Asia
Commentary

The Final Big Push in Afghanistan

in Program

By Prakhar Sharma – President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and the decision to send
additional 30,000 troops are aimed at reversing the Taliban’s momentum
in the insurgency. His strategy seems grounded in realism and clarifies
that the US commitment is not open ended. The various elements of his
strategy however depend on specific conditions on the ground.

Timeframe and Troop surge

In
his major address on December 1, President Obama announced a timeline
of July 2011 when the US troops would start returning home. The
decision was based on several considerations. First, he wanted to
signal to the Americans that US troops will not be in Afghanistan
forever. Second, he wanted to condition the Afghan leadership to take
more responsibility for their destiny. It is also important to note
that he said that US troops would begin returning after 18 months, but
did not specify any numbers. He is thus going to take further decisions
on troop levels and timing based on his assessment of progress in
Afghanistan.

Threats

The President said that there was no
imminent threat of the government in Kabul being overthrown, but that
the Taliban had the momentum. The mere presence of a government,
however, does not indicate governance. Dysfunctional governance or its
total absence remains a more pervasive concern among the Afghans than
the insurgency. The local communities need to take greater ownership of
their state of affairs and the US and NATO allies need to choose their
local partners wisely and empower them to facilitate basic governance.

Partnerships

President
Obama mentioned, “This burden is not ours alone to bear”. There is a
prevailing perception in Kabul now that when the US is finally getting
its priorities clear on Afghanistan, the NATO alliance is losing its
patience. NATO has promised 7,000 additional troops, but thus far only
5,500 troops have been pledged by members. The Dutch are going to start
withdrawing their troops (2,160) towards the end of 2010, and the
Canadians (2,830) will follow suit towards the middle of 2011. It thus
remains to be seen whether the NATO will be able to sustain its
commitments.

Goals

He framed the overarching goal as, “to
disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,
and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the
future.” It is less clear whether US policy will focus on the
underlying reasons for the conflict: the socio-economic, ethnic,
tribal, political and regional problems and challenges. Al-Qaeda’s
sanctuaries and support in the border area between Afghanistan and
Pakistan are a result of socio-economic grievances that have paved way
for ideologies and movements such as the Taliban (an increasingly
amorphous entity). By focusing on Al-Qaeda and not understanding the
underlying reasons for “Talibanization”, this enhanced effort would be
a long shot at succeeding in Afghanistan or in Pakistan.

Capacity building  

President
Obama talked about building the capacity of the Afghan National
Security Forces (ANSF) and handing over the security responsibilities
to them. In its current structure, however, it is unlikely that the
ANSF will be able to successfully secure the volatile areas in the
country when the largest ethnic group (Pashtuns) in the country remains
underrepresented in the leadership, officer corps and the troop
composition. While the Pashtuns represent 42% of the population, they
account for only 30% of the total troops in the army. 70% of the army
brigades are commanded by the Tajiks. Similar dynamics are apparent in
the recently armed tribal militias that have an overrepresentation of
the Hazaras in Wardak province.

Corruption and Coalition building

Corruption
has punctuated most debates on Afghanistan, especially after the
elections. President Obama stated that those in the government who were
ineffective or corrupt should be held accountable. This may be a
serious opportunity for the Karzai administration to revamp its image
and credibility, domestically and abroad. Given the local realities in
Afghanistan, however, it is still likely that President Karzai will
continue to rely on local power brokers whose governance credentials
are dubious at best. While the US cannot change those realities and
determine cabinet appointments, it can identify competent and credible
partners as advisors in the cabinet and work with them. 

Conclusion

The
new US strategy calls for a time-bound commitment and more
accountability. It assumes that the kind of state being envisioned in
Afghanistan is what the Afghans actually desire. Most policy debates
however have been informed by Afghan perceptions that were gathered by
the Afghan government and its international partners. The Afghans are
disposed towards expressing opinions in the expectation of immediate
benefits or hope for positive change and those may not accurately
reflect their views of the situation. Afghan perceptions vary widely at
the district level because of differences in history, access to
resources, ethnic/tribal breakdown, geography, relations with
government, etc. Despite its shortcomings, the strategy offers a
crucial, perhaps a final opportunity, for the Afghan government to
demonstrate its will and take on more responsibility for governing the
country.

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