Can Obama's Afghan Surge Succeed?

President Barack Obama has announced plans to send another thirty thousand American soldiers to Afghanistan, bringing the total US troops strength to 100,000 there in the ninth year of the Afghan war, already the longest in US history. This troops surge is part of the latest U.S. attempt to improve the security situation in Afghanistan, defeat the Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants, and to transfer security responsibilities to an Afghan national force to be trained by the Americans by mid-2011. Are these goals achievable? To answer these questions, it is important to understand a few facts and myths about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Afghanistan Facts:

1. Afghans are fiercely independent. They have rarely been colonized in their entire history. The British occupied the country for brief periods of time but they could never maintain their rule. Unlike the neighboring states of India and Pakistan which became their colonies, the British did not build any western-style state institutions, or railroad systems, or road network, or electricity grid or telecommunications network or other similar systems in Afghanistan.

2. Although no foreign power has been able to gain and keep control of Afghanistan for any significant length of time, it has not stopped them from trying to increase their influence via proxies. During the British Raj in India, for example, both Britain and Russia fiercely competed for influence in the country. The last several decades have seen the India-Pakistan rivalries played out in the resource-rich landlocked nation. Others, including China, have an interest in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the Chinese contract for a multi-billion dollar Aynak copper mining project.

3. Contrary to the impressions of many Americans or Europeans, Afghanistan is not comparable to either Iraq or Pakistan or any other nation in the region. The country is not a modern nation-state by any stretch of the imagination. It has almost no history of strong central government and working institutions such as functional bureaucracy, central government tax collection and revenue service, effective police or strong national army, capable of asserting national authority over the entire population. It has been ruled by a weak central authority dependent on the goodwill of the various local tribal chiefs, and warlords with their private militias.

4. During the Communist era starting in the 1970s, the army split into government-backed soldiers and Mujaheddin rebels. By 1991, the military of Afghanistan became dysfunctional, dissolving into portions controlled by different warlord factions when President Mohammad Najibullah was forced out of power and the mujaheddin rebel groups took control of the country. This was later followed by the Taliban take over, who established a military force on the basis of Islamic sharia law.

5. It is among the poorest, minimally urbanized, and least developed countries in the world with very low levels of human development. There is an extremely small middle class in the country.

6. It is a tribal society with its mostly rural population widely dispersed over a large area and extremely difficult terrain.

7. The last several decades have been devastating for Afghanistan because of constant warfare, first against the Russians in the 1980s, then amongst the multiple ethnic/tribal factions led by various warlords in the 1990s, then the Taliban rule characterized by relative peace through ruthless central control imposed by the Mullahs, and finally the American invasion and occupation since 2001.

8. Afghan public spending has historically relied on foreign assistance because of the consistently low level of domestic revenue collected by the central government. Revenue generation had always been a problem for the government. Between 1939 and 1972 revenue grew by only 26 percent after discounting for inflation. Although revenue grew much more quickly between 1978 and 1982, the 170-percent increase in revenue could not keep pace with the hike in spending. Afghanistan's ratio of total domestic revenues-both tax and nontax-to GDP (only $400 per capita--one of the lowest the world) was about 19 percent, considered by observers to be relatively low. Government revenues remained comparatively small because of the low level of taxation. The country's tax administration depended, as did that of all central governments, on a monetized tax base. In Afghanistan, however, much of national production was subsistence agriculture production largely beyond the reach of tax collectors.

Al Qaeda Facts:

1. Al Qaeda was an organization with central leadership, command and control located in Afghanistan prior to 911. But that is no longer true. According to former State Department official Mathew Hoh who served in Afghanistan, al Qaeda is an elastic, amorphous entity, one based not on geography but ideology. “Al Qaeda is a collection of ideas, of independent, autonomous cells,” Hoh says. “They don’t need a lot of funding. They need an apartment with an Internet connection.”

2. Even the 911 hijackers were not all recruited and trained in any one country. They came from different nations and were educated and trained mostly in the United States and Western Europe. What they shared in common was an ideology rather than a geography.

