Is the Afghanistan-Pakistan Conflict Winnable?
April 29, 2009
The US is now deeply engaged in trying to translate the broad strategic concepts for the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict that President Obama announced on March 27th. As yet, the details of these efforts have not been announced and many are still being debated within the Administration. What is clear is that the President was correct in looking beyond the fighting in Afghanistan, in linking Afghanistan and Pakistan together, and in calling for a regional approach.
The Broader Grand Strategic Context
The US needs to be careful, however, to look beyond both the war and the “region” immediately around Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US cannot shape its strategy for the Afghan-Pakistan conflict on the assumption that the war is the primary strategic focus of US national security policy. An effective strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan must be based on the reality that the US has limited military resources and m any other strategic commitments.
Even if one ignores the rest of the world, any analysis of US strategy and grand strategy must recognize that the US is now fighting in a region that involves the following additional challenges:
- Successfully withdrawing US combat troops from Iraq while making a transition in the US military and civilian advisory effort to helping Iraq defeat the remaining threat with its own forces and transition to both post conflict reconstruction and the ability to deter any outside threat.
- Finding a practical security solution – through negotiation, containment, sanctions, or armed intervention – to Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
- Creating a mix of US, allied, and Gulf capabilities to contain, deter, and/or defeat Iran’s growing capabilities for asymmetric warfare, both in terms of Iranian military capabilities, and Iran’s influence over state and non-state actors in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region.
- Helping to provide the security dimension to an Arab-Israeli peace, based on a two state solution, that creates Palestinian forces that can secure and enforce a peace, and gives Israel the security necessary for it to accept a two-state solution.
- Helping states throughout the region deal with a Jihadist and insurgent threat that will attack every moderate Arab and local government regardless of what happens to current movements like Al Qa’ida and the Taliban, and that will reemerge and mutate for at least the next decade.
- Dealing with the fact that the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict is linked to the India-Pakistan conflict, the overall security of Central Asia, and vital Russian and Chinese national security interests.
The US can assign priorities within each area according to its policy needs, but it will still be forced to engage in each of its present challenges in spite of its limited military and civilian resources. It is also clear that success or failure in any area in the above list will inevitably impact on all the others, including the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan
These are not casual concerns at a time the US is discovering that its present force posture has serious resource limits in fighting asymmetric or irregular wars, and conducting armed nation building. At least for the next few years, the US will have to fight the Afghan-Pakistan conflict war with a force posture whose land component is limited to the ability to fight one major regional contingency involving asymmetric or irregular war.
It also is far from clear when these resource limits will change. While Secretary Gates has talked about the need to change US force structures, no one has as yet advanced any clear plans for making such changes or even convincingly described the architecture of such a force. Simply training and/or assigning more civilians does not necessarily create any major improvement in real world US capabilities for armed nation building, and calling for smart power does not make power smart. The necessary changes may come, but it is unlikely that they will come before the end of President Obama’s present term of office.
Accordingly, US strategy must accept the fact that this is a limited war fought for limited objectives where the cost can exceed its value. The US cannot afford to become overcommitted to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. Its strategy must consider options that limit future US commitments and that focus on containment – undesirable as those options may seem. The US may well be able to win – particularly if the Afghan and Pakistani governments become more effective partners – but it cannot let a limited war fought for limited purposes become the central focus of its strategy and actions – even at the regional level.
Fighting Four “Wars” in One
At the same time, US strategy must look beyond its past focus on Afghanistan and recognize that the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict now involves four different “wars” and or subconflicts -- each of which imposes different needs on US strategy:
- A conflict in Afghanistan where US forces are deeply committed, and where the US is now seeking to introduce many of the “win, hold, build” tactics it used in Iraq and add enough troops to reverse the military situation and provide security until Afghan forces become strong enough to defend on their own, while adding advisors and aid that can provide effective governance and economic security. This is a conflict where the US still has substantial, if eroding, Afghan popular support and significant support from allied countries. This subconflict is compounded by sectarian and ethnic differences in a country that the CIA estimates is 80% Sunni and 20% Shi’ite; and 42% Pashtun 42%, 27% Tajik 27%, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek 9%, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baloch 2%, and 4% other.
- A cross border conflict in the FATA and Baluchi areas of Pakistan, where the Taliban, Al Qa’ida, and other Afghan Jihadist movements have a near sanctuary; where US and allied forces can only operate covertly – if at all; where the Pakistani government and forces have failed to make a consistent and serious commitment; and where Pakistan still tries to manipulate the Pashtun population in both countries to its own advantage. This is a subconflict where the vast majority of Pakistanis – and a wide range of the Pakistani political elite and security forces -- see the war as one fought in US interests and imposed upon them by the US, and sharply oppose any form of US military action.
