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Senator Joseph Lieberman made a timely and well-argued call, during his recent speech at the Brookings Institution, for a comprehensive political-military campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) region. Seven years into a long war, we need to be honest with ourselves about the harsh strategic choices we face. And we need to recognize that before we can expect long-term strategic progress, we first have to deal with an immediate, acute crisis that could derail the entire effort this year. Let me first discuss long-term strategic choices, then turn to the immediate crisis, and conclude with some remarks on Pakistan.
Long-Term Strategic Options
We need to do four things -- what we might call "essential strategic tasks" -- to succeed in Afghanistan. We need to prevent the re-emergence of an Al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11. We need to protect Afghanistan from a range of security threats including the Taliban insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, misrule and corruption. We need to build sustainable and accountable state institutions (at the central, provincial and local level) and a resilient civil society. Then we can begin a phased hand-off to Afghan institutions that can survive without permanent international assistance. We might summarize this approach as "Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off". Let's call it "Option A".
Given enough time, resources and political commitment, Option A is definitely workable. But we need to be honest about how long it will take -- ten to fifteen years, including at least two years of significant combat up front -- and how much it will cost. Thirty thousand extra troops in Afghanistan will cost around 2 billion dollars per month beyond the roughly 20 billion we already spend; additional governance and development efforts will cost even more; in the current economic climate this is a big ask. The campaign will cost the lives of many American, Afghan and coalition soldiers and civilians, and injure many more. There are also opportunity costs: we have finally, through much blood and effort, reached a point where we can start disengaging some combat troops from Iraq. We need to ask ourselves whether the best use for these troops is to send them straight to Afghanistan, or whether we might be better off creating a strategic reserve in Central Command, restoring our military freedom of action and, with it, a measure of diplomatic credibility in the Middle East.
Is there an alternative? Some have recently argued for "Option B", where we would focus solely on the Prevent task, putting Protect, Build and Hand-Off on hold. We would conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda, while doing the minimum development and population protection needed to enable those operations, and shelving long-term nation-building aspirations. After all, we might say, we went into Afghanistan to defeat Al Qa'ida, not to build a model state in the Hindu Kush.
The problem with Option A is that we may not be able to afford it. The trouble with Option B is much simpler: it just won't work.
Afghanistan is an independent sovereign state: why would it tolerate an approach that treated its territory as little more than a launch pad for strikes against Al Qa'ida, while doing little to alleviate poverty, institute the rule of law or improve health and education? What would be in it for Afghanistan? How would we gain the information needed for effective counterterrorism operations -- much of it derived from human sources, human terrain intelligence and close-access signals intelligence -- without maintaining a substantial coalition force in close contact with the local population? Why would that population cooperate with an effort which, in the absence of substantial development assistance and the creation of functioning responsive government, brought the people little but danger in return? Why would the Taliban obligingly put their insurgency on hold, if we ignored them to focus on Al Qa'ida? Wouldn't Option B accelerate the loss of popular confidence among Afghans, and make the insurgency even more likely to overthrow the government? And how would we finesse our failure to honor the pledges we gave our allies and the Afghan people in the Bonn agreement, not to mention the campaign promises of a new and popular President?
The reality is that, like it or not, the short-term counterterrorism task (preventing another 9/11) can't be separated from the long-term counterinsurgency and nation-building tasks (protecting the Afghan people and building sustainable institutions in preparation for hand-off to a viable Afghan state).
A middle option -- "Option A Lite" -- would be even worse: it would cost almost as much as Option A, and be just as likely to fail as Option B. No, the hard fact is that however unpalatable, Option A is a hill we simply have to climb if we seek anything worthy of the name "success" in Afghanistan.
