Monday, October 25, 2010

The Pessimistic View of the War in Afghanistan

General Petraeus is painting a relatively rosy picture of the path forward in Afghanistan. US intelligence agencies are saying somewhat else. It can be summed up thus (By Strafor):

"As U.S. Col. Harry Summers so clearly articulated, negotiation is achieved militarily when military power is applied in such a way as to impose upon the enemy a choice: negotiate on American terms and on American timetables, or be destroyed. Negotiation with the Taliban must be understood first and foremost as lacking that latter possibility."

If the Taliban do not actually see their position weakening over time, effective negotiations will not occur--they may be willing to humor negotiations at the last minute as NATO leaves, in order to avoid a civil war, but the NATO bargaining position at that point will be nearly zero.

The question that's not yet clear to me is this: how strategically effective is the US "Surge" in Afghanistan? How effective are the attacks on senior leadership and the counter-insurgency movements on the ground? I just don't know.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What the Afghan Endgame Looks Like

The Taliban don't want a protracted civil war in Afghanistan. This seems difficult to comprehend, given the last 30 years or so of fighting.

But it should be made clear right away--fighting an invading power is much different from fighting a full-on internal civil war. Defeating an occupying power requires great patience, but the Taliban can largely avoid losing major resources and manpower by avoiding a NATO army that is not large enough to cover the entire country.

Fighting a civil war is much different. No waiting will do--fighting against the central government and its own Warlord allies will be a knock-down drag-out war of attrition, and one the Taliban may well not win, if US intelligence and drone attacks remain on Kabul's side. Such a civil war would be devastating, even if the Taliban won.

This scenario is very unlike the complete power vacuum left when the Soviet Union withdrew--the Soviets had not conducted in massive, extensive state-building that NATO has. The central government may not have driven the Taliban out of much of the country, but it does not mean the Taliban is close to secure.

The other point worth keeping in mind right now is that a player in a war or other disagreement wants most to negotiate when its relative advantage is peaking--that is, the point that it's going to be able to squeeze the most out of the other side. After peaking, time erodes the advantage, and less can be won.

Thus, the Taliban are coming to negotiate. Not the big-wigs (like Mullah Omar), but some of the elite near the middle that are feeling the pinch and the pain. Omar himself can't afford to appear to be willing to negotiate with an occupying power for an instant--too large a proportion of his followers (as well as is Pakistani ISI patrons) oppose such negotiations, and are likely to outright kill him if he becomes a collaborator.

The same risk applies to the leaders coming to negotiate. That said, they are not nearly as safe as they used to be in Pakistan, given the uptick in the frequency and success of US drone attacks against leadership of this level.

NATO is doing an excellent job of promising and reliably giving safe transport and harbor to those coming to negotiate--it might be personally safer for many of these leaders to come to talk, rather than hide in Pakistan.

But, ultimately, the top Taliban leadership is not declaring any readiness to negotiate--even if they may be leaning towards it. But in the end, the Taliban will not be able to sweep through Afghanistan and claim victory as NATO leaves. There will either be a negotiated settlement or a crippling civil war, and the former is more likely.

The biggest deciding factor for the top Taliban leadership will be whether they actually think their advantage is going to grow into the future. If it becomes obvious that their bargaining position is declining, the hard line against negotiations from the top will begin to soften--and many of the middle-level elite leaders will already have the initiative in talks.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Fascinating CIA-Army Campaign in AfPak

As the US looks to spin down its campaign in Afghanistan (looking towards draw-downs in 2011), it has two current objectives towards which it is racing:

1) Eliminate and prevent the resurgence of al-Qaeda links in the AfPak region that can contribute to worldwide terror attacks.

2) Sufficiently reduce the influence of the Taliban that it cannot take hold and later become a stable harborer of terrorism / Global Jihad.

Unfortunately, these two objectives stand in some conflict, particularly where Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan largely lacks the capacity to hit al-Qaeda targets in its northwest on its own, so the United States has been sending "covert" drone attacks over the border to eliminate them. This alone seriously increases tensions, but worse was that a drone attack recently killed 3 Pakistani soldiers by mistake--US-Pakistani relations are often strained, and should they break the US would lose what intelligence and military support it has against militants in northwestern Pakistan, which serves as a "safe zone" for the Taliban to retreat, regroup, reorganize, refresh, and re-enter Afghanistan anew.

The US is pursuing its two objectives with two very interesting campaigns.

The first: Petraeus is launching a full-scale Counterinsurgency campaign, actually much different from the combined COIN/civil war stabilization/insurgent-hunting programme used in Iraq. The strategy is a full "take-and-hold" style campaign, in which the US simply "moves in" to Taliban-heavy areas and tries to install a local government and security force--area by area (rather than seeking out and killing the Taliban). The campaign has met limited force-to-force resistance so far, mostly because full battles against NATO forces fare poorly for the Taliban--they continue to use hit-and-run or booby-trap tactics to wear down NATO as NATO tries to win hearts & minds with security & handouts.

The second: The CIA (with the President's go-ahead) has stepped up drone attacks on Pakistani soil to new highs--in its most recent publicized attack, the CIA killed 5 German militants, just after news broke that European citizens were part of a planned string of Mumbai-style attacks in Europe (this particular attack not only disrupts al-Qaeda in Pakistan, but likely does well to partially shore up confidence from the US' European allies that its presence in the AfPak region has the potential to make them safer). This campaign is likely tactically very effective--it is diplomatically extremely costly, and would be an unlikely direction for the Obama administration to take if it didn't seem to have a military effect.

To be fair, Pakistan is still looking towards a full campaign into the Waziristan area (after a relatively successful campaign in the Swat area), but it is not ready. Floods throughout the country have tied up much of its military (in relief efforts) and drawn attention away from the Taliban threat. If-and-when Pakistan moves north towards the Taliban strongholds in Waziristan, the tide of the battle may turn. Sadly, I've been saying this for a long time.