3. Hundreds of al Qaeda members, including many top leaders, have been captured or killed by Pakistani and US military in the region since 911.

4. There have been multiple reports of al Qaeda popping up in several countries around the world, confirming Mathew Hoh's arguments that al Qaeda is not confined to a particular geography in central or south Asia.

Pakistan Facts:

1. In spite of some regional radicalization promoted to fight the Soviet menace in the 1980s, Pakistan is a moderate Islamic state where the religious parties have had little public support in multiple elections organized since the nation's independence from Britain in 1947.

2. Although democracy has not thrived in Pakistan, the country does have a significant and growing middle class, an active civil society, vibrant mass media, an array of political parties, elected government and parliament, functioning bureaucracy, judiciary and police, and a powerful national military armed with nuclear weapons.

3. There were no religious militants or incidents of suicide bombings in Pakistan before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

4. There was practically no presence of the Taliban or al Qaeda in Pakistan prior to 911. But in recent years, thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died fighting, killing or capturing the militants who fled into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

5. There have been thousands of casualties from high-profile terrorist incidents in Pakistan. Both the government and people of Pakistan have greatly suffered as a major terrorist target in recent years after joining the US war on terror.

6. India-Pakistan rivalry continues to play itself out in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, with each nation building alliances there to serve their interests. Since returning to Afghan after US invasion in 2001, India has done its own surge with thousands of diplomats, intelligence agents and workers into Afghanistan and pumped hundreds of millions of dollars to build its presence along the Pakistan border in Afghanistan. All of these Indian activities make Pakistanis justifiably suspicious, creating a sense of siege in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis see the rural-tribal Pashtun supporters of the Afghan Taliban as counterweight to India's growing influence threatening Pakistan's western borders.

Afghan Taliban Facts:

1. According to Maximilian Forte, the Taliban expert Ahmad Rashid points out that the core and founding leadership of the current Taliban movement did indeed form part of the anti-Soviet mujahidin struggle.

2. The Taliban are all local Pashtuns with deep roots in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan invited some of those who later became founders of the Taliban movement to the White House and hailed them as "moral equivalents of America's founding fathers".

3. None of the 911 hijackers were Afghans, or Pakistani, or the Taliban. They were all Arabs, who were educated in the West and trained to fly planes in the United States in preparation for their terror attacks.

4. The Taliban now control most of the territory in Afghanistan with the acquiescence of the Afghan population, afraid of the Taliban or disenchanted with the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government, which is seen to be supported by the United States.


Given the above facts, the chances of success of the Obama strategy of immediate surge with 30,000 troops followed by exit from Afghanistan beginning in 18 months appear to be remote. The best that US and NATO can hope for is to fight to a stalemate in Afghanistan. The goal of training a national Afghan army and transfer of security is almost impossible to achieve, as the Soviets learned more than twenty years ago, when they were defeated. The US surge in Afghanistan and expansion of drone attacks in Pakistan will simply increase fighting, causing more US and Afghan casualties and it will push more fighters into Pakistan. This strategy will result in higher death toll in Pakistan and further destabilization of the entire neighborhood, a far more dangerous prospect for the whole world that the current situation in Afghanistan.

The biggest obstacles in the efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan and security for the United States are the corrupt and incompetent Karzai government, the brutal and unscrupulous Afghan warlords, and the continuing India-Pakistan rivalry playing itself out in the region, and destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan.


The best course of action now open for the US is to use the 18 month transition period to reach a direct accommodation with the Afghan Taliban that guarantees that they will not permit any one to launch terrorist attacks against any nation from the Afghan soil. The US military withdrawal from the region should begin immediately after such a peace deal with the Taliban backed by regional guarantors, including Pakistan and China. Beyond Afghanistan, the global terrorist threat from al Qaeda needs to be met with a coordinated international effort that relies on carrots and sticks to give the insurgents a stake in maintaining world peace.

