Calls for Change of Strategy Grow Louder
September 12, 2010, 1:00am

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Sep 8, 2010 (IPS) – Amid continued high levels of violence and a steady stream of reports of high-level government corruption in Kabul, a growing number of foreign policy specialists are urging President Barack Obama to reconsider his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

In a new report released here Wednesday, a bipartisan group of some three dozen former senior officials, academics, and policy analysts argued that the administration’s ambitious “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan are costing too much in U.S. blood and treasure and that, in any event, “(p)rospects for success are dim.”

Calling for an accelerated timetable for reducing the U.S. military presence there, the “Afghanistan Study Group”, which also urged intensified efforts to reach a negotiated solution with the Pashtun-based Taliban, echoed many of the points made in the latest strategic survey which was released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London Tuesday.

“(A)s the military surge reaches its peak and begins to wind down, it is necessary and advisable for outside powers to move to a containment and deterrence policy to deal with the international terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border regions,” said IISS’s director-general, John Chipman, in introducing this year’s report.

“At present the COIN strategy is too ambitious, too removed from the core security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military energies needed both in the region and elsewhere,” he noted. “(F)or Western states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not be in the service of their wider political and security interests.”

The two reports come amid growing public scepticism both in the United States and its European and NATO partners – two of which, Canada and the Netherlands, have just withdrawn all of their troops – about the course of the war, which will soon mark its ninth anniversary. Currently costing U.S. taxpayers 100 billion dollars a year, the Afghan war became the longest in U.S. history earlier this summer, when it exceeded the Vietnam conflict.

Despite the appointment in June of Gen. David Petraeus, the author of the U.S. COIN strategy in Iraq, to head U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, two out of three respondents in a recent CNN poll said they believed Washington was “not winning” the war. Half said the war could not be won.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken last month said they were “less confident” that the war will be brought to a “successful conclusion” – a striking increase from the 58 percent who took that view last December. Only 23 percent said they were “more confident”.

The increasingly sour mood is no doubt due in part to the preoccupation with the economy and growing political support in both parties for cutting the yawning government deficit, of which the 100 billion dollars spent on Afghanistan is not an insignificant part.

But the persistent high casualty rates – this year’s total U.S. military death toll, 331, already exceeds 2009’s record high of 317 – has also contributed to the growing popular conviction that the war is simply not worth the cost.

Meanwhile, the virtually daily reports of high-level corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai – this past week, major stories have featured the run on the politically well-connected Bank of Kabul – have persuaded a growing number of people, including members of the foreign policy elite and even a number of normally hawkish Republicans, that Washington simply lacks the kind of local partner that any true COIN campaign requires in order to prevail.

Released as Congress returns to Washington after the long August recess, the Afghanistan Study Group’s report, entitled “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan”, appears designed to provoke debate about U.S. policy during the mid-term election campaign and in the run- up to a formal review in December by the Obama administration itself of how its COIN strategy is faring.

On the advice of Petraeus and the Pentagon, Obama has increased the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan from some 35,000 when he took office to around 100,000 today. He has vowed to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, although the pace at which they will be withdrawn has not yet been determined and remains a source of considerable contention within the administration.

The administration has indeed been split for some time. The so-called COINistas have argued for a major “nation- building” effort combined with a military campaign directed against the Taliban which they depict as inseparable from al Qaeda. Others within the administration, reportedly led by Vice President Joseph Biden, have argued for a less ambitious counterterrorism campaign (CT) aimed more narrowly against al Qaeda on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

In that respect, the Study Group, whose membership spanned the political spectrum from the Democratic left to the libertarian right but was weighted most heavily towards “realists” who, until George W. Bush generally dominated the post-World War II foreign policy elite, is aligned more closely with the CT advocates.

Quoting arch-realist Henry Kissinger, the report noted that “Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces,” and that “(w)aging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarrelling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems.”

“We’ve been creating enemies faster than friends,” noted Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, at the report’s release at the New America Foundation (NAF). Complaining of a “disconnect” between the conduct of the war and U.S. aim of destroying and disabling al Qaeda, he described the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan as “a nine-year-long mission creep”.

The report called instead for a five-pronged strategy that would “fast-track a peace process designed to decentralise power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties”; intensify diplomatic efforts with Afghanistan’s neighbours and others “to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability”; and lead an international effort to develop the country’s economy.

Obama, it said, should “firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of 2011 – and earlier if possible. U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed.”

In particular, U.S. forces should maintain their capabilities “to seek out known Al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities,” the report said. “Al Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are only some 400 hard-core Al Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theatre, most of them hiding in Pakistan’s northwest provinces.”

Besides Pillar, other signers of the report included Gordon Adams, a top White House budget official for national security under the Clinton administration who is currently with the Stimson Center; Steve Clemons, the head of NAF’s American Security programme; Patrick Cronin, a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security; W. Patrick Lang, who served as the top Middle East/South Asia officer in the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency during the 1990s; Selig Harrison, an Afghan specialist at the Center for International Policy; and Stephen Walt, a Harvard University scholar considered a leader of the “realist” school of international relations.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at