Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Emerging Afghan Strategy

After much hype and flailing about, the whirls of motion of the US military and executive seem to be coalescing into an unexpected elegance: an Afghan Strategy.

What do we see going on? First, we see the Marjah offensive. Arguably the last major stronghold of the Afghan Taliban in Helmand, Marjah had the potential to be quite tough. Because NATO telegraphed this offensive for months (this is not necessarily a criticism), the Taliban had time to really hunker down and fill Marjah with IED's to punish the invaders. Such preparations not only meant that the battlefield was heavily boobytrapped, but also that most civilians were too afraid to leave the area.

But US forces have performed brilliantly so far. Special forces were dropped into the center and south of the town, disrupting Taliban coordination, potentially damaging its local leadership, and preventing planned escape routes from being easily accessed. All reports thus far suggest this move had helped to scatter and frustrate resistance in the town, and the primary Marine thrust from the north has faced only sporadic fighting. Enemy sniper teams continue to be an issue for slow-moving bodies of troops trying to clear IEDs, but Marjah appears that it will be a decisive success with minimal NATO/Afghan Army/civilian casualties.

We see also that "decapitation" efforts in Northwest Pakistan are occuring with a startling effectiveness (especially compared to the last 8-and-some years). Drone attacks have increased in frequency, as have reports of the deaths of key Pakistani Taliban leadership. Mullah Omar's second in command has been captured by (what is actually being publicly announced as) a joint US-Pakistani intelligence operation. There is one likely explanation for the sudden success: increased intelligence sharing and cooperation between Pakistan and the US.

Third, we see a flurry of diplomatic activity around Pakistan, as well as policy changes within. CENTCOM Commander General Petraeus and his primary contact in the Pakistani military have reported that they have achieved agreement on how to deal with the Taliban, which is an incredible step forward--until just recently, major disagreements between the US and Pakistanis on just how to deal with the Taliban (and which elements of the Taliban should be stakeholders versus targets) have prevented serious cooperation. Pakistan and the US seem to have finally been able to reach a deal. It is almost certainly not a perfect deal for both sides, but the Taliban have, over the past few years, been able to make life painful enough for the leadership of both countries that some perspective on what elements of a Taliban strategy are truly crucial (and which are negotiable) for both countries has likely emerged.

Following this, we've seen high(ish)-level talks between Pakistan and India concerning arms reductions on their mutual border are occurring, which is quite an impressive leap. Not only are India and Pakistan in a relatively mutually-disagreeable geopolitical position with respect to each other, but they have been competing in Afghanistan for influence since the Taliban was ousted--the idea that they could be reaching a relative steady state in which they're able to take pressure off each other (important in particular so that Pakistan can move troops from its Indian border to relieve and support troops in the northwest) suggests a deeper understanding over a higher mutual interest that, as of yet, has escaped me.

But indeed, these sudden cooperations and agreements (where for years I have thrown around words like "hopeless" about the thought of such agreement) indicates either a change in perspective or priority (perhaps the Taliban have grown sufficiently bothersome to Pakistan that it was willing to make concessions to both the US and India), a very powerful (but discreet) carrot offered by the US and/or India, or simply a reduction in terms/needs on both sides (the US and India may be willing to tolerate and even quietly support a Pakistan-approved Taliban stakeholder in Afghanistan). Although, frankly, some combination has likely occurred. But that a Great Deal has been struck is becoming all but obvious, even if the terms are not being publicized. They will likely not be publicized for some time. But this deal has led to a massive (and likely sustained) disruption of Taliban leadership; coupled with the Marjah offensive (and others like it, similarly supported by Pakistani intelligence), the Taliban is likely to take a series of critical blows to its warfighting and governance capabilities.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly: negotiations. My goodness, they are everywhere, they are involving everybody, and they are sudden. Players as far-flung as China are at the negotiating tables with various elements of the Taliban, trying to win over some groups and isolate others. These negotiations will be difficult, as all the players have different wishes, different areas of competition, and different carrots to offer, and the more intelligent elements of the Taliban will play them off each other. But there is a unified drive that gives the negotiations hope: the aim is to "strike while the iron is hot" and bust up the Taliban--the disruption of its leadership, the renewed and surprisingly public cooperation between the US and Pakistan, and the very visibly victorious offensives by NATO and the Afghan Army are all meant to send a message: the Taliban has passed its peak of power in the AfPak region, the Surge is here to stay, and to win, Pakistan is no longer a safe haven, life is only going to get worse, the time to negotiate is now. Becuase different elements of the Taliban also have varied interests and different tolerance levels for war and mayhem, these negotiations aim to get the right elements to break away towards cooperation with NATO-led forces (spelling the doom of the die-hards).

And now, I'm going to ride on my reputation a bit and make a prediction. In many previous posts (that should be a cleverly-placed set of links, but I am too lazy at the moment to dig them up), I predicted that Afghanistan would continue to be a quagmire, and continue to be essentially unwinnable until the United States was able to garner Pakistan's support and cooperation. I will now predict that, now that NATO and Pakistan are working together, the advantage has shifted. What sort of victory can be won is as of yet unclear, but over the next few years, Taliban influence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to decrease significantly, and some elements of the Taliban will certainly break to cooperate with NATO/Afghanistan/Pakistan in hopes of cashing in on carrots being offered (rather than suffering the sticks that the combined forces are capable of delivering).
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