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US Counter Insurgency Approach in Afghanistan Under Obama Administration: Does It Portend 'Change'?

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  • March 06, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: G. Balachandran
    Discussants: Shakti Sinha, K. C. Singh and Rahul Bhonsle

    Afghanistan today appears to be teetering on the brink of failure and unending chaos. Despite the military endeavour by the United States (US) and its allies, under Operation Enduring Freedom for the last eight years, violence in 2008 increased by 40 per cent over 2007 and almost 543 percent over 2005. The Taliban-led insurgency has spread and according to an estimate almost 70 per cent of the country have become “no-go areas for security forces, government officials and aid workers” depicting a rapidly shrinking political and humanitarian space. In this context, the paper reviewed the past US counter-insurgency approaches in Afghanistan and analysed the possible impact of a new Afghan strategy. Given India’s interest in long-term stabilization of Afghanistan, this policy analysis is relevant in terms of preparing responses to the evolving scenario in that country. The central thesis of the paper was that the present initiatives in designing a new COIN (Counter Insurgency) approach for Afghanistan to usher in ‘change’ are inadequate to turn the tide.

    US COIN Approach under Bush administration

    The inability of the international community to stabilise Afghanistan is clearly an outcome of the inadequate and short sighted policies of George W. Bush, who embarked on the military campaign in Afghanistan with the objective of dislodging the Taliban and winning the war. The resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan depicts that the US policy under President Bush of establishing security with a ‘light footprint’ and lack of focus on ‘nation-building’ has proved to be counter productive. Moreover, at a critical juncture of Afghan stabilization efforts, the already limited resources and manpower devoted to Afghanistan were shifted to Iraq. Despite the successful completion of the Bonn process and conducting successful presidential and parliamentary elections, the political structures and the Parliament in Afghanistan are wracked by disruptive forces.

    Initiatives of the Obama administration: Break from the past
    Will they work?

    Obama’s promise of ‘change’ from the previous administration’s unilateral policies, his preference to replace blunt force with ‘diplomacy’ and ‘smart power’ is projected to have ramifications not only on Afghanistan but also for the entire South Asia.

    (i) Establishing Security - The debate in the present administration on the need to establish security in Afghanistan has revolved around three policy options: (a) Troop Surge (b) Arming the tribal militia (c) Talks/Negotiations with the Taliban.

    (ii) Diplomacy and ‘Smart Power’ approach - Obama has promised a change by ending the war on terror. One of the first Presidential actions after taking office was ordering the closure of the controversial detention centre at Guantanomo Bay. This has been viewed positively at home and abroad.

    (iii) Pakistan- Issue of Sanctuary- Obama has maintained that the future US efforts “must refocus” on “Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the central front in our war against Al Qaeda”. Sanctuaries on the Pakistan side of the Afghan-Pakistan border supply and train the assault on Afghanistan and the allied forces there. Moreover, the Pakistani Taliban, have expanded their sweep over a vast area of the country.

    (iv) Pressure tactics on Karzai - Members of the Obama administration have provided enough indications of backing an alternative candidate in the upcoming Afghan national elections. The decision is just not based on the fact that Karzai was a choice of the Bush administration, but because of his inability to rein in rampant corruption, the flourishing drug trade, and the inability of his government to deliver basic services.

    (v) Regional Strategy - The Obama administration has favoured a ‘comprehensive strategy’ that looks at the problem of Afghanistan regionally, and that goes even beyond Pakistan and India but in some way takes into consideration the interests of Russia, Iran, and even China.

    The paper assessed that there is not much change with the ushering of the new administration and most likely it would be a continuation of earlier policy. There are no bench marks and timeline for the ‘Exit strategy’ either.

    Policy options for India

    India’s interests in Afghanistan are long term stability and building a ‘land bridge,’ mentoring-ANA, ANP, COIN grid and fostering Capacity building-community projects. Obama administration’s policy of ‘troop surge’ or ‘negotiating with the Taliban’ would be viewed with greater interest by Indian policy makers in the post 26/11 Mumbai scenario. Unless troop surge is accompanied by ‘civilian surge’ the Afghans would resent the foreign troop presence. India needs to emphasise on an Afghan-led process of long-term institution building both in the security and governance sectors. India could contribute to capacity building and training of personnel (Afghan Army and police) but needs to steer clear from any direct military involvement in that country. The post 26/11 scenario calls for a better regional strategy to address the threat emanating from non-state actors operating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

    Issues raised in the discussion:

    • There are two dimensions to the problem in Afghanistan- strategic depth and nation building. The situation is grim in that country but as far as nation building is concerned, Afghans would themselves have to work towards it as no outsider would do it.
    • Militarism was dominant in George Bush’s policy and it was not a comprehensive approach.
    • President Obama’s policy talks about a regional approach and India and China are important parts of this regional concept.
    • The primary reason for the unpopularity of the government in Afghanistan is lack of social development activities.
    • Very often despondency is the tone when we talk about Afghanistan. The strategy of winning hearts and minds needs to be pursued.
    • Afghanistan has become a competing space for great powers. There is lack of understanding of local cultures and absence of a social code.
    • NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is in body and not in soul. The member countries of NATO come with a set of caveats and therefore there is lack of fruitful coordination.
    • As far as India’s role is concerned, the larger question is how India would fit within the NATO framework.
    • India should in fact adopt a more forward looking and proactive posture. However, any decision by India to send troops to Afghanistan as part of a more proactive role should be properly assessed and its ramifications should be studied carefully.
    • As Afghanistan is also a member of SAARC, India could offer it a larger bouquet of choices.
    • Pakistan is both a part of the Afghanistan problem and a solution to the problem.
    • Afghanistan needs to have a force which is sustainable in its own budget.
    • Great nations and narrow minds do not work.
    • Afghanistan problem cannot be solved in isolation and there is need for comprehensive engagement.
    • The role of SCO in the context of Afghanistan should also be considered while studying this problem.
    • The proposal regarding implementation of the Panchayati Raj system in Afghanistan may not be a feasible option.

    The session was chaired by Dr. G. Balachandran. There were three external discussants: Shri K.C. Singh, Shri Shakti Sinha and Brigadier (Retd.) Rahul Bhonsle. Dr. Rajiv Nayan and Captain Alok Bansal were the internal discussants.

    Prepared by Dr. Priyanka Singh, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.