Of Afghanistan and backpacks

February 4, 2009

According to George Friedman from the Stratfor intelligence group the United States should forget the idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan and concentrate instead on covert operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As has become increasingly clear, the administration of President Barack Obama faces a hard time raising its troop presence in Afghanistan without either relying on precarious supply lines through Pakistan or making political compromises with Russia to win its support for using alternative routes through Central Asia.

“So how can Mr. Obama reconcile the two goals of strengthening the American presence in Afghanistan while curbing Russian expansionism?” asks Friedman. “The answer is to rely less on troops, and more on covert operations like the CIA. Covert operators are far more useful for the actual war that we are fighting (and they can carry their supplies on their backs). The primary American interest in Afghanistan, after all, is preventing terrorist groups from using it as a base for training and planning major attacks. Increasing the number of conventional troops will not help with this mission.”

His article struck me not so much for the suggestion about the need for covert operations. One wonders whether Friedman has ever lived in a small-town environment where you can barely open a curtain without being noticed let alone carry a backpack with satellite phone and whatever other equipment you might need to hunt down equally sophisticated militant groups who will have made a point of recruiting intelligence from the local population.

What is interesting is his assertion that sending more troops is not the answer.

There are a few articles out there suggesting that Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam, including from U.S. analysts Juan Cole and Norman Solomon.  But such suggestions are usually dismissed as the talk of the American left, and most of the discussion in Washington seems to be more about the fine details of exactly how the United States should refine its strategy in Afghanistan to focus on limited, achievable goals rather than a grander vision of a tolerant pluralistic democracy — while nonetheless accepting the need for more troops

So are those who are fretting about how the United States should recalibrate strategy in Afghanistan missing the point? Is Friedman right to say that sending more troops is not the answer? And if so, what is the alternative?

(Reuters photo of Nuristan in Afghanistan/Bob Strong)


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Russians have raised the stakes. Can the CIA and ISI team up just like during Sovieat war in Afghanistan during the 80s? it is yet to be seen. No doubt there is an enemy in Afghanistan which the US and allies are facing. Just like during 80s when US/Pak- Mujahideen were fighting Soviets. Can the same old model be applied. History show that previous war in Afghanistan was won through covert support of Mujahideen. I guess covert ops have a better chance. Also, involve muslim nation, Saudis, Pkaistan, Egypt even Turkey. A crisis situation needs immediate response.

Posted by Umair | Report as abusive

The policies of the last 6 decades involoving Pakistan in the affairs of Afghanistan have not worked. Pakistan army and ISI are the major destabilizing forces in the region. President Obama/ NATO has to think out of the box and start a new approach to solve the problems in South Asia:

(1) Strategic significance of Pakistan should be severely undermined. Some of this has already happened. Rapidly developing supply routes, infusing a new economic lifeline for Afghanistan through Central Asian republics is critical to alleviate the choke hold Pakistan has had on Afghanistan for so long.

(2) Even though US has serious issues with Iran, India developing a supply route to Afghanistan through the new Iranian port will further help in achieving goal #1. US should not discourage this development.

(3) Military aid to Pakistan should be entirely stopped. Aid to the civilian government should be tightly scrutinized to ensure it is strictly used for economic development and in installments based on how much Pakistan co-operates.

4) The primary goal for the Afghan people is to establish a government in Kabul that truly represents the aspirations all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan. This is different from the goal of Pakistanis who primarily look at Afghanistan as their colony and would like to have some puppet government there even if that means they are Taliban terrorists.

(5) De-jihadisation of the region is a long difficult process. Involving Pakistan army and ISI more is not what sane people would do at this point.

Posted by Pakhtoon | Report as abusive

The article is excellent and it rightly points out that covert actions are the best. But if you mean the drone attacks like the ones taking place in the FATA region of Pakistan. They are only killing civilians or mostly civilians. Therefore do not go for the CIA propaganda that such and such terrorist was killed when no body was ever found.

Covert actions should be targeting the actual enemies and not killing civilians that further inflames this so-called anti-terror war.

Posted by ratee | Report as abusive


The new US administration must clearly communicate the objectives to determine its success or failure in Afghanistan. Is it just drop in militancy or establishing functioning democracy or holding peaceful upcoming general elections or forming a permanent base in Central Asia. Or is it the combination of all above? The objective will decide the strategy, the timeline, the resources and the risks involved.

Myra asked: “So how can Mr. Obama reconcile the two goals of strengthening the American presence in Afghanistan while curbing Russian expansionism?”

In Afghanistan, deeper regional co-operation makes sense. In my view, for the new administration, it is going to be very difficult because of domestic compulsions. The American public, at least for now, do not perceive Russia, China and Iran as allies for solving Afghanistan. Their perceptions are strengthened because for too long they are fed with a rationed dose of the evil Russian, Iranian and Chinese regimes.

Myra asked, “Is Friedman right to say that sending more troops is not the answer? And if so, what is the alternative?”

I wonder, for the US, if there are better alternatives. Afghanistan not only needs more troops but also needs a peace core to drastically improve civic governance. If the objective is rebuilding Afghanistan then covert warfare, suggested by Mr Friedman, is useless. Morever, covert wars often risk spiralling out of control violating national boundaries.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive

To Umair,

Russia is not Soviet Union. I’m sure there are few in the CIA and the ISI who may be itching for greater covert action and relive the decade of the 80’s. Those were the golden years for the ISI which enjoyed adulation and access to unaudited funds. Pakistan and the region is still paying price for it.