Related Links:

FATA Faceoff Fears

US, NATO Fighting to Stalemate in Afghanistan

Interview with Mathew Hoh

Why is US Losing in Afghanistan?

Why We Should Leave Afghanistan

Is Pakistan Too Big to Fail?

China's Growing Role in Afghanistan

Taliban or RAW-liban?

Twentieth Anniversary of Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan

Feudal Slavery in South Asia

The State, Religion, Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan


Riaz Haq said…
Here's Asia Times Op Ed by Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar on Chinese & Russian envoys' visits to Pakistan:

The back-to-back visits to Pakistan this week by China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the Russian president's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, are rich in political symbolism and strategic content.

The consultations came at a time when Pakistan is reeling under pressure from the United States, the future of Afghanistan remains complicated and regional security is in flux.

The timing of the consultations will draw attention - since they were sandwiched between the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Chicago on May 20-21 and the forthcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Beijing on June 6-7. Afghanistan is a burning issue for both international groupings.
Yang underscored that China will unwaveringly pursue the policy of further strengthening its friendship with Pakistan and is willing to work together to deepen practical cooperation and strengthen the strategic coordination and elevate the partnership to new heights.

Xinhua news agency reported that China and Pakistan have agreed to "strengthen multilateral coordination and to safeguard the common interests of both sides." The reference seems to be to Pakistan's role in the SCO, whose forthcoming summit in Beijing will be attended by Zardari.

While Yang's official visit had a broad-ranging agenda, Kabulov's consultations were focused and purposive. He came to Islamabad primarily to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the forthcoming visit to Pakistan by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kabulov is Moscow's ace diplomatic troubleshooter on Afghanistan. The Pakistani accounts quoted him as saying to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani that "enormous commonalities" existed between Russia and Pakistan on regional issues and bilateral cooperation. Clearly, the reference is to the situation surrounding the Afghan problem, where both Russia and Pakistan have been seeking a bigger role while the US selectively engages them for specific roles.

Putin's visit to Pakistan, which is expected "soon", will be the first by a Russian head of state in the six-decade long history of relations between the two countries. It will consolidate the remarkable makeover in the two countries' relations in the past two to three years.

The fact that Putin picked Pakistan to be one of his first visits abroad after taking over as president in the Kremlin itself testifies to the "mood swing" in the geopolitics of the region. Many trends need to be factored in here.

Russia is gearing up to play an effective role in world affairs. Its assertive stance on Syria and Iran can be expected to extend to Pakistan and Central Asia. Russia kept its participation over the NATO summit on a low-key and saw to it that none of the Central Asian leaders who were invited - from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - attended either. Meanwhile, Moscow also hosted a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Putin is undertaking visits to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during the week ahead and is virtually launching his Eurasian project.
The utter failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan stands exposed in terms of its exceptionalism and the stark absence of a regional consensus. Yang and Kabulov could and should have been the US's best allies in urging Pakistan to work with the international community for an enduring peace in Afghanistan. The paradox is that even in the prevailing situation of high volatility in the US's relations with Russia and China they might well have done that, but without Washington's bidding.
Riaz Haq said…
Here's a Indian Business Standard's report on US leaving some hardware for Pakistan after withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Along with the Taliban, Pakistan will be a massive gainer from America's troop drawdown from Afghanistan by end-2014. A top-level US official, speaking off-the-record, has told Business Standard that Pakistan will get first call on all the American military equipment that costs too much to be transported back to the US.

Washington believes it is obligated to Islamabad for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table at Qatar, for discussions aimed at reducing violence in Afghanistan, which would smoothen the American troop drawdown this year and the next. Furthermore, Washington relies on Pakistan for overland transit from Afghanistan to Karachi, where heavy equipment is loaded onto cargo vessels bound for the US.

Uzbekistan, which also provides transit routes to the US, had earlier sought to buy the surplus US equipment in Afghanistan. But routing through Uzbekistan, and then over a road and rail network in Central Asia and Russia called the Northern Distribution Network, is four to five times more expensive and time consuming than transiting through Pakistan. Washington has now decided conclusively in favour of Pakistan.

