A few days ago, SecDef Panetta said that his preference would be an ending of a combat role for American forces by mid-2013, which sends mixed messages about our war effort. Considering the growth of homegrown troops...
...his announcement makes a degree of sense. Also, there are 90,000± Defense Department contractors (link), and who knows how many there will be over the next several years. However, Panetta also said NATO would be downsizing Afghan forces as well, which doesn't make sense. The motivation behind the Afghan downsizing appears to be financial and political, not strategic.
The timing of Mr Panetta’s remarks about accelerating the pace of the transition to Afghan national security forces (ANSF) owes more to the Obama administration’s electoral calculations than to the situation in Afghanistan. There, everything argues against a rush for the exit.
Although Mr Panetta paid lip service to Lisbon, stressing that his proposal did not mean early withdrawal and adding “we’ve got to stick to the Lisbon strategy”, he was, in fact, carefully undermining what had previously been agreed on.
Even the end-2014 deadline for withdrawing Western combat troops was tight, but at least it was based on a phased transition and a staged ISAF drawdown that everyone understood and was working towards. The second phase of the transition, which started last year, has already put the security of about half the country in Afghan hands. Over the next two years, the plan was for Afghan forces increasingly to fill in for Western troops as they either withdrew or were deployed elsewhere, holding what General John Allen, ISAF’s American commander, calls the “human terrain”. In a recent interview, General Allen described the ANSF as the “defeat mechanism” of the Taliban insurgency.
Accelerating the pace of the transition and cutting the numbers of the Afghan forces inevitably risks eroding the real security gains that have been made in the south (particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces) since America’s “surge” in 2010. It also places in jeopardy the aim of a concentrated effort to peg back the insurgency in the still-violent east during the next two fighting seasons. Before Mr Panetta’s announcement, General Allen’s job looked difficult but doable. Now it just looks difficult.
There have been numerous failures and mistakes since Obama greenlighted a counterinsurgency strategy but, to me, the biggest is that we were unable to enlist enough Pashtun leaders to side with the Afghan government. We couldn't earn their trust. In Iraq, a key turning point was the group decision by Sunni sheiks in Anbar province to reject al Qaeda and join the coalition. For the most part, this hasn't happened in Afghanistan. There were no sheiks to be had. Talibans are Pashtun, and they are sufficiently enmeshed in the tribal culture to have its way. ISAF could not make headway, so Plan B is to have Afghan forces fight the Talibaners, with U.S. and NATO personnel in training and support roles. That's the best we can do. There is no doubt that the Afghan army can use more Pashtuns.
Earlier this week, BBC was able to leak a report from NATO, and the information is based on 27,000 interviews with 4,000 Taliban, al Qaeda, foreign fighters and civilians. The Economist has a good read on the report, particularly Pakistan.
The semi-comforting belief that only “rogue elements” in the ISI have close connections to the Taliban never had much basis in fact and it has less now. A senior al-Qaeda commander in Kunar province (in the wild north-east of the country) says: “Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can't [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.” The report also states: “Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan.” Nasiruddin, a son of the Haqqani clan’s leader, Jalaluddin, and its most prominent fund-raiser, was arrested by Pakistani agents in December 2010 as a sop to American pressure to take action against Taliban leaders in Quetta. If Nasiruddin is indeed free and living in the same neighbourhood as the ISI, suspicions that his detention was a sham will be confirmed.
At Foreign Policy, Arif Rafiq discusses the possibilities of civil war and discusses the groups involved. To me, civil war is a virtual certainty. The Taliban won't back down, and the other ethnic groups aren't going to back down either. The Karzai administration is ineffective and ineffectual. And finally, Pakistan harbors Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists. Dysfunction will reign, especially with an Obama wanting to bail.
Speaking of terrorists, this article tells how al Qaeda dupes its followers.