If rebuilding Afghanistan is the goal, covert warfare in will cause more damage than good. Afghanistan needs more troops and peace core for civic governance.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive

If you stop believing the romantic delusions that the CIA has constructed around its genocidal operations, you would never prescribe them. Actually, nearly ALL of the Agency’s covert ops have been dismal failures, and those that appear to be successes are merely hype (the garbage you believe) intended to cover up mass murder.

This is a REAL covert op, as opposed to your propaganda-based illusions: In 1967, the oil companies wanted land in Guatemala to drill on – but it belonged to Indians by treaty. No problem. The CIA sent planes to drop napalm on the Indians, they were burnt alive, and the oil companies bought up the land cheap from the fascist government installed by the US.

Any word of this mass murder was censored by a press complicit in mass murder.

That’s a REAL CIA covert op. You are repeating lies. Learn about the REAL (fascist) CIA and stop lying to your readers.

Posted by Alex Constantine | Report as abusive

Without the help of the Pak Army, ISI and all regional powers I can NOT see a stable Afghnistan. There are many tribes who only look after their own intrest not what the KABUL government wants.

Pakistan is already fully comiited to this wat on terror. Even though there are no clear objectives of what is the end game. So therefore USA is just trying to make its bases in the central Asia to keep an eye on the upcoming superpowers China and also Russians.

Pakistan knows how to fight the war if we can keep India at bay for over 60 years. Even though she has tried to break pakistan into many small pieces and will use any act of terrorism to paint Pakistan as the culprit. When iin reality we the Pakistanis have lost more civilians, soldiers and also the ecnomic effect of this war.

As Zardari said we know how to fight but we need the tools. Just like it was done in the eighties agianst the USSR. I would also like to add if the intrest of pakistan is stepped upon there will be no co-opration. Its a pity we have like of mr 10 percent on the most powerful seat. When we needed was someone like mr Bhutto who can look into the eyes of the Americans and tell them the facts instead of just bowing down to their orders.

Posted by Ali | Report as abusive

Though the problem is created in afghanistan the source is in pakistan..so any strategy the US makes would unfold in pakistan..covert operation is not an option because of the scale of sucha operation would be so huge it would not be a covert operation added to that covert operation in pakistan would not succeed with out the co-operation of ISI as such operation largely depend on effective intelligence gathering..also there is a growing mistrust between ISI and CIA when it comes to acting against jihadi militants.
So the strategy of US/Nato should be to act first hand on militants by taking control of the FATA (either by Force or after diplomatic talks with pakistan) and destroy the terror infrastructure and not allow them to regroup.

Posted by Anitha | Report as abusive

i tend to agree with Anita and Pakhtoon. Pakistan has not changed her ways. She is a failed state, living on life support from Western donors, Japan and China. But still she is only creating more trouble, sponsoring terrorism. Involving her will be a bad idea.

Posted by Raj | Report as abusive

“I guess covert ops have a better chance. Also, involve muslim nation, Saudis, Pkaistan, Egypt even Turkey. A crisis situation needs immediate response.”

—You Pakistani’s are hilarious!
The ‘covert’ ops are suggested against Pakistan & you want them to extend it the whole muslim world…

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Thanks for the compliment, however given the counter-intelligence capabilities of Pakistani intelligence, any covert ops against Pakistan will be neutralized. Sleep tight.

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Ali Wrote:
“Without the help of the Pak Army, ISI and all regional powers I can NOT see a stable Afghnistan.”

How can US win this war when Pak army and ISI does not wants it. Political govt asks more funds and ISI use that funds in destablizing Afghanistan. So USA is running round and round chasing its own tail.

There can be a very small chance that Political govt of Pakistan wants this to end, but Pakistan army clearly does not want USA to win. Stopping terrorism in Pakistan is a political suicide and no politician wants it. Zardari is right when he says “Give us the tools and we will do the work” BUT he do not mention how MANY tools he will need to end this, probably the biggest tool Pakistan need is, “Will Power” and americans cant give this to pakistan.

Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive

“Pakistan knows how to fight the war if we can keep India at bay for over 60 years.”

Absolutely correct Ali, You kept “India at bay” for over 60 years. “Bay of Bengal” is what you are talking about ??

“Joi Bangladesh” is what we have given you and you could NOT get Kashmir even after 60 years of proxy and non proxy war. Your country is on brink on bankruptcy and Americans are attacking you with drones. But you have kept India at Bay and yes for over 60 years.

Bravo !

Keep it up.

Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive

@Ali, all Bloggers

Here is the brainchild of ISI and Pakistan Military:

Pakistan Terror Central, must see

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnew s/article-1139505/Horrifying-video-milit ants-beheading-Polish-engineer-released- Pakistani-Taliban.html

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

@Myra Macdonald

What do you think will come of Richard Holbrooke’s assignment as special envoy to Afghanistan & Pakistan? Do you think he will be able to calm the flames that are threatening to engulf a region?

Posted by Qasim | Report as abusive

Afghan problems have Afghan solutions, they don’t have Pakistani solutions.

Posted by Bangash Khan | Report as abusive

I don’t understand one thing why every Pakistani links there problem with India. India is a peaceful country, we have our own problems but we never want to blame other nations for it. Today every country recognizes our strength. If really as a citizen of Pakistan you want to develop your country you should learn good things from India/China rather than just blaming us. Guns will never going to uplift your economy, even in million years my friend. Remove the poison from your mind & heart & concentrate on your country’s economic development.

Posted by Narendra | Report as abusive