, appear to be temporary at best.   

The crux of the problem lies in the third objective, that of increasing the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and the government's ability to take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future. While the United States and NATO-ISAF have dramatically increased training of Afghan National Security Forces and met their numerical objectives, the conditions for an enduring transfer remain poorly defined and perpetually out of reach. Out of more than 90 key terrain districts identified as critical to success against the insurgency, the United States has thus far only been able to hand over Kabul and its environs; even there, the United States has not been able to reduce troop levels. The Afghan government, highly centralized and disconnected from most Afghan communities, remains a major driver of discontent and resentment, which the Taliban insurgency exploits to its advantage. The problem for governance in Afghanistan is also not just one of capacity but also one of legitimacy --  a challenge the United States has been unable to address despite our attempts to link communities to their government through development money and fill Afghan government positions at the district level.   

We have frozen an unsustainable political dynamic in place through our large military presence and financial assistance, which appears no closer to being able to survive our withdrawal than a year ago. The main task for the Obama administration through the remainder of its first term is to redirect its diplomatic, financial and military resources toward a more sustainable political settlement in Afghanistan in which the United States and NATO-ISAF can withdraw without igniting a larger conflict. This will require a political system that offers Afghanistan's diverse factions -- including those backing the current government, those taking part in armed insurgency, and those sitting on the fence -- an opportunity to participate in their country's future.  

Without shifts in the current political structures in Afghanistan, it will be simply futile for the United States and its NATO allies to wage continued war on behalf of a government that cannot consolidate domestic political support without indefinite massive international assistance and troops.  

Caroline Wadhams is Director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress.



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