The decision by US President Barak Obama to send a further 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, to be backed by around 10,000 extra personnel from allied countries, is his attempt to deliver a knock-out blow to the Taliban and the establish order and stability in that historically fractious state. But will this strategy work?
The US invaded Afghanistan after compiling evidence that the Taliban, then ruling most of the country, was hosting the terrorist organisation Al Qaeda, which had masterminded the 2001 attacks in the US that left almost 3,000 people dead. There is now doubt that this was a massive provocation, requiring a substantial response. The Taliban was asked to surrender Al Qaeda’s leaders, which it refused, and the subsequent invasion aimed at ending that regime was launched.
Despite initial successes, the war quickly descended into being a guerrilla campaign against outsiders, and an internal civil war approximately pitting the Pashtuns of the south-east against the Tajiks and other tribes of the north-west. Over the past two years, the Taliban, largely associated with the Pashtuns, have reorganised and stepped up the fight.
In conventional military strategy, victory can be achieved by a combination of superior firepower and superior tactics. It was this approach that has led to the relative quelling of the war in Iraq. The problem with this approach is that it is, at best, temporary.
The war in Iraq is now at a lower ebb than it has been. However, the state is fundamentally and perhaps permanently fractured, is ruled by warlords different more in capacity than style to its executed former leader Saddam Hussein, and it continues to show all of the signs of returning to serious internal conflict when foreign troops withdraw. A similar strategy in Vietnam shored up a corrupt and violent government against a popular nationalist force only in so long as it was sustained. The moment it left the proxy government crumbled.
The difference, too, between Iraq and Afganistan is that the ‘surge’ there was largely aimed at urban areas, which were able to be ‘cleansed’ of insurgents and then held. In Afghanistan, the war is overwhelmingly rural, with allied forces located in bases from which they make patrols. They have not, however, secured, much less pacified, the countryside.
If it can be assumed that the ‘surge’ strategy will be successful, the question is then on what terms? A victory over the Taliban, and in effect around that 40 per cent of the Afghani population that is Pashtun, will deliver unchallenged rule to the current president, Hamid Karzai. Karzai, though a Pashtun himself, is known for being the candidate that the US initially wanted to have elected as president, for heading a profoundly corrupt and increasingly brutal government, and for rigging the recent elections which were in any case not recognised by the Taliban.
As with the humiliating 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, as soon as they left, the country descended into civil war. Whoever held the capital, Kabul, was besieged by shifting alliances of convenience of those who did not. That is to say, the surge may or may not achieve its initial objective, but it is most unlikely to leave a legacy of stability, much less peace.
The strategy of a quick troop build-up in Afghanistan, then, is primarily intended to give the Karzai government the best possible chance of getting its house in order before the withdrawal of allied forces. Within a couple of years, the US and its allies will leave, and the Karzai government will be left to fend for itself.
If it is successful, we will see continued fighting, corruption, brutality and regional instability. If it fails, there will probably be the same, with perhaps less fighting within Afghanistan but greater instability in the wider region.
Having misunderstood the history and ethnicity of the region, the war in Afghanistan has simply pushed the conflict over the border into the arbitrarily divided Pashtun areas of Pakistan. Pakistan’s various governments, themselves often less than benign, are now engaged in their own struggle for state unity.
So, if President Obama’s surge is intended to bring resolution to the war in Afghanistan then it will probably fail. Let us not even begin to think it might end with democracy. If this strategy is, however, intended to allow the US and its allies a more or less dignified exit, then it will be a little more successful.
The Taliban will assume at least partial, and perhaps again near complete, power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, for its own part, will again find a safe ideological home.
The real question is, then, not whether President Obama’s surge will succeed or fail, or whether the US will ultimately leave the somewhat artificial Karzai government to fend, probably unsuccessfully, for itself. The question is, should the Taliban again assume power, and Al Qaeda find a home again with it, will the response again be military and, if it is, will next time it be more specifically targeted.