There are good reasons to conclude that the “new” US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by President Obama on 1 December will fail. But it could have serous consequences for Pakistan and the region.
First, the objectives of the strategy are too broad and opaque. Last March, President Obama’s emphasis was on defeating and eliminating Al Qaeda. Now, the aim is also to “roll back” the Taliban insurgency. To eliminate Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, it must be separated and isolated from the Taliban “sea” in which it is currently hiding. But, the US troop surge will be mainly directed against the Taliban insurgency. It will push Al Qaeda and the insurgents closer together, making it more difficult to isolate and target Al Qaeda.
Second, the strategy is mostly a military plan. It fails to address the motivation and causes of the Taliban insurgency, which derives mainly from Pashtun alienation and disempowerment and is now emerging as a Pashtun liberation movement. The Taliban and other Pashtun insurgent groups cannot be “peeled off” to side with a government in Kabul that is dominated by the Tajik and other warlords the Taliban were fighting prior to the 2001 US intervention or with a foreign army supporting this regime. The Taliban may not enjoy significant popular support. But, they are mostly Pashtun and better placed to secure local support and cooperation from common people in the Pashtun regions.
Third, the additional 30-40,000 US-NATO troops may be able to clear and even temporarily hold some of the areas in the South and East of Afghanistan. But, the troop numbers will still be entirely insufficient for sustained control over Afghanistan’s vast deserts, valleys and mountains. (The Soviets could not do this with 140,000 troops plus an effective Afghan Army of 80,000.). In fact, the McChrystal plan envisages defending civilian population centres and withdrawing from “indefensible” outposts including those along the border. As a result, the areas under Taliban and insurgent control are likely to enlarge not contract after this surge. [continued…]