Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Steve Coll notes three conundra for the U.S. in AfPak

There have been few more eloquent advocates of McChrystal's proposed surge in Afghanistan than Steve Coll. Coll has hardly been gung-ho; he has authority because he has considered in depth the experience of the Soviets, the Vietnam analogy, the weaknesses of the Afghan government, the likely  impact of various courses of action on Pakistan -- and because he has recognized (and evinced) the need for humility from advocates of all positions.

So it's all the more sobering that immediately before and after Obama's unveiling of his strategy, Coll has acknowledged or highlighted several keys ways in which U.S. policy is walking a tightrope at best, undercutting itself at worst.   Coll's thinking on three conundra is below. The first two are published in an online chat at Foreign Policy (12/1); the last is from Coll's blog today (12/2).

1)  Combat vs. protection 
Tired Soldier: Won't increasing numbers of U.S. troops lead to more contact (combat) and further alienate the civilian population? In my experience in Afghanistan, more contact has always meant more fire support gets used, which means more civilians get killed, which turns the local tribal elders against us and multiplies our enemies. General McChrystal hasn't been able to break that cycle yet. Any sense that the new strategy avoids this trap?
Steve Coll: It's a good question. The McChrystal report suggests that he expects more contact and more violence initially, but then hopes to "hold" and "build" in a more passive manner in the major population centers, once they are cleared of Taliban cells and networks. The level of violence in the big cities even now is not very intense, but that may change as international forces try to make themselves more felt in places like Kandahar. Apparently the new strategy will also recommit to rural Helmand province, a poppy-growing region. I'm not sure whether the Taliban will see it as in their interest to go all out there, given that they have other targets that will be less heavily defended, but in the short run, I would expect violence in Helmand to rise for the reasons you suggest. Already, however, the international community has some tribal and other allies in Helmand to work with on their side of the conflict.

 2) CIA 'assets' are Afghan government liabilities
Colin Cookman, CAP: I was struck by a line in a recent Washington Post article on relations with the Karzai government that seems to almost perfectly encapsulate the basic incoherence in our Afghan strategy to date: "While Biden and others pressed Karzai to remove his brother [Ahmed Wali Karzai] as the chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar because of allegations that he is connected to drug trafficking, the CIA continued to pay him for sharing intelligence and assisting with counterterrorism operations." The same I imagine can be said for a number of other less high-profile figures in Afghanistan throughout the country. Do you see any indications that Pres. Obama, in his speech tonight or in policy going forward, intends to seriously resolve the countervailing tensions in our policies between our own short-term security concerns and the longer-term project of state-building and decisively move towards one approach or the other? If not, where do you think the balance of the approach will fall, and what will be the effects?
Steve Coll: A critical question and a big vulnerability for the U.S., I'm afraid. There does not seem to be a unity of view in the U.S. government about how to balance the expediency of warlords and "security" verses the imperative of a sustainable Afghan politics. I think on balance the election and the appalling corruption in Karzai's government has shaken assumptions in Washington on this score, but at the same time, nobody is going to punish Gul Agha Sherzai, for example, the lord of all he surveys in Jalalabad, because his methods fail to conform to political science textbooks. So the contradictions you describe are likely to persist, and they may undermine U.S. strategy.
3. Mollifying Democrats, alienating supporters in Pakistan with a 'calendar'

The problem lies in how the Taliban and the Pakistan Army will read the explicit use of a calendar. Ahmed Rashid, on NPR’s Morning Edition, speaking from Lahore, voiced the same fear that seized me when I heard the President be so explicit about 2011: No matter how nuanced the invocation, Pakistani liberals fighting against the Army’s hedging strategy of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be demoralized by the use of a specific date. They will interpret it as evidence that the United States has already made a decision to leave the Afghan battlefield and that it will ultimately repeat its past pattern of abandoning Pakistan periodically. This may be unfair, but the perception is inevitable...

In any event, even if we accept Gates’s arguments about the Taliban’s attitudes, an honest accounting of the decision to name the 2011 date should acknowledge that the specific date will certainly encourage some in the Pakistan Army to persist in their belief that the U.S. is headed to the exits in Afghanistan and that they, therefore, should persist in their hedging strategies toward the Taliban, to protect their interests in the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal. Clarity about this problem is important because if it is not recognized, it can’t be solved. I am willing to accept the possibility that the overall benefits of announcing a specific and provisional transition date outweigh the costs in this case—but there are costs, and these must now be managed. If Pakistani generals do not ultimately conclude that it is in their interest to abandon the Taliban and like groups as instruments of statecraft and national defense, then the risk-taking and fortitude on display in Obama’s decision this week may be defeated.

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