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The Change Afghans need?

Commentary, 20 January 2009
Central and South Asia
Many commentators, eager to see the back of Bush and tempted by Obama’s promise of change, have anticipated radical shifts for US policy in Afghanistan. However, in the short term at least, differences from the Bush administration’s approach look disappointingly minor.

Many commentators, eager to see the back of Bush and tempted by Obama’s promise of change, have anticipated radical shifts for US policy in Afghanistan. However, in the short term at least, differences from the Bush administration’s approach look disappointingly minor.

By Andrew Legon, Research Analyst, Afghan National Police Reform Project, RUSI

According to the United States’ own intelligence assessments, Afghanistan is caught in a ‘downward spiral’, confronted by a resurgent Taliban, warlordism, rampant corruption and an economy dependent on the drugs trade. Current strategy appears to have failed, a conclusion General David Petraeus’s upcoming review of US policy in Afghanistan is rumoured to agree with.

Unsurprisingly, the advent of a new administration on 20 January is widely perceived as an opportunity to shift direction and regain lost initiative. In one respect change is just over the horizon. The war in Afghanistan will almost certainly top Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Throughout the presidential campaign Obama called repeatedly for a change in the focus of the war on terror. Afghanistan ‘has to be…the central front on our battle against terrorism,’ he told CBS’ Face the Nation.

Financially, militarily and politically, the situation in Afghanistan has suffered as a result of the Bush administration’s Iraq distraction. In fiscal 2008, despite growing recognition of Afghanistan’s dire situation, $10.9 billion per month was spent on the war in Iraq through 30 September, while only $2.7 billion a month was spent on Afghanistan. Counter-insurgencies are not won by half measures. Added attention is therefore likely to be beneficial, but only if current strategy is dropped.

Widely hailed as a transformational presidency, one could be forgiven for expecting more than an increased focus by an Obama administration to wrest the initiative back from the Taliban. Disappointingly, the main contours of Obama’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan are depressingly familiar.

The new administration’s policy appears to be threefold; surge, settle and strategise. With the war in Iraq being wound down, Obama intends to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan. Indications suggest that a Pentagon plan to send 30,000 more troops to the country will be signed off promptly. The administration appears to realise, however, that even from this position of added strength the Taliban cannot be routed militarily. Rather, the surge is aimed at establishing favourable conditions in order to strike political deals with local enemy commanders and warlords who are less ideologically extreme.

These first two stages of Obama’s policy are nothing new. They echo not only the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq, where the ‘surge’ catalysed a reconciliation with Sunni tribal leaders who could be bought off, but also recent policies pursued by the current President in Afghanistan. Bush’s ‘quiet Afghan surge’ of 3,000 troops, announced last September, has morphed into an increasingly robust escalation of US forces. In December, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen publicised a near doubling of US troops in Afghanistan to 63,000 by mid-2009.

Likewise, although commentators are hailing Obama’s emphasis on talks with moderate supporters of the Taliban, the current administration has already expressed an increasing willingness to explore such a dialogue. By October 2008 a consensus began to develop amongst military and political leaders alike; the only way forward was to exploit fissures in the Taliban, disconnecting the bulk of the insurgency from Al-Qa’ida and co-opting reconcilable tribal leaders and warlords to the allied cause. ‘I do think you have to talk to enemies,’ General David Petraeus said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. Mirroring his comments, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said ‘Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government.’ Indeed, reports indicate that negotiations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Taliban already took place in Saudi Arabia last September.

While the first two phases of Obama’s Afghan policy are strikingly familiar, hope lies in the medium term with the third phase. According to reports, the new team does not anticipate the surge and settle approach to significantly alter the course of the war. Troop escalation, coupled with an Afghan militia ‘awakening’, is meant to buy enough time for a comprehensive reappraisal of the entire war effort and the development of a new strategy.

Recent reports indicate that the main internal debate Obama needs to resolve concerns the mission of the new troops. Should they secure the border with Pakistan or adopt an approach focused on protecting vulnerable population centres? Both have their merits. The former recognises that the insurgency is not neatly contained behind the arbitrary and highly porous Durand Line, whereas the latter is a cornerstone counter-insurgency tactic. Equally there are disadvantages. Protecting urban centres in a country of 647,500 square kilometres and populated with over 32 million Afghans will founder on the relative lack of Allied and Afghan forces, even after the surge.

For all the talk of a change in strategy, this internal debate highlights an important element of continuity in the approaches of Bush and Obama. Official rhetoric aside, it looks likely that US policy in Afghanistan will remain informed by a flawed ‘war on terror’ logic that stresses traditional security imperatives. Last December, the President-elect spoke of the ‘very limited’ objective of ensuring that Afghanistan ‘cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States’. Moreover, when Senator Obama met with President Karzai discussion focused on Al-Qa’ida. Sustainable development, poverty, and the opium fuelled economy were not even touched upon.

Obama’s silence on matters of reconstruction and aid, in which he has yet to make any significant statements, is deafening. As the past seven years have demonstrated, an overly militarised approach to counter-insurgency does not work. For example, coalition reliance on air power has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, predictably fuelling resentment against international forces among the population. Meanwhile Afghanistan still ranks 174th out of 178 countries on the UNDP 2007-2008 human development index. Basic services such as clean water and electricity are rare and institutions like the police and courts are corrupt. The Taliban are busy filling this vacuum of basic governance with shadow levels of administration. This not only provides direct support for the insurgency, but also undermines Afghan faith in the ability of the central government and its allies to provide a credible structure for the future.

Services, just as much as ‘surges’, will turn the tide in Afghanistan. This is the change the Afghans need from Obama. Time then for a serious engagement with human security approaches to the conflict. According to RAND, the stability of countries evolving out of war requires a minimum of $100 per capita. Compare the figure for Bosnia, which received $679 per capita, to Afghanistan, which received $57 per capita in the key years 2001-2003. The new administration would therefore be wise to listen to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for a ‘political surge’ of international aid.

This is just the start, however. The entire international effort needs fundamental reform, from the cohesion and operational structure of the mission to the need for political engagement with all the major players in the region, Iran included. Many commentators, eager to see the back of Bush and tempted by Obama’s promise of change, anticipated such radical shifts in direction for US policy in Afghanistan. In the short term at least, differences with the previous administration’s approach look disappointingly minor.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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