Beyond a numbers game
16 June, 2011
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
President Barack Obama is about to take what some see as his most consequential foreign policy decision this year. Later this month he will decide on how many troops to pull out from Afghanistan beginning in July and the pace of the withdrawal in coming months.
When announcing his surge strategy in December 2009, Obama had vowed to start scaling back the US military presence from July 2011. Last year he set the end of 2014 as the time when US and Nato forces will hand over all security responsibilities to Afghan forces and bring the Western combat mission to a close.
The looming drawdown decision might be shaped more by political than by strategic considerations. The war continues to be unpopular in America. The latest poll shows over 70 percent of Americans believe the US should pull out of Afghanistan. The war cost of $2 billion a week or $100 billion a year, continues to spiral. At a time of fiscal strain and deep budget cuts, Congressional leaders are questioning the need for such heavy and costly military deployments in Afghanistan. Obama’s decision about reducing force levels from the present 100,000 US troops will be influenced by these factors especially as his 2012 re-election bid looms.
However the more significant or consequential decision will not be about numbers – the size of next month’s pullout – but the strategy that the remaining bulk of US/Nato forces will be directed to implement in Afghanistan. Will they continue to intensify the war effort or gradually stand down (while concentrating on training Afghan security forces) to give the peace and reconciliation process a chance to gather momentum?
For now debate in the US is focused on numbers – on how steep or modest the troop drawdown should be. Bin Laden’s killing on May 2 has spurred the political debate in Congress and the media about the rationale for a large military presence in Afghanistan now that the principal reason for the 2001 US invasion has gone. President Obama weighed in on this debate last week by declaring that: “By killing Bin Laden, by blunting the momentum of the Taliban we have now accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish 10 years ago”.
From the statements and public positioning by top officials in the Obama Administration, deliberations about the July announcement resemble, in some ways, what was witnessed during the review of Afghan policy in 2009. This was captured in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” which portrayed an administration riven by discord over how to handle Afghanistan.
Opinion was polarized between Obama’s civilian and military advisers about how deeply to invest in a conflict whose outcome seemed uncertain. While the Pentagon and his senior military commanders advocated an aggressive strategy of escalating the war, Obama himself and his national security team were not convinced that a surge strategy would work. In the end Obama gave the military substantially what they wanted but imposed resource and time limits. Most significantly he chose to announce a date, July 2011, to start a withdrawal of American forces. This surge-and-exit approach was designed to give something to both supporters and opponents of the war.
Media accounts of the internal battle currently raging in the administration indicate that while the differences may not be that intense, opinion is nevertheless divided. The Pentagon and top US generals are warning against any accelerated drawdown while civilians as well as influential Congressional leaders would like to see deeper and quicker cuts in troop numbers. The outgoing US commander in Afghanistan, General David H Petraeus, is crafting a suggested schedule for the troop reduction amid calls from Pentagon officials to stay the surge course for another fighting season. The retiring defence secretary, Robert Gates warned of the high “cost of failure” of pulling out too many troops too soon.
While this has echoes of 2009, much has happened since. One, Bin Laden’s killing has given President Obama greater room to manoeuvre and strengthened his ability to take a more bold course and prevail over his military commanders if he wants to.
Two, his administration has made it clear that the war will eventually have to end by a negotiated settlement. This stance has aligned Washington with the growing international consensus that an end to the conflict should be hastened by peace talks. The US special envoy to the region Marc Grossman, who has been shuttling between Kabul, Islamabad and Washington, has been mandated to pursue the ‘reconciliation process’ and reach out to the Taliban.
In this backdrop the more important decision is not about the size of troop reductions this summer in Afghanistan but how the mission will be defined for the remaining US and Nato forces there. Will the recently articulated political objectives now drive the military strategy or work the other way around, as has been the case so far? The strategy that is chosen will determine whether this will help or hinder the peace process that Washington is now committed to. Violence has already intensified in recent weeks with the onset of the traditional fighting season.
If, as the Pentagon still insists – in following the Petraeus line – the military mission in Afghanistan persists with its present fight-and-talk approach, this will complicate if not impede the move towards reconciliation that most Afghans fervently wish to see. Bringing military pressure to bear in an effort to soften the adversary’s negotiating stance is a well-rehearsed tactic. But there comes a point when this approach runs it course and a pause in fighting is essential to allow diplomatic space for negotiations.
Washington acknowledges that historically all such conflicts end by a negotiated political settlement, and so must the Afghan war. But it has yet to accept the proposition that continued military escalation simultaneous with the pursuit of a negotiated settlement would diminish, not enhance, prospects for such an outcome. Vigorous military campaigns involving night raids are seen by Afghan officials as having the opposite effect to that intended. They strengthen the Taliban’s will to fight and offer, by way of civilian casualties, a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban.
The notion of talks with the Taliban only from a position of strength is also predicated on an unreliable assumption – that the tenth year of war will produce a game changer that nine fighting seasons have not. It overlooks another reality. The Afghan Taliban will not negotiate if they think they are weak and being shot at. Indications are that they will do so if they can engage in talks as ‘equal’ partners. The logic of defeating the Taliban before talking to them makes little sense.
To signal seriousness about peace talks a mutual de-escalation in violence will be necessary. This does not mean yielding ground but holding that ground and not ramping up militarily. It also means exposing the negotiating process to the test of a mutual suspension of offensive actions. This could start by a reciprocal undertaking to end night raids by Nato forces and cease assassinations of Afghan officials by the Taliban. Cessation of hostilities could offer the Taliban an incentive to abandon Al-Qaeda, the most important of America’s red lines for a settlement and its over riding strategic goal.
The historical experience of peace processes is that they start with some form of agreed standdown or ‘pause’ leading to a negotiated cease-fire. Accordingly, efforts to explore interim peace building measures will determine if the nascent Afghan reconciliation process can gather momentum in coming months.
What will make President Obama’s troop withdrawal announcement meaningful – and strategic rather than political – is if he calibrates this as part of a strategy to provide an impetus to the peace initiative rather than affirm a course that undercuts this.