Five Flawed Assumptions of Obama's Afghan Surge

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Carlos Barria / Reuters / Corbis

A U.S. soldier surveys the Pesh Valley during a mission in Kunar province, Afghanistan

President Obama knows that the Afghan war is going badly, but he insists that the specter of an al-Qaeda comeback makes Afghanistan a "war of necessity." So he has ordered some 30,000 new troops to the front, hoping to hold the line enough that Afghan forces can be built up to eventually take over the mission from the U.S. It may sound like a limited goal, after the sweeping visions of democracy promised during the Bush years. But even that relatively modest strategy is based on some very questionable assumptions.

Here are five of them: 

The Al-Qaeda Threat Requires a Ground War

Obama made the threat of al-Qaeda's returning on the back of a Taliban victory the primary rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan. But as many have pointed out, al-Qaeda doesn't need sanctuaries in order to plot terrorist attacks, and its leadership core is based in the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan — which means that 100,000 U.S. troops are now being committed to a mission whose goal is to prevent a few hundred men from re-establishing a base of operations.

And then there's the problem that having masses of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, inevitably creates a nationalist backlash that fuels the insurgency — a problem that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had noted early in the debate. The fact that the Taliban is now effectively in control of as much as half of the country eight years after being routed by the U.S.-led invasion is a sign that the local population is at least more tolerant of an insurgency against foreign forces. Expanding the ground war may not solve this problem. As University of Michigan historian Juan Cole wrote last week, "The U.S. counter-insurgency plan assumes that Pashtun villagers dislike and fear the Taliban, and just need to be protected from them so as to stop the politics of intimidation. But what if the villagers are cousins of the Taliban and would rather support their clansmen than white Christian foreigners?"

Afghan Security Forces Can Be Trained to Take Over the Mission

The centerpiece of Obama's exit strategy is the training of Afghan security forces to take responsibility for fighting the Taliban, just as Iraqi forces have taken charge of security in Iraq. But Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq, and training may not be the decisive issue: although the U.S. has officially trained 94,000 Afghan soldiers, there's no sign of an effective Afghan security force capable of fighting the Taliban. Desertion rates are high — 1 in 4 soldiers trained last year, by some accounts. So are rates of drug addiction. Most important, the most effective elements of the military are dominated by ethnic Tajiks, which does little to help win support of the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group and the one among which the insurgency is based. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan had no powerful army or strong state before the U.S. went in — nor does it have the oil wealth that allows Iraq to pay for its own armed forces. There's also the question of whether they'll be willing to fight the Taliban on behalf of a foreign-backed government.

President Karzai Can Be an Effective Partner

Aside from the serious allegations of ballot fraud in the recent vote, the bigger legitimacy problem in Hamid Karzai's re-election was that only 1 in 4 registered voters actually turned out on election day. In the absence of any credible alternative, Washington will use Karzai's dependence on the West for funding and security to pressure him to deliver the sort of governance that can win popular support. But Karzai's government is widely seen as corrupt, ineffective and a tool in the hands of a foreign invader, and Afghans are mostly gloomy about the prospects for reforming it. While Karzai could be forced to respond to some egregious cases of corruption, his instinct will be to continue to use the power of patronage to broker local support. Corruption and nepotism may be just as much as a symptom of the weakness of the central government as its cause. Even in the times of greatest stability, Afghanistan has been governed from the center via a loose consensus among powerful regional and ethnic leaderships. Karzai might, in fact, have been governing the way a leader without a major national political base of his own deems it necessary to survive in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. And putting his government under stronger Western tutelage risks further undermining his legitimacy in the eyes of many of his own people.

Signaling a U.S. Departure Date Creates Leverage

Some critics suggest that by announcing July 2011 as the target date to begin a troop drawdown, President Obama has encouraged the Taliban to simply wait out the Americans. Supporters counter that by declaring that the U.S. commitment is finite, the President is forcing Karzai and the Pakistanis to take more responsibility for fighting the Taliban. That debate may be missing the point: everyone in the region is already acting on the assumption that the U.S. presence is temporary, knowing that America can't sustain a permanent occupation. One reason Karzai has made common cause with some notorious thugs is that he feels the need to have some muscle behind him when the U.S. goes. The Pakistanis, for their part, want to ensure that the U.S. leaves on the basis of a deal with the Taliban that replaces the present government, which is too close to India for Islamabad's comfort. And the Taliban — like any indigenous insurgency confronting a foreign military — knows that time is on its side.

Pakistan Shares the U.S.'s Goals

The Obama Administration has stressed that its Afghan plan can't work unless Pakistan shuts down Taliban safe havens on its side of the border. But Pakistan has declined to do so, because its key decision makers — the military leadership — don't share the U.S. view of the conflict in Afghanistan. Months of cajoling and exhortation by U.S. officials have failed to shake the Pakistani view that the country's prime security challenge is its lifelong conflict with India rather than the threat of Taliban extremism, and the Pakistani military sees the Karzai government as being under Indian sway. As a result, Pakistan's large-scale military offensives against the Taliban have been confined to those who challenge the authority of the Pakistani state; those who use Pakistan as a base from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan have been largely unmolested.

While U.S. officials decry the distinction between the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, Pakistan's generals believe that their domestic Taliban insurgency will stop only once the Americans have left Afghanistan. But they want the U.S. to leave in an orderly fashion, on the basis of a political settlement: a deal negotiated with the Taliban that sees the Karzai government replaced or remade in a new arrangement that gives Pakistan-aligned Pashtuns far greater power.