RUSI and Carnegie Europe: Strategies for Afghanistan

Speaking at RUSI, leading expert Ashley J Tellis assessed the strategic options for America and its allies in Afghanistan.

Ashley J Tellis on AfghanistanThe appointment of a new British Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and U.S. Special Representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s recent tour of the region, demonstrates a new transatlantic commitment to stability in South Asia. However, there remains a need for thoughtful analysis on the specific political, military and diplomatic steps that the United States and its European allies will need to take to create the conditions for long term stability in the region.

Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis outlined those steps at a discussion with senior policy makers, journalists, and experts, co-hosted with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

Tellis explained that the United States now faces three strategic options for Afghanistan:

  1. Pursue only counter-terrorism operations
  2. Engage in state building where necessary to facilitate counter-terrorism
  3. Create a viable nation state in Afghanistan.

Tellis advocated the third option, while providing insight into the reasoning behind each of the choices.


This goal has recently gained some supporters in the United States, and is based on the belief that state building will be too difficult and too costly – especially considering the current economic crisis. Proponents argue that U.S. partners should abandon state building objectives and instead focus purely on counter-terrorism. The reason the United States went in to Afghanistan in the first place was to destroy Al Qaeda, and it should not be side tracked from that goal.

Minimal state building

In the middle of the spectrum are those who agree that the United States should pursue a strategy focused on counterterrorism, but see limited state building as an important means to that end. Their primary aim is to successfully exit Afghanistan as soon as possible. This would mean leaving the minimal amount of infrastructure necessary to allow Afghanistan to combat the resurgence of terrorist activity without major U.S. intervention.

A real commitment to state building

Creating a functioning state will be costly – both in terms of time and resources. But it will prove to be the most cost-effective goal because it is the only one that will guarantee long-term security. Any strategy whose primary objective is to hasten a U.S. exit will fail to create the institutions necessary for Afghanistan to handle the terrorist threat.

The non-strategic reasoning behind this goal is simple. After having disengaged from Afghanistan following the retreat of the Soviet Army, the United States needs to redeem itself. It owes the Afghan people a future.

The strategic reasoning is that the international allies need to create a situation whereby, even after withdrawal of combat troops, Afghanistan will have the infrastructure and security forces necessary to quell the threat of terrorist organisations emanating from its territory and borders.

Terrorism and regional instability pose significant threats to both Afghanistan and the West. The new U.S. strategy can overcome the shortcomings of the last seven years by following a two-fold approach: greater investment in both military and non-military resources, including state-building, and targeting terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Tellis provided three possible strategies for achieving these goals:

Fixing India-Pakistan to fix Afghanistan

Stopping terrorists once they have crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan is not an effective counterterrorism strategy. The accessibility of training camps and safe havens in Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) means that the terrorist threat to the Afghan people, to the Afghan state, and to the rest of the world will remain.

Improving Pakistan’s cooperation in counterterrorism activities will require addressing its deep rooted insecurities regarding India, particularly with regards to Kashmir. It is thought that the Pakistani military, with whom a great deal of power rests, are using terrorist organisations to meet their own strategic ends by exacerbating the tensions between India and the Pakistani civilian government.

If the United States and its international allies want a more cooperative Pakistan, they will need to engineer an Indo-Pakistan reconciliation that helps liberate Islamabad from its concerns and insecurities.

Tellis acknowledged that the idea the West can fix Afghanistan by taking on the decades-old conflict between India and Pakistan is optimistic. India sees its relationship with Pakistan as purely bilateral. It will be impossible to United States to intercede without willingness from both India and Pakistan.

Fixing Pakistan to fix Afghanistan

Within Pakistan, the natural allies of the West are its civilians. Unfortunately, civilian power is weak; power lies with the military. The military has a vested interest in maintaining good relationships with terrorist organisations in order to advance its quest for power within Pakistan. The international community will need to ask itself if it has the capacity to fix a fragmented political system in a sovereign state such as Pakistan.

Fixing Afghanistan to fix Afghanistan

Tellis argued that focusing primarily on fixing Afghanistan from within is the easiest option. At the very least, it has the advantage of being manageable. Pursuing this strategy would not entail giving up on efforts to eradicate safe havens and to strengthen the relationship with Pakistan.

But it does recognise that corruption and incapacity have delegitimised the Afghan government in the eyes of its people, strengthening the Taliban. The Afghan people are currently faced with the choice of either supporting a corrupt and ineffective government or stepping in line with the Taliban so as to avoid further abuse. Often, the second option is better for the Afghans than the first. The terrorist threat will be a perennial one unless the government is given credibility through a system checks and balances.

Europe-U.S. split on state building and security

Tellis argued that the United States should not rely on its allies to commit more troops in Afghanistan as it considers next steps. A significant troop commitment from Europe is unlikely. Instead, the United States should pursue a strategy that matches the resources that are currently available.

The European allies are more likely to commit resources to state building. Both Tellis and the audience were concerned that this might lead to a Euro-U.S. split whereby Europe takes care of state building and the United States takes care of security. This would lead to an incoherent and uncoordinated strategy. Tellis argued that taking such a risk is necessary because the only other option is to do nothing.

Basic elements of any strategy

Whichever strategy the United States and its international partners choose to follow will need to incorporate three basic elements: the continuation of classic counter insurgency with tighter border control as a central focus; strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan state by making sure that democratic institutions work without corruption; empowering the Afghan army to independently deal with the terrorist threat emanating from across the Pakistani border.

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