The Immediate Crisis
These long-term strategic options are, however, largely questions for 2010 and beyond: in 2009 we have another more acute problem. Afghanistan is on the brink of failure. Violence is up 40% on last year and 543% on 2005. Large parts of the country, perhaps 70% of Afghan territory, are no-go areas for security forces and government officials. Narcotics production has coalesced into enormous tracts of poppy in Taliban-controlled areas, heroin production has spiked, government legitimacy is collapsing, food and water are critically short, the insurgency is spreading and intensifying, and the Afghan Presidential elections -- scheduled for 23rd August, at the end of what promises to be a fighting season of unprecedented intensity -- will bring everything to a head.
Whatever our long-term strategy, if we don't now stabilize the situation, stop the rot and regain the initiative, there will be no long-term. Once the situation is stabilized there will be time for the new administration to work through its strategic choices in concert with allies and the Afghan government. If we fail to stabilize Afghanistan this year, there will be no future.
To stabilize Afghanistan, we need a surge of political effort, we need a surge of civilian expertise and financial resources, and we need to re-focus the military and police on a single critical task: protecting the population ahead of the elections. The strategic aim for 2009 should be to deliver an election result that restores the government's legitimacy, and with it the credibility of the international effort. Which candidate gets elected matters less than ensuring the outcome meets international standards for transparency and fairness. This is a huge task. To do it we need to stop chasing the Taliban around, and focus instead on protecting Afghans where they live, partnering with the Afghan people in a close and genuine way that gives them a well-founded feeling of security, and ensuring fair elections that restore hope for a better future.
This is the critical task for 2009. If we regain the initiative, we're back in the game. If we fail, our long-term strategic options will be even more unpalatable than they are now.
The Pakistan Dimension
Afghanistan is, and will likely remain, our main military effort, because no significant American combat forces are deployed in Pakistan or are likely to be. Pakistan, however, as the central front of international terrorism and because of its size, nuclear status and regional importance, should be the main effort for diplomatic, political and intelligence activity.
The critical problem is that Pakistan has so far been both unable to control its own territory and population, and unwilling to accept international assistance on the scale, or of the type, needed to do so. Meanwhile we have tended to focus what little attention we give to the region on Afghanistan, a problem that is far easier to understand although extremely difficult to address.
Because of Pakistan's size (173 million people) and military capacity (a defense establishment that includes 100 nuclear weapons and a well-equipped army larger than that of the United States) the notion that we could or should force an un—Pakistan to do our bidding is both unrealistic and extremely risky.
So we must first persuade Pakistan to become a —partner, and then (and only then) help build its capability. The first task is primarily diplomatic, the second a mainly matter of development and governance assistance, though there is a military and police training and assistance aspect also. (Note -- and I'll return to this point -- that unilateral strikes against targets inside Pakistan, whatever other purpose they might serve, have an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability. They increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a —and capable partner in Pakistan.)
A powerful faction within the Pakistani national security establishment (some elements of the Army, and parts of the intelligence service) persists in sponsoring extremists such as the Afghan Taliban, and tolerating terrorists like AQ and LeT. This long-standing pattern arises from three key motivations: religious radicalism within the younger generation of the officer corps, a desire to maintain extremist actors as a non-conventional counterweight to Indian regional influence, and a fear of abandonment by the international community (as happened in 1989 after the Soviet-Afghan war and, arguably, again in 2002 as our attention was diverted to Iraq).
We must either reduce this motivation (by reforming the military or convincing it that state collapse and extremist takeover, not war with India, is the real threat) or reduce the power of the national-security state to continue its sponsorship and tolerance of extremism, or both. This demands that we move our relationship with Pakistan away from a transactional basis and assuage Pakistan's fear of abandonment. This, in turn, requires that we involve regional actors -- primarily India, but also Iran and China -- in viable regional security arrangements. Again, we need to be honest with ourselves about how difficult this will be, how much it will cost and how long it will take. It will indeed be difficult -- but half-measures haven't gotten us anywhere.
