Obama Needs a 'Plan B'

  • and Aleeha Lodhi
December 9, 2009 |

Pressure on Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban will not just overstretch the Pakistan Army, undercut its own operations against militants and open a new front for a beleaguered state, but will permanently close the door on a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict.

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The key question to ask about President Obama’s military surge in Afghanistan is, “Where is Plan B?”

In other words, if the extra troops do not reverse the Taliban momentum and the Afghan governance structure and army cannot take over from the United States in the next few years, what then?

Equally importantly, how does Obama hope to prevent increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan from further destabilizing that country and risking a much greater disaster for the region and the world?

The record of the past suggests that the surge is likely to fail. The additional forces are still not sufficient to win in a country as large as Afghanistan. The Taliban may well be put on the defensive, but given their support in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are very unlikely to be crippled.

As for the U.S. state-building project, this has failed so comprehensively under President Hamid Karzai in the past eight years that it is difficult to see how it can miraculously reform itself over the next 18 months.

Washington’s aim to build the Afghan National Army to the point where it is able to hold some towns against the Taliban confronts formidable obstacles: illiteracy, lack of professionalism and above all the underrepresentation of Pashtuns, all of which prevents it from becoming a genuinely national force.

Compared to the Soviet Union, the West is laboring under a crushing disadvantage in this regard. The Soviets inherited the core of the old royal Afghan Army, which had always been a Pashtun-dominated force. The West has tried to build a new force on the basis of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which is overwhelmingly non-Pashtun.

With continued outside support, the force may be able to defend non-Pashtun areas against the Taliban in the future, but this is not sustainable. Even more questionable is whether it will be able to operate successfully in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban is based.

Given these odds against military success, it is essential that the U.S. plan incorporate a political strategy aimed at Afghan national reconciliation — and that plan should involve negotiations with the Taliban. The goal would have to be a settlement that allows the Taliban local power in the Pashtun areas in return for the exclusion of Al Qaeda.

Mr. Obama’s surge does not rule out the simultaneous pursuit of a negotiated settlement. Bringing military pressure to bear in an effort to soften the enemy’s negotiating stance is a well rehearsed tactic.

For this to work, three things are essential.

First, there has to be a simultaneous political strategy. Otherwise, Washington will simply end up emulating the Israeli model of endless, futile campaigns to force a unilateral and unachievable political settlement. So far the Obama administration has given no indication of what its alternative strategy might be.

This also undermines the second essential factor, of time. Historically, all negotiations to end such conflicts have taken very long — Northern Ireland being a classic example. If Mr. Obama and his generals think that they will ultimately need to talk to the Taliban, they actually need to start doing that now, or at least seeking ways of starting.

The last precondition of a successful strategy is not to take military action that makes negotiations impossible. This means holding ground but not ramping up militarily. It is contradictory to seek talks with Taliban leaders while seeking at the same time to kill them.

Instead of considering this political approach to underpin the military effort, the U.S. is stepping up pressure on Pakistan, which is already struggling with the bloody militant fallout of previously flawed U.S. policies in Afghanistan. The U.S. should recognize that only Pakistan can bring the Taliban to the table once Washington decides to negotiate.

Pressure on Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban will not just overstretch the Pakistan Army, undercut its own operations against militants and open a new front for a beleaguered state, but will permanently close the door on a negotiated end to the Afghan conflict.

Most especially, an expansion of drone missile attacks to Baluchistan is fraught with danger. It would further inflame public sentiment, alienate the Pakistani security establishment and probably shatter the Pakistan-U.S. relationship.

It would also destroy any possibility of a negotiated end to the Afghan war. All that Mr. Obama would then be left with would be a losing gamble on military victory in Afghanistan in the face of a shortening time frame, lengthening odds and a dangerously destabilized Pakistan.

 

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