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Strategic Stalemate in Afghanistan

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • July 19, 2010

    When the next Afghanistan Conference begins at Kabul on July 20, the United States (US) and its NATO/ISAF allies will have little to show by way of success in counter-insurgency operations. Eight and a half years after the US and its allies effected a regime change in Afghanistan and six months after President Barack Obama decided to send more American forces to the beleaguered nation, Afghanistan remains mired in instability. The Lashkar-e-Tayebba has joined hands with the Taliban-al Qaeda combine to fight the Allies and wanton acts of violence are a daily occurrence. With neither side making major gains, the emerging situation is best described as a strategic stalemate.

    Consequent to President Obama’s carefully considered ‘surge’, there are now 93,000 US troops in Afghanistan. This figure is set to rise to 105,000 by the end of the summer, but even then the coalition forces will still remain thin on the ground. While it is too early to draw firm conclusions, success in recent operations has eluded the Allies. Combined US and British operations in Helmand province – the nucleus of Afghanistan’s narcotics-driven terrorism – succeeded in driving the Taliban out of its strongholds, though only temporarily. Violence continues to persist in Marja despite large-scale Marine Corps operations. Major military operations in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar have been delayed. Inevitably, it will be a long and bloody battle.

    The Indian experience has been that it takes a ratio of 1:30 – that is, the sustained deployment of 30 security forces personnel for every terrorist – to gain and maintain military control over an area affected by insurgency or rural terrorism. As has been witnessed in the Kashmir Valley, as soon as the troops pack their tents and go away to launch operations in another area, the terrorist groups make a triumphant comeback. They once again lay down the law through fatwas, collect ‘taxes’, extort money for unhindered trade and dispense their peculiar brand of justice. Since the Afghan state cannot effectively deliver governance and justice, the people grudgingly look to the Taliban.

    Urban areas require an even more concentrated deployment and the local civilian police and para-military forces are much better equipped to handle these rather than regular armies. Despite the best efforts of the allies, the Afghan National Army (currently numbering 110,000; final target is 2,60,000) and the Afghan Police have failed to acquire the professional ethos and motivation levels that are necessary to deal with Jihadi extremism. Training standards in small team counter-insurgency operations are low and cutting edge junior leadership is still lacking. They are also short on numbers as recruitment rates are low and desertions are high. Meanwhile, the Taliban and al Qaeda seem to have no difficulty in recruiting an endless stream of suicide bombers from the thousands of madrassas astride the Af-Pak border. In fact, they pay them monthly wages that are almost on par with those of the Afghan army.

    Crossed wires between the Obama Administration and President Hamid Karzai and tensions between Karzai and the Pakistan leadership, as well as the proclivity of the Pakistan Army and the ISI to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, have weakened the overall response to the terror tactics of the opposing forces, which are far more united and are sharpening their skills at coordinating their operations more effectively while carefully avoiding detection of their hideouts and communications by the sophisticated satellite, electronic, UAV- and ground-based surveillance systems available to the allies.

    President Karzai appears to have lost confidence in the US commitment to comprehensively defeat the Taliban. Consequently, he has begun negotiations with the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers. Though even the Pakistanis are willing to go along with Karzai’s strategy of talking to the so-called ‘good’ Taliban, which has been endorsed by the US, there is widespread disagreement over who the good Taliban are. For example, the Pakistanis are keen to include the Haqqani faction in the talks, but the Afghans and the US are firmly opposed to Sirajuddin Haqqani. All the international and domestic players involved in the complex web of Afghan politics want a direct part in the negotiations and are unwilling to accept a secondary role. Many are conducting their own negotiations directly or through proxies.

    The Taliban have noted with glee President Obama’s ill-advised, self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing US troops in July 2011 after a review in December this year. Although high-level US civilian and military officials have said that a long-term American presence in Afghanistan is a certainty, the Taliban are convinced that the US no longer has the political will and the military staying power to sustain a large deployment and are biding their time. NATO countries and other allies of the US are keen to cut and run as their much smaller armies are facing rotational difficulties and the war has lost popular support. The Pakistanis, who seek strategic depth in Afghanistan and have looked at the Taliban as strategic assets in the past, still harbour ambitions of installing a pliable and dependent government in Kabul. They are also telling the Taliban to have patience and hang in there. The Obama Administration is banking on the surge to succeed and has few other attractive options.

    As most students of military history would readily concede, a prolonged stalemate between a large, well-armed and well-equipped modern force and a motley array of guerrillas or other non-state actors like terrorist groups has almost always culminated in a victory for the underdogs. This happened in Vietnam when the Vietminh successively defeated the French and the Americans. It has also been seen in Afghanistan earlier when the Afghan warlords defeated the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1980s with help from the CIA and Pakistan.

    If radical extremism is to be comprehensively defeated in the Af-Pak region, it is important for the US and its allies to stay the course as long as it takes. As they have no more troops to contribute to the effort, the net must be enlarged to include military contributions from Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, perhaps under a United Nations flag. The international community must stand united to ensure sustainable stability in Afghanistan. Under no circumstances whatsoever must the Taliban be allowed to stage a triumphant come back to practice its peculiar brand of totalitarian governance and cultural fascism with utter disregard for human rights.