All this suggests that the most appropriate diplomatic strategy is to identify, within Pakistan, our friends and allies (civilian democratic political leaders, some officials, and much of the Pakistani people) and our actual enemies (primarily, factions within the Pakistani national security establishment, religious radicals and terrorists) and act to increase the number and influence of our friends while reducing the power of our enemies. Our first objective should be to help the democratically elected civilian leaders gain control over their own national security establishment, a state-within-a-state that currently operates virtually outside civilian control. We should then work with the Pakistan government to help it resolve the Baluch and Pashtun tribal uprisings, reduce Taliban influence and terrorist safe haven, counter religious extremism, and extend a legitimate and effective presence throughout the country.
While ever al Qa'ida remains active and can threaten the international community from bases within Pakistan, the need to strike terrorist targets on Pakistani territory will remain. But our policy should be to treat this as an absolute, and rarely invoked, last resort. Our first preference must be to help Pakistan extend its writ across its whole population and territory, so as to close the terrorist safe haven rather than just strike the terrorists in it. In practice, this would mean that our preferred option would always be to respect Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deal with terrorists by helping the Pakistani government gain control of its own national-security agencies, its territory and its population (including by bringing the FATA under effective and regular civil administration, channeling targeted economic assistance to Pakistan and sponsoring key governance reforms).
In those limited areas where Pakistan has proven unable or un—to establish government control (and therefore, in fact, areas that lie outside its effective sovereignty even though they may lie within its geographical boundaries) the international community would still need to reserve the right to unilaterally strike terrorist targets, but this must be a last resort, based where possible on consultation with Islamabad, applied only with the specific knowledge and approval, on a case-by-case basis, of President Obama, and only to targets that met all four of the following selection criteria:
1) The target in question poses a threat to the international community (not solely to U.S. forces or interests in Afghanistan); AND
2) It is located in an area outside of effective Pakistani sovereignty (e.g. in a non-controlled area of the FATA or in a micro-haven elsewhere) AND
3) Pakistan has tried but failed to extend its sovereignty into the area, or to deal effectively with the target on its own; AND
4) The target is positively identified and clearly distinguishable from surrounding populations, reducing the risk of collateral damage to a level acceptable to elected political leaders.
Some might argue that this sets an extremely high bar, so high that in practice such strikes would almost never be approved. I agree -- that's the whole point. Others might argue that there is no guarantee of success in this diplomatic strategy. Again, I agree -- but would respectfully suggest that there are no guarantees in any strategy, military or otherwise, and that the current approach is having a severely de-stabilizing effect on Pakistan and risks spreading the conflict further, or even prompting the collapse of the Pakistani state, a scenario that would dwarf any of the problems we have yet faced in Iraq or Afghanistan.
To conclude, it might be impolite but it's certainly not inaccurate to say that our policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have, until early last year, been marked by woolly and wishful thinking, and a tendency to seek quick, neat solutions to intractable, messy and long-standing problems. The vital requirement now is to be clear-eyed about what we need to do, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. We need to be straight with the American people and our allies (including Afghans and Pakistanis) about this.
In Afghanistan, we have an immediate crisis to deal with. We need to stop the rot and regain the initiative before we can hope for long-term progress. That progress will come at a cost, and it will involve the four key tasks of preventing another 9/11, protecting the Afghan people, building sustainable institutions and then handing-off the effort to them.
In Pakistan, we need to stop asking ourselves the question "Is Pakistan an enemy or an ally?" Pakistan is NOT the enemy. But we have enemies -- as well friends -- in Pakistan. We need to identify those friends and enemies, and empower our friends to deal with our enemies. This is a classic diplomatic strategy, and an essential enabler for it is to build a —partner in Pakistan -- something that will mean, amongst other things, that we need to help Pakistani civilian politicians gain control over their own national-security establishment, and we need to impose a much more stringent set of limitations on strikes into Pakistani territory.
Things aren't hopeless, but they are extremely serious. This is the critical year: the situation is still salvageable, but we must act now to put the AFPAK enterprise onto a sound footing before it's too late.
Dr David Kilcullen, a partner at the Crumpton Group and author of The Accidental Guerrilla, is the former Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy in 2005-6 and 2008. In 2007 he was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus, in Baghdad.