Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Ten years on, still trying to frame the Afghan War
U.S. President Barack Obama is in the midst of a wrenching decision on whether to quickly bring home the 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan or stay the course in the hope that the situation will stabilise in the country.
The problem is it is still not clear what the huge operation estimated to cost $100 billion a year is intended to do. Here is what Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said last week when asked what would constitute success : “I think we’ll have a much better fix in terms of clarity towards the end of this year in terms of longer-term … potential outcomes — and when those might occur — than we do right now.” The military were in the middle of the fighting season and once that ends when winter arrives, they would be in a better position to make a call. But how many fighting seasons has the military gone through already in Afghanistan ? Their logic is that the 30,000 additional troops that Obama sent in December 2009 have started to turn things around in the southern bastions of the Taliban, and more time is needed to extend the gains in the east where the insurgency is just as stubborn.
But isn’t that the way this war has been fought all these years, and indeed even before during the Russian occupation ? You muscle into one part of the forbidding country with men and armour, the insurgents melt away and launch attacks in another part. You are then left with the option of diverting resources to fight them in a new battlefield, or risk stretching yourself thin holding on to gains while trying to secure new ground.
One U.S. official, the Financial Times reports, (behind a paywall) likened it to an arcade game where the player uses a mallet to bash a random and increasingly frantic series of moles back into their holes. Or as Senator Richard Lugar, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week : “Despite ten years of investment … we remain in a cycle that produces relative progress but fails to deliver a secure political or military resolution.”
Many aren’t even convinced if it makes any sense fighting the Taliban anymore. If Obama’s core objective in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, then that job is nearly done at least in Afghanistan where the CIA says the group’s numbers are down to anything from 50 to 100. If anything there are more al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen or even Somalia, and yet they don’t have 150,000 foreign troops deployed to hunt them down. Is Obama now fighting the wrong war as he once blamed the Bush administration for, when they invaded Iraq ? Osama bin Laden’s killing last month in Pakistan offers even less reason to be still fighting in Afghanistan, the sceptics argue.
If the reason for staying on in Afghanistan is to ensure that it does not become a safe haven for al Qaeda and other groups all over again, then perhaps it needs to be fleshed out what constitutes a threat from Afghanistan . Is there a threshold number of al Qaeda fighters that make it necessary for a U.S. invasion ? Greg Scoblete writes in the Real Compass Blog:
More fundamentally – how do we know when Afghanistan ceases to be a threat to U.S. security? Most of the recent terrorist plots that have been unearthed have originated in either Pakistan or Yemen. Isn’t that significant? Is there any realistic time-frame when the country could not “potentially” be a safe haven? If we couldn’t achieve this in 10 years, how much more time do we need?
In any case, a c0mplete U.S. withdrawal is hardly on the cards. Even those arguing for a quick exit are building their case on the ground that a sizeable force will be left behind focused on counter terrorism operations rather than trying to hold territory. Indeed the United States and Afghanistan have been holding talks on the long-term American role in the country, a strategic partnership that many see as aimed at allowing Washington to maintain a presence well beyond 2014 when Afghan forces are supposed to take over security responsibilities.
The Guardian reported on Monday that the two sides are trying to work out an agreement “which is likely to see” U.S. troops, spies, and air power based in the troubled country for decades.”