INSIGHT: Doable, not Preferable —Ejaz Haider
Obama would need to be clear about whether America is in Afghanistan to effect socio-political re-engineering of that country or whether it should lower the bar on its expectations and settle for creating a peace that ensures that Afghan territory will not be used for attacks against the interests of the US and its allies
As the new US President Barack Obama puts in place his West and South Asia policy, all concerned state actors should be bracing for more trouble ahead.
Obama’s strategy in the region is pegged on (a) incrementally reducing troop strength in Iraq and inducting additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan (the effort also includes getting NATO allies to commit additional troops); (b) taking out Al Qaeda-Taliban leadership along the Durand Line; (c) negotiating, where necessary, with reconcilable groups; (d) streamlining governance in Afghanistan; (e) hyphenating Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of the same war on terror; and (f) working out some regional arrangement which can lead to cooperative strategies, a pre-requisite for eradicating terrorism.
This looks like a fairly comprehensive approach. But while there is more seeming subtlety here, some aspects of the policy remain unchanged, as does the basic premise about bringing democracy to Afghanistan as a necessary and sufficient condition to fighting terrorism.
Let’s consider the salient features of this policy starting with the idea of reinforcing troop strength in Afghanistan.
The “surge” has become very popular following the publication of COIN FM 3-24 (counterinsurgency field manual) by the US Department of the Army. Widely reviewed in the US press, the manual has been likened to a magic formula of sorts which offers “paradigm shattering content”. The contribution to it by academics like Sarah Sewell, a former Pentagon official who now teaches at Harvard, has only served to add to the manual’s sexiness.
However, there are two problems with the manual-sponsored surge. One, the surge alone did not serve to turn around the situation in Iraq. There were many other factors and they worked, or were worked, in tandem to bring the insurgency to manageable proportions. In fact, empirically speaking, the situation in Iraq had begun to improve before the surge started, though it is correct to say that a certain ratio of troop density to population and the area that needs to be controlled does need boots on the ground.
Another problem with the manual’s manpower-intensive approach is whether the US army can undertake the stretch, given that Iraq has already strained the ground components of the US military. Moreover, considering the range of tasks detailed in the manual, it does not just require more manpower but a certain kind of manpower. Recruiting the manual’s high-prized counterinsurgency experts would be a tough call for the US. The issue is already being debated in US military circles.
Two, the situation in Afghanistan and along the Durand Line offers its own set of difficulties. Afghanistan is immensely more decentralised, diffused and amorphous than Iraq which, until Saddam Hussein was ousted, was one of the most successfully centralised, bureaucratic states in the world.
Afghanistan has never seen such centralisation. Creating hierarchies that can link up central authority in Kabul with the distant countryside even through a highly delegative mechanism would be a herculean task given difficulties of terrain, the nature of tribal structures, ethnic diversity and polarisation and, of course, vested interests created by the ongoing insurgency.
Contained in this warning is the degree of difficulty for COIN operations both at the tactical and strategic levels. The objective is not just to capture spaces but to retain control of those spaces without the physical presence of foreign troops. Success thus means transforming the hostile environment in Afghanistan to a benign one, at least one in which Afghan troops/paramilitary can operate effectively. It also means, ideally, that the countryside would fall in line with the dictates of Kabul. That’s going to be a long haul regardless of the number of troops committed and deployed to Afghanistan.
Let’s consider it from another perspective. Assume that a ratio of 20 highly trained and suitably equipped counterinsurgency specialists to a population of 1000 could be achieved, that ratio being optimal for ensuring the containment of the insurgency. What time-frame are we looking at in which successful counterinsurgency would begin to translate into the normalcy required for nation-building — assuming of course that other factors necessary for the task of nation-building are already in place, are being incrementally put in place, or could be put in place?
It should be obvious that the task of nation building is very different from keeping peace. Neither is it simply a function of erecting formal democratic structures, albeit they be essential. The question, therefore, is this: Is Afghanistan ready for (a) the procedures of democracy and (b) its substance?
How difficult it might be to move from the procedures to the substance is not only a debate that informs much of comparative politics but is a practical problem of gigantic proportions.
Corollary: as President Obama sits down to review the strategy in Afghanistan in particular and this region in general, it might be instructive for him and his team to understand the limitations of what can be achieved in that country and this region.
Obama would need to be clear about whether America is in Afghanistan to effect socio-political re-engineering of that country or whether it should lower the bar on its expectations and settle for creating a peace that ensures that Afghan territory will not be used for attacks against the interests of the US and its allies.
This is an essential trade-off. Also, the less ambitious option, as all such options go, is more doable than the first and allows greater flexibility of strategy to the US in terms of who to take out and who to talk to and on what terms.
But this is where the rub lies. The “new” strategy, despite being more nuanced in some ways, remains grounded in old perceptions, the most dangerous being that the insurgency can be defeated and that would automatically throw up a new, modern Afghanistan.
Whether that is possible we shall return to next.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article is the first in a two-part series. The concluding article will appear tomorrow