Antidote to Insurgency

Article excerpt

Formulating a new strategy for Afghanistan's insurgency will not be easy. More troops might further inflame local frustration, but getting tribes to do the fighting could be costly too. Then there is the tricky question of talking to the Taliban, does it include insurgents in Pakistan as well?

aS UNITED STATES PRESIDENT Barack Obama takes office, he will face the daunting task of finding an antidote to the Taliban insurgency that is spiralling out of control and threatening regional security from Kabul to Kashmir.

Seven years of policy failure under President George Bush's administration have left the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland in a state of unending war and created a bloody quagmire for those trying to quell it.

There has been a progressive increase in violence and a dramatic expansion of territory outside the writ of the state, in conflict, and under Taliban control. Reversing the trend will require not simply reviewing the current international engagement but a complete overhaul of the 'war' on terror as first envisaged by the Bush administration.

A new strategy is in the making as General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command explores options. High hopes are pinned on this one man who comes with impeccable counter insurgency credentials, having masterminded and executed the 'Anbar Awakening' in Iraq, which was held responsible for a reduction in violence.

Many are expecting a repeat of the Iraq performance in Afghanistan, but Petraeus has been quick to oppose a 'one-size-fits-all' approach, pointing out the uniqueness of each theatre of war.

Techniques applied to tackle an ethno-sectarian insurgency among an educated population in urbanised Iraq will not necessarily translate to dealing with Afghanistan's religiously-motivated Taliban, which has taken hold in the rural villages of an underdeveloped Pushtun tribal belt.

Despite the cautionary note, lessons learnt are being transferred in the hope of being reapplied. These include a troop increase, reconciliation with the Taliban, regional cooperation in tackling the problem, and a Pakistan policy that may include chasing the Taliban into Pakistan's tribal areas. But will it work?

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

An increase in US troops, commonly referred to as the 'surge,' by a suggested two or three US brigades - some twenty thousand soldiers - represents Obama's renewed commitment to securing Afghanistan. But analysts are quick to point out that more troops will not decrease the level of violence. The more decisive concern is the operational and tactical posture these soldiers will employ.

Up until now, international forces in the southern provinces from Helmand to Khost have dealt with the Pushtun borderland with aggressive counter terrorism operations, relying heavily on air support. These have proved imprecise and ineffective, causing considerable civilian casualties and collateral damage - ultimately creating more adversaries among the local population and making the task of stabilising the region near impossible.

The justification for the increase in the US fighting force is to avoid such incidences by changing the rules of engagement through a 'boots on the ground' counter insurgency strategy. Critics claim this would only increase the sense of occupation amongst the local population and mire the US in a war without end.

The Pushtun tribal belt has historically been resistant and resentful of the presence of foreign troops and today the same anger and frustration is palpable, with little relief from the promised reconstruction, in between ceaseless fighting.

In this environment, the risk of US fatalities is high. As Petraeus explores a more creative counter insurgency approach, the question remains, can the US military think counterintuitively and work against the style of warfare it has spent decades developing?

A reliance on technology and the use of overwhelming force allows its soldiers to keep out of harm's way, rarely leaving base camp. …