The Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan seems headed for failure. Given the alternatives, de facto partition of Afghanistan is the best policy option available to the United States and its allies.
After the administration’s December Afghanistan review, the U.S. polity should stop talking about timelines and exit strategies and accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of its historic stronghold in the Pashtun south. But Washington could ensure that north and west Afghanistan do not succumb to jihadi extremism, using U.S. air power and special forces along with the Afghan army and like-minded nations.
Enthusiasts for the administration’s counter-insurgency strategy, or COIN, are likely to reject this way forward in Afghanistan. They will rightly point out the many complexities in implementing de facto partition.
De facto partition is clearly not the best outcome one can imagine for the United States in Afghanistan. But it is now the best outcome that Washington can achieve consistent with its vital national interests and U.S. domestic politics.
There are many reasons for this.
Even if President Barack Obama adds a year or two to his timeline for major progress, the COIN strategy appears unlikely to succeed. Given the number of U.S. combat forces now fighting, the Taliban cannot be sufficiently weakened in Pashtun Afghanistan to drive it to the negotiating table on any reasonable time line. True, the Afghan Pashtun are not a unified group. But, they do agree on opposing foreign occupation and wanting Pashtun supremacy.
“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation,” CIA director Leon Panetta said on June 27, “where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society… Unless they're convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful.”
With an occupying army largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, language, customs, politics and values, the United States cannot, through social engineering, win over in the foreseeable future sufficient numbers of the Afghan Pashtun on whom COIN depends.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt government – as unpopular as the Taliban — shows no sign of improvement and Afghanistan has no history of a robust central government. Allied efforts to substitute Western nation-building for Afghan nation-building will continue to fall short. The Afghanistan National Army is not expected to be ready to vanquish the Taliban for many years, if ever.
Moreover, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, with their dominating optic of India as the enemy, have shown no willingness to end support for their long-time Afghan Taliban proxies. Or accept a truly independent Afghanistan.
Decisively, the long-term COIN strategy and far shorter U.S. political timeline are incompatible. (Continues here)