At first glance, the Obama Administration's Afghanistan policy doesn't seem to make sense. It is escalating military involvement in a conflict its own officials freely admit can't be won on the battlefield and this despite the growing cost in blood and treasure and an awareness of the limited patience of the U.S. public for another open-ended counterinsurgency war. And this at the same time as some of the key diplomats tasked with handling the conflict are speaking openly of the need to integrate most of those fighting for the Taliban into Afghanistan's political order.
But while those impulses may appear to be working at cross purposes, they may in fact combine to achieve the war's purpose as defined by President Obama and thus form the basis of an apparent exit strategy.
July was the deadliest month for U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan since they arrived there at the end of 2001, with 70 foreign troops including 42 Americans killed. Six more U.S. soldiers were killed on the first two days of August. The casualty toll is expected to remain high in the months ahead as U.S. troops are deployed to reclaim territory from the Taliban and block the insurgent offensive. In fact, the Washington Post reported July 31 that General Stanley McChrystal, the commander appointed by Obama to try to reverse the Taliban's remarkable comeback in Afghanistan, is likely to request further U.S. reinforcements beyond the extra 21,000 troops the President approved in the spring. McChrystal reportedly also hopes to nearly double the size of the Afghan security forces, although the Afghan government is unlikely for the foreseeable future to be in a position to pay an army of the size he envisions.
Despite deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the Administration is well aware of Americans' limited appetite for another long-term counterinsurgency commitment. As Defense Secretary Gates told the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago, "After the Iraq experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway." And headway is proving largely elusive. Even those arguing for the efficacy of the clear-hold-build counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq acknowledge that it will take years to bear fruit in Afghanistan.
Still, Obama is not necessarily stuck in a quagmire. Recognizing the limits of what could be achieved in Afghanistan, the President has scaled back U.S. ambitions from the Bush Administration's lofty objective of turning the country into a modern democracy. "We have a clear and focused goal," he said in a policy speech in March, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." That goal does not necessarily require the defeat of the Taliban per se a goal that many analysts have long deemed unrealistic. Many key Taliban leaders have little truck with bin Laden's global vision, seeing their own jihad as entirely local in its scale and objectives. Even in 2001, many were unconvinced that their own fate should be tied to bin Laden's, often resenting the presence of al-Qaeda's Arabs in their midst. Today's Taliban insurgency is diffuse, united mostly by hostility to foreign troops in their country and the often corrupt government they are there to defend.
Al-Qaeda is no longer even based in Afghanistan, its leaders now thought to be operating underground in Pakistan's tribal areas. Preventing it from reclaiming an Afghan sanctuary may not require keeping 70,000 or more U.S. troops in the country for years to come particularly since that deployment in itself is a key driver of the Taliban's insurgency.
The U.S. and its allies have clearly recognized that those now fighting for the Taliban will be in Afghanistan long after Western armies leave. Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in a speech to NATO July 27, called on the Afghan government "to separate hard-line ideologues, who are essentially irreconcilable and violent and who must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into domestic political processes." He was quickly followed by U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, who told a BBC interviewer that "there is room in Afghan society for all those fighting with the Taliban who renounce al-Qaeda and its extremist allies, who lay down their arms and who participate in the political life of the country".
The most important obstacle to negotiating an acceptable compromise with the Taliban, however, is the fact that the insurgents and a substantial part of the population believe they're winning the war. That gives them no incentive to accept compromises offered by the government and the U.S. The purpose of the current U.S. "mini-surge" in Afghanistan, in fact, is largely to halt the Taliban's momentum, to create conditions, if not for victory, then for a stalemate in which growing numbers of fighters and commanders in the Taliban come to believe that they are unable to win on the battlefield.
The basic assumption of the U.S. political strategy in Afghanistan appears to be that the Taliban cannot be engaged from a position of weakness. Perceptions are exceedingly important in a warlord society with a long-established tradition of local commanders switching sides to back the force deemed most likely to prevail. It was that dynamic that explained the speed of the Taliban's capture of Kabul in a matter of months back in 1996. The same phenomenon saw its regime collapse even more rapidly when the U.S. invaded at the end of 2001. General McChrystal, in a recent interview in New Perspectives Quarterly, explained the offensive in Helmand largely on the basis of the impression it made on the minds of Afghans. "The reason I believe we need to be successful is ... everybody's watching. I don't mean just in the United States or Europe. The Taliban is watching, the people of Afghanistan are watching," said McChrystal. On the basis of the Helmand operation, he added, "the Afghans will judge our resolve to see through the new strategy, our resolve to succeed."
Americans don't want a long war in Afghanistan. But the only way to avoid one may be to convince Afghans that the U.S. isn't going anywhere.