Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

As U. S. military operations in Afghanistan drag on inconclusively, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Taliban insurgency is gaining ground. In the first six months of 2010, for example, there was a 31 percent rise in civilian casualties while the Shari'a was implemented in areas hitherto inaccessible to the Taliban. 1 Insurgent attacks in the first quarter of 2011 grew by 51 percent compared with the previous year2 while the Afghan security forces have been increasingly penetrated by the Taliban.3

It is hardly surprising therefore that President Hamid Karzai has reportedly held several meetings with the Taliban over the past three years in an attempt to strike a deal .4 In the meantime, Pakistan is being destabilized still further, especially with the rise of new militant groups such as the Punj abi Taliban, despite increased attacks against militant hideouts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan.5

The emerging picture is very grim, indeed. How is it that, despite making Afghanistan the cornerstone of its struggle against militant extremism, the Obama administration's strategy is failing so miserably ? Does the president's plan to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, and to remove all 33,000 troops originally added as part of the surge by the end of next summer, have a realistic chance of success?6 And are there any viable alternatives to this failing strategy?


The clearest difference between the Bush and the Obama administrations' Afghan strategies is the more recent deployment of nearly 60,000 additional troops as part of a surge, mostly in the Pashtun areas of the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.7 However, according to Matthew Hoh, former senior civilian U. S. representative in the southeastern province of Zabul, who resigned in protest over the current strategy, the "U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force" against which a Pashtun insurgency "composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups" is justified.8

Hoh's observations should not be that surprising. As noted in an International Crisis Group report, the disorganized and weak Afghan National Army (ANA), plagued by illiteracy and innumeracy, comprises a disproportionately large percentage of ethnic Tajiks who are often deployed to the Pashtun areas.9 Such a policy poses a major problem for the official counterinsurgency strategy objective of winning "the hearts and minds" of the Afghan population.

The lack of Pashtun soldiers in southern and eastern Afghanistan, together with the increase in the number of U.S. and other nonAfghan troops, means that the coalition's presenee in Pashtun lands is largely viewed as a foreign force that should be resisted, provoking a localized Pashtun nationalist insurgency, which, in Hoirs words "is fed by what is perceived ... as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions, and religion by internal and external enemies."10 Attitudes among Afghans as a whole were less intense, yet a January 2010 poll found that 31 percent opposed U.S. military presence while 37 percent opposed the presence of NATO forces or International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF).11 Given that the Pashtuns comprise roughly 30 to 40 percent of Afghanistan's population, the intensification of a Pashtun insurgency is bound to allow the Taliban to make further advances.


The second major problem with the present strategy relates to the propping up of Karzai's centralized regime in Kabul, which has cost the U.S. taxpayer almost $300 billion in military and reconstruction (i.e., nation-building) efforts since the 2001 invasion.12 Nonetheless, when an already corrupt regime is flooded with aid, it simply becomes more corrupt. …

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