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US Strategy in Afghanistan and Regional Concerns

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • February 21, 2011

    The present situation in Afghanistan is best described as a strategic stalemate. While the United States and its NATO-ISAF allies are not exactly losing the fight against the Taliban, they have failed to achieve their objectives of eliminating the al-Qaeda, defeating the Taliban and ensuring that the Afghan government is able to prevent the Taliban from returning to power by force. The US and its allies are now looking for a face saving exit strategy, which some Western commentators have described uncharitably as “declare victory and run”.

    A review of the war strategy in Afghanistan was completed by the Obama administration in December 2010. The publicly released version of the report claimed major gains against the al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in the core areas under their control for long, including the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. However, the report acknowledged that the gains were fragile and could be undone unless the Pakistan army acted against the Taliban operating from safe havens in the NWFP and FATA with equal vigour.

    Addressing the media, President Obama said the US “will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.” The American civilian and military leadership has been trying to convince Pakistan for some time now that eliminating safe havens for terrorists is as much in its own interest as in the interest of lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. The criticality of Pakistan in achieving overall success almost certainly means that a major increase in US drone strikes against terrorists in the NWFP and FATA can be expected even though substantive ground operations across the Durand Line remain unlikely.

    Though the review report claimed substantial progress in training and equipping the Afghan National Army, this is not borne out by the ANA’s performance in operations and its ability to independently take over responsibility for operational control of an allotted area. Despite the uneven progress and the fragility of the gains, the report concluded that the drawdown of troops scheduled to begin in July 2011 could go ahead as planned almost a year ago when a surge of 30,000 troops was announced. Meanwhile, military operations will continue to be supplemented by a mix of development and diplomacy.

    The broad goal of the US-NATO-ISAF war strategy in Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghanistan acquires the stability that is necessary to be able to control its territory so as to prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda combine from operating successfully from its soil against the US and its allies and to reduce the risk of a return to civil war. The American aim in Af-Pak is to prevent the border regions from being used as breeding grounds for fundamentalist terrorism and as launch pads for terror strikes on the US and its allies.

    According to a Council on Foreign Relations task force report, the US objective in Pakistan is, “To degrade and defeat terrorist groups that threaten American interests from its territory and to prevent turmoil that would imperil the Pakistan state and risk the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.” The US also seeks to prevail on Pakistan to stop providing support to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani shoora, Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and Pakistani terrorist organisations like the LeT and JeM.

    President Obama cannot afford to lose a war on his watch and yet hope to win re-election in 2012. The US exit strategy will be based on a phased drawdown with not more than 10,000 troops being withdrawn each year till an “equilibrium that is manageable” is achieved. The US and NATO troops are still thin on the ground while the Taliban has shown a marked degree of resurgence. Negotiations with the so-called ‘moderate’ Taliban have also failed to acquire momentum.

    Afghanistan lies on the strategic crossroads to Iran, West Asia, the Caucasus and the Central Asian Republics and its regional neighbours have important geo-political and energy security interests in the area. The foremost concern is that the US and its NATO-ISAF allies will begin their deadline-mandated exit before putting in place a strong international force to continue their work. The apprehension is that the Taliban will defeat the weak and poorly trained Afghan National Army, take over Kabul and once again begin to practice their peculiar brand of Jihad and cultural bigotry. Even Iran and China are wary of the return of Wahabi Islam to Afghanistan. Another key regional objective, particularly for India, is to prevent the re-emergence of safe havens for terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan.

    The Indian approach is not tactical but long-term. India has invested over US$ 1 billion and immense time and effort in the post-2001 reconstruction of Afghanistan, but has been completely marginalised in discussions for the resolution of the ongoing conflict due to Pakistan’s sensibilities, indeed paranoia. It is in India’s long-term interest to seek a regional solution to the Afghan conflict with the help of the CARs, China, Iran and Russia. This would involve putting together a regional force, preferably under a UN flag, to provide a stable environment for governance and development till the Afghan National Army can take over.