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Obama's Choice: The Afghan-Pakistan Dilemma

On December 1, President Obama unveiled the administration's new approach towards the wars raging in the Afghan-Pakistan (AfPak) arenas. Entering into office with a message of peace and detente toward the Muslim world, Obama did not make his decision lightly. Yet in light of the alternative strategies proposed by his inner circle, it appears that the president has chosen a solid course regarding the AfPak campaigns.

By late 2008, top US commanders were openly admitting that the US and its allies were losing significant ground to their adversaries. The Afghan branch of the Taliban had already regained effective control of over 80 percent of Afghanistan and was moving aggressively upon the remaining areas.

Their Pakistani counterparts (Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP) were also enjoying considerable success against government forces. Further, in complete abrogation of the region's traditional ethnic hostilities, the brother Pashto organizations had begun working closely with militant Islamist organizations in neighboring countries. Al-Qaeda (AQ), positioned in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), had completely recovered from the blows dealt it by the US and its allies during Operation Enduring Freedom, with its replenished cadres augmenting the capabilities of both Taliban branches.

Upon assuming office, President Obama immediately deployed 17,000 troops to the arena as a stopgap measure. Subsequently the president appointed General Stan McChrystal as the new head of allied forces in Afghanistan and commissioned a thorough review of the war effort from him and other senior advisers.

Three schools of thought emerged in Obama's inner circle led, respectively, by General McChrystal and his sponsor General Petraeus; Vice President Joe Biden; and Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates. All concurred that it was only through a strong counterinsurgency (COIN), or "hearts and minds" campaign, that the Afghan quandary could ultimately be solved; that the US had to spur Pakistan with much stronger carrot and stick incentives than before to excise the extremists nesting in its borders and destabilizing the region; and that stepped up air and sea based attacks, joined with frequent raids, offered the surest rout to eliminating AQ.

The three approaches parted ways, however, over the particulars of the campaign and, correspondingly, the optimal withdrawal date for US and allied troops. McChrystal's approach, contending that after eight years of neglect Afghan forces were in no way equal to the task, argued that allied forces should bear the brunt of the mission, even as they prepared Afghan forces to shoulder the burden. Accordingly, the US and its allies would need to significantly bolster their forces in the region with between 40,000-80,000 troops. As there was no way to estimate when Afghan forces would be ready to assume responsibility for the situation, America's withdrawal date would be not be predetermined, rather linked to a series of readiness benchmarks for Afghani forces.

The Biden approach, while recognizing the weakness of the Afghan forces, argued that a continued let alone heavily reinforced US presence would simultaneously fuel the insurgency and undermine the Afghan government's ability to contain it. With Pathans innately hostile to any foreigners on their soil and the Afghan government likely to become dependent on foreign support, the government would not cultivate the ability to stand on its own two feet. As such, the US would be best served by reducing its forces quickly and reinvesting resources to hasten the Afghan forces' deployment. In 12-18 months, the combination of resources and increased pressure on the Afghani government to master the challenge would enable the US and NATO to remove all soldiers from Afghan soil.

Urging a middle ground, the Clinton-Gates approach apparently agreed that only the US and NATO could shoulder the burden of a COIN operation. Yet to allay concerns over a foreign presence and to prompt the government to muster its power swiftly, it urged a smaller deployment of Western troops and a fixed withdrawal date. These would presumably forestall the developments that were of particular concern to the Biden group.

Obama's recently unveiled strategy appears to draw most heavily from the third approach: American troops, bolstered by roughly 40,000 US and allied reinforcements, will "clear" Afghan troublespots, "hold" them against Taliban and warlord resurgence, and "build" infrastructure sufficient to provide Afghans with security and sustenance. This, while aggressively wooing the Afghan population and finessing moderate warlord and Taliban factions away from the militant cause. Correspondingly, the US will invest heavily in Afghanistan's ability to shoulder the burden and in Pakistan's ability and willingness to deny militants sanctuary on their side of the border.

Has Obama made the right choice?

All available reports indicate that with very few exceptions, Afghan forces are indeed incompetent. Thus at least in the near future, relegating the COIN campaign solely to Afghan forces would be tantamount to surrendering the country to the Taliban. A smaller force combined with a clearly stated date for the allied withdrawal should indeed forestall the scenarios raised by the Biden camp, provided the Afghan people are made aware of these two points.

It seems, then, that Obama has selected the only viable route that fends off serious consequences. This is no doubt a gamble that could end badly, yet Obama could not afford otherwise. It is more than likely that upon the allies' withdrawal, the Afghan Taliban would move aggressively to reassert control over all Afghanistan. The TTP too would probably move more aggressively against Pakistan. In such a scenario they would likely be supported by their Afghan cousins and AQ accomplices, and would thus at best severely destabilize the already fragile state. At worst, they or an Islamist movement sympathetic to them would gain control of Pakistan, thus placing nuclear weapons within grasp of radical hands - a remote but real possibility. It seems equally likely that the Taliban's terrorist counterparts in neighboring countries, emboldened by their partners' successes, would flower in their respective areas, destabilizing, or with the active support of the two Talibans and AQ, even taking control of large areas.

More disturbingly, though, the Afghan Taliban might once more grant AQ free reign in Afghanistan, allowing the organization to add fresh recruits, including experienced combatants from jihad hotspots such as Iraq or Algeria, to its already battle hardened ranks. While it is far from certain that the Afghan or for that matter Pakistani Taliban would allow AQ to operate freely from its territory, the possibility cannot be discounted. On the run from the US over the last eight years and operating with severely curtailed resources, AQ has nevertheless managed to execute some serious attacks against the West, and has come close to carrying out several others. Thus were the Taliban to allow them to recruit and train operatives and operate from its territory, AQ would presumably intensify its efforts to execute attacks and become more likely to succeed.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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