- A violent internal power struggle in Pakistan between Jihadist factions and the Pakistani government, compounded by a factional power struggles by Pakistan’s feuding, family-driven political parties, and the uncertain loyalty and commitment of its armed forces. Polls show that steadily larger numbers of Pakistani recognized the seriousness of the threat before the expansion of Taliban influence in Swat and Buner, but there is little evidence that what may become a failed state is capable of coherent and decisive action at either the political or the security level. These divisions are compounded by elements of feudalism, and religious divisions between Sunni (75%) and Shi’ite (20%; and ethnic/regional differences in a state the CIA estimates is Punjabi 45%, 15% Pashtun (Pathan), 14% Sindhi, 8.4 % Sariaki, 7.6% Muhagir, 4% Balochi, and 6.3% other. Significant elements of both the political elite and security forces support Islamic extremism and Jihadist action and/or remain focused on the risk of another conflict with India and Kashmir.
- A struggle against Al Qa’ida and other current and future violent Jihadist movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan that threaten the US, its allies, and regional targets, and that are part of the broader struggle against such international terrorist movements. Al Qa’ida was the original reason for US engagement in Afghanistan, and remains the most direct threat to the US. It is not clear that “winning” in Afghanistan defeats an Al Qa’ida based in Pakistan, that defeating Al Qa’ida in Pakistan prevents it from migrating or reemerging in some other weak state like Yemen or Somalia, or that even the total destruction of Al Qa’ida does more than lead to the emergence of other Jihadist movements that may be equally threatening. At the same time, the fact the Taliban now operate in Pakistan, there are growing ties between “local” Jihadist movements and Al Qa’ida, foreign volunteers have become more common, and Afghan and Pakistani Jihadist movements increasingly attack the US at the political and ideological level is increasing the risk that the Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Jihadist movements will broaden their goals and become more regional and international.
President Obama and other senior Administration officials seem to have recognized the fact that this no longer is an Afghan conflict – if, indeed, it ever was. So far, however, almost all of the details that they have advanced for changes in US strategy focus primarily on Afghanistan. Such an approach cannot succeed, regardless of how successful the US is in Afghanistan per se.
Winning Four “Wars” At Once
To “win” this mix of subconflicts, the US must formulate credible plans to achieve significant success in all four key areas. First, the US must reverse the military situation in Afghanistan in the course of 2009 and 2010, build up effective Afghan forces as soon as possible; and create security, the key elements of governance; and at least minimal economic conditions. Like Iraq, the goal has to be “sufficiency;” enough stability and security to exclude Jihadist elements from power. Broader developmental goals may be possible in the mid or long run, but even the most limited definition of victory is uncertain and setting broader goals will depend far more on Afghan leadership over time than US efforts.
Second, the US must find ways to work with Pakistan that will eliminate the Al Qa’ida base of power in the FATA and Baluchi border areas of Pakistan, and the ability of the Taliban or any other Jihadist group to be a major threat to Afghanistan or the source of new forms of international terrorism. This does not simply mean tactical victories over such threats; it means denying them the ability to recreate themselves over time. Even the most successful strike on Al Qa’ida’s present hierarchy will only have tactical value unless the conditions that have allowed Jihadist elements to grow during 2001-2009 can be ended.
Third, the US must help Pakistan achieve a broad level of security and stability at the national level. Strategically, the overall stability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan has the highest priority, and no victory in Afghanistan, or the Afghan-Pakistan border area, can be meaningful if Pakistan slides toward chaos or Jihadist rule. It is dangerous and unrealistic to see Pakistan as the center of gravity in the sense the US can win a meaningful victory if Afghanistan becomes a power vacuum and Jihadist sanctuary, or Pakistan is “stable” at its center but remains vulnerable at its borders. It is all too clear, however, that eight years of war in Afghanistan have helped create the situation where Pakistan as a nation is at risk, and Pakistan is the most important of the three centers of gravity in the war.
Fourth, the US must deal with terrorism at the international level and with the clear understanding even the most successful attack on Al Qa’ida in Pakistan may not prevent it from reemerging elsewhere, that significant numbers of Afghan and Pakistani Jihadist may move to other countries, and that what the US perceives as a decisive attack on Al Qa’ida’s leadership may be seen by others as its martyrdom.