A conference in Kabul was held today about the international exit strategy from Afghanistan. A few things came out of it:
1) There's a goal date for Afghan Army leadership of every province in the country for 2014. Karzai and international forces are agreed on it (though it's non-binding).
2) The US will still keep drawing down forces in 2011. It will probably start slow--it's not the optimal time to draw down, but Obama has domestic promises he'll need to keep.
That said, let's think about the strategy itself.
First, what's the minimum goal of ISAF? To prevent an al-Qaeda (or other anti-Western international terror force) from taking hold. Certainly, if the Taliban takes over Afghanistan (or controls a large portion of it in a stable way), the risks of this will be very high--the war will be a failure.
The more control that the Kabul government has over Afghanistan, and the weaker the Taliban is, the higher the chances a pro-Western stable equilibrium will arise. Thus all the focus on state-building.
But at the end of the day, Afghanistan does not even have to be as strong and stable as Iraq to be a "success." That said, they're very different situations--Iraq was mostly a sectarian civil war, and Afghanistan is mostly an ideological insurgency (a la Vietnam, as much as that's a scary thought).
The strategy suddenly sounds a lot like the Petraeus strategy in Iraq. It includes:
1) Get the troops out onto the ground. Have them standing side-by-side with Afghani soldiers as patrollers in the streets. This not only trains the Afghani soldiers, but helps keep NATO soldiers looking like the good guys.
2) Focus on handing over one province at a time. Kabul will need to slowly and gradually develop its statecraft. Readers from 2006/2007 may remember Foggofwar's close tracking of the progress of province handover. I continue to believe this will be an important performance indicator. The strategy will allow NATO to continually consolidate troops into more and more troublesome provinces, as "easier" provinces are taken by Afghani troops. The "easier" provinces will provide areas to build experience for the Afghani Army, so that veterans can be cycled to "tougher" provinces that fall under Afghani control after stints in these "easier" provinces.
3) A focus on aggressive raids. The trick here will be to continually deny safe haven to the Taliban. Special forces should be employed at night to make it as scary for the Taliban to sleep as it is for pro-Western collaborators. Constant raids in Iraq against al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups went a long way in eliminating the actual insurgent part of the war.
Some new parts of the strategy:
1) A high reliance on Pakistan. The US needs to continue to be very diplomatic with the Pakistani people. Luckily for the US, it has managed to make drone bombings in northwest Pakistan enough of a status quo that it doesn't seem to be making the Pakistani people angrier. The US will almost certainly be sending special ops to assist Pakistan in offensives in Northern Waziristan and other hot spots to deny the Taliban cross-border support and organization. We'll continue to stress here at Foggofwar the importance of making sure there aren't "safe zones" for the Taliban to fall back, regroup, heal, resupply, organize, command, communicate, etc. It must be made into a fractured and confused force if it can be broken.
Pakistan also has a fair amount of success in breaking the Pakistani Taliban, though the Pakistani Taliban is generally considered to be "softer" and less experienced than its Afghani counterparts (who have been fighting a tough guerrilla war for most of the last 25 years). That said, lessons can be learned by the thoroughness of the Pakistani offensives.
2) Dealing with supply problems. Iraq really had few supply problems for the US. Basrah, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia all provided easy entry points for supplies. As news of attacks on NATO supply convoys in Pakistan/Afghanistan suggests, NATO must sometimes operate with fewer supplies than it would like. This can easily hamper offensive efforts.
That said, conditions in Afghanistan are currently terrible. Roadside bombings in Q1 2010 are double those in Q1 2009. June was the deadliest month in the 9-year war for ISAF forces. A previous post of mine suggests that this may be a better sign thatn one would immediately think, but it does indeed still risk running ISAF (or parts of it) out of Afghanistan. For every country that breaks and peels away, the Taliban strikes a victory.
They also have control of most of the southwest of the country--it's a big territory with a fair number of people. Getting potential sympathisers to work with the Afghan government will require such a massive and sustained disruption of Taliban operations there that they cannot hunt and kill the sympathisers at night--one of their most effective terror tactics.
Going forward, NATO will have to keep drone missiles, special ops, and the occasional small offensive in the Pashtun region (along with brilliant cooperation with Pakistan into the north) as it consolidates northern provinces under Afghani government control, in order to prevent the Taliban from mobilizing into a full offensive itself. As the Afghani Army grows, NATO will need to prepare a full invasion force--prepped by special operations, spearheaded by the Marines & Army, and then garrison by massive numbers of Afghani police and army, to take control of the Pashtun region. It will need to be huge, swift, and incredibly costly.
The exit strategy is a tough one. This is a much more difficult war than Iraq ever was. Ultimately, it will depend on being able to win over parts of the Taliban, and breaking the top-level leadership to prevent sufficient collaboration by the various Taliban factions for a full takeover.