An earlier report in The Washington Post had estimated that the US military would leave behind some $7 billion worth of defence equipment, one-fifth of what is deployed in Afghanistan. US military officials tell Business Standard that aircraft, heavy weapons, vehicles and equipment are likely to be repatriated to the US. Much of what Pakistan will benefit from will be ammunition, vehicles, construction material, air-conditioners, etc.

Much more could be left behind if the situation deteriorates; Taliban resistance would determine what could feasibly be transported. Sceptics in New Delhi point out that Pakistan controls the spigot of violence.

It has not been revealed how much Pakistan would pay for the equipment left behind, but US officials say it would be a fraction of the real value. Given that the US is paying billions of dollars each year to build up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), it remains unclear why Washington has not given Kabul the first call on the surplus equipment being left behind.

The cost of repatriation, says Bloomberg News, could be about $7 billion. Danish container giant, Moeller-Maersk A/S, Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines, and German company, Hapag-Lloyd AG will ship out some 22,000 container-loads of equipment, says US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Logistics, Alan Estevez.
Riaz Haq said…
No evidence of #Pakistan's role in fomenting trouble in #Afghanistan, says Gen Petraeus. #Taliban #terrorism …

Former US military commander Gen (R) David Petraeus has said that during his long association with his Pakistani counterparts and interaction with ISI as head of CIA, he could never find a convincing piece of evidence which supported the alleged double game by ISI or its explicit support to elements associated with terrorism.

This statement was given by the general while answering a question during an interactive discussion session that was held at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in the last month during which the commander talked about wide range of issues and challenges likely to be faced by the next US administration.

During the discussion, an Afghan female student from Buckingham University asked the general about the alleged complicity of Pakistan in fomenting trouble in Afghanistan, double role played by ISI and why US was not using its influence to reign in Pakistan. The general gave an elaborate reply and talked for about 7-8 minutes. He said that during his long association with his Pakistani counterparts and interaction with ISI as head of CIA, he could never find a convincing piece of evidence which supported the allegation of double game by ISI or its explicit support to elements associated with terrorism. He said like any other intelligence agency, ISI might have had some sort of communication channels to engage with them and there may have been some degree of accommodation but the talk about explicit support or double game is more of a journalistic conclusion with no concrete evidence. He said that Pakistan Army’s campaign against the Taliban in Swat in 2009 and its subsequent progress in most of the Tribal belt under General Kayani and his successor, General Raheel Sharif, was impressive.

“Pakistan Army suffered casualties and had limited Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities though the US did try to help and there existed enormous amount of cooperation between the two militaries. However, the unfortunate episodes of Raymond Davis and publications of book by Bob Woodward and WikiLeaks did impact negatively on this cooperation”. Petraeus added that he looked hard to establish any linkage between Pakistan Army, FC and ISI with any of the terrorist elements and did not find any supporting evidence. What Pakistani military has not been able to achieve has more to do with its capacity rather than it being complicit. He again said that the popular narrative about ISI double game etc was a journalistic thing. He said that some people refer to Pakistan as FRENEMY but again exact pinning down the blame on Pakistan for attacks on US soldiers in Afghanistan remains ‘very very difficult’.

As regards the leverage, there is a limit to what US can achieve. US did cut of all aid, stopped F-16s but it did not help and the two countries only came together after 9/11. He said that managing its relationship with Pakistan would be among the top two or three challenges for the next administration”. Considering his background as one of the top US military leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq and former head of CIA, comments of General Petraeus against the popular Afghani, Indian and Western propaganda maligning Pakistan Army/ISI is considered very helpful in setting the record straight especially considering the significant attendance of the event by people from various backgrounds. The session was moderated by Sir Peter Ricketts, Senior Association fellow of RUSI.

Riaz Haq said…
How #India secretly armed #Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. #Indian Ambassador to #Tajikistan Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar coordinated it through NA chief spy Amrullah Saleh who later headed #Afghan intelligence NDS and has good relations with #RAW.

India must not commit the error of placing Indian troops on Afghan soil, says the diplomat who coordinated New Delhi’s secret military assistance to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of the Northern Alliance, who fought the Taliban and U.S. forces till his assassination in 2001.

For four years, between 1996 and 2000, till he left the Tajik capital Dushanbe to take up his new posting, Ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces.

It all began, says Mr. Muthu Kumar, exactly a week after September 26, 1996, when the Taliban, backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), took over Kabul, shot former President Najibullah dead, castrated him, and hung his body from a lamp post. Just hours before, Indian Embassy staff had scrambled into the last plane out of a country that had begun its descent into hell.

Amrullah Saleh, who looked after Kabul’s interests in the Tajik capital, called Mr. Muthu Kumar to inform him that the “Commander” would like to meet him.

“Commander” was a reference to Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, who made his name guerrilla-fighting the Soviets when they occupied Afghanistan for 10 years. The Indian ambassador sought instructions from New Delhi on what was to be done. The response: “Listen carefully, report back faithfully, and play it by ear.”

Over chai and dry fruits
Massoud maintained a house on Karamova Ulitse in Dushanbe. He had his own staff and Mohammed Saleh Registani looked after the affairs of his house. It was here that the Indian ambassador regularly began meeting Ahmed Shah Massoud, discussing, over endless chai and dry fruits, the bewilderingly shifting fortunes of the battles in Afghanistan where money was enough to swing fighters. The Commander did not speak English and Amrullah, who would later go on to become Intelligence Chief, interpreted for him. The Indian ambassador subsequently had his number two in the mission, Dr S.A. Qureshi on hand for interpretation.

At the first meeting, the Commander had dramatically thrown his trademark cap down on the table, and declared, that was all the space he required — the circumference of his headgear — to stand and fight for his country. He put it simply: “I need India’s support.” He then set out a list of items he needed.

What is in it for us? Delhi queried. Mr. Muthu Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”

Expanding list
The Commander’s wish list kept growing, and when once, New Delhi agreed to send only a fraction of the requirement, Mr. Muthu Kumar sent a message explaining Massoud’s predicament with an Ajit joke: “We have thrown him in liquid oxygen: the liquid won’t let him live and the oxygen won’t allow him to die.”

Jaswant Singh, a former soldier, and then BJP leader, who had become External Affairs Minister, read the cables the first thing. He directly called Mr. Muthu Kumar and gave him a message to deliver to the Commander: “Please assure him that he will have his requirements.”

Short of sending heavy equipment, India provided extensive assistance to the Northern Alliance — uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud. Assistance would be delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach.

Riaz Haq said…
Exclusive: #US #SpecialOps aviator reveals #BinLaden mission details for the first time: #American Chinook helicopter on its way back from Abbottabad was engaged 3 times by a #Pakistani F-16. #Pakistan felt like “metropolis United States". #Afghanistan

Crossing into Pakistan was emotional for everyone.

“You know, it’s almost like there’s a road sign, ‘Stop, take a picture of Welcome to Pakistan.’ Even the crew members in the back, were like, ‘We’re in, right? Pakistan?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep’,” Englen said.

The deeper they flew into Pakistan, the more it felt like “metropolis United States,” with power lines, towers, cultural lighting. The contrast was stark: they were in a completely different country, much more prosperous than Afghanistan.

"You could see lights coming off and on,” said Englen. “You could tell that we are waking up Pakistan, because this is not normal. An aircraft flying at roughly 11:30 to midnight is not normal, because they (Pakistan military aircraft) don’t play at night as much as we do. In fact, at all, sometimes.”

While the local populace was aware something was up (and began tweeting and calling 911), the special operations aviators weren’t getting indications that the Pakistani military or the Air Force was keen on what they were doing.

“But, it’s paramilitary, so we just knew that eventually they would. We made it to the objective without really causing too much of a ruckus over the 911 calls. (But,) once we crashed the aircraft, within the first 30 seconds of the mission, then that’s when we really woke up that entire valley,” Englen said.

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