Friday, June 10, 2011

The Changing US Strategy in the AfPak Region

There is writing that is moving from the walls directly to the Oval-Office-sealed paperwork: the United States will be removing the vast majority of its presence from Afghanistan, and soon.

A few pretty obvious signs are pointing to this:
-Defense Secretary Gates is stepping down
-The extremely popular General Petraeus has been moved to the position of CIA Director
-The President is making it clear he plans to accelerate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan
-The US and Pakistan are finally working together to hunt down a list of Al-Qaeda / Taliban leadership using CIA/ISI resources

These signs are indicative of 2 major changes:
1) The US strategy in Afghanistan is becoming one that focuses on anti-leadership attacks
2) The US has discussed this strategy with Pakistan--and finally gotten real cooperation

As we discuss this strategy, we must keep in mind the US' overall goal: to prevent jihadist groups from being able to either unite the Middle East against the West, and from being able to organize and launch coordinated trans-national attacks.

The US has largely succeeded in its first goal. The Arab Spring is (mostly) a relatively liberal-democratic movement, rather than a jihadist one. The US has won the "hearts-and-minds" campaign; al-Qaeda and its affiliates lack support from large populations, except perhaps in Yemen and Somalia.

In the second, the US has largely succeeded in all places but Yemen and the AfPak region. Yemen poses a different problem, but the AfPak region can be managed without the total collapse of the Taliban.

In fact, much of the Taliban these days consist of a Vietnam-style nationalist movement. Yes, they're still unsavory folks that want to bring a twisted form of Sharia to Afghanistan, but that is largely not the US' problem, as much as we may cringe to say it. There's little indication that much of the Pashtun Taliban know much about al-Qaeda or, if they do, care for the trans-nationalist doctrine.

On the other hand, much of the hardened leadership of the Taliban and other associated groups pose the bigger threat to the US' interests. These leaders can and sometimes will coordinate strikes, as we've seen in Pakistan and India. The new strategy calls for their systematic elimination by drones or CIA/ISI strike teams coordinating both tactics and intelligence. So far, it looks like it stands a chance at being relatively effective.

In the general push for Afghan security, a few benefits arise:
1) Focusing on the leadership hampers the Taliban's ability to coordinate, resupply, etc, when facing offensives
2) Withdrawing troops hurts the Taliban's nationalist message
3) The Taliban actually do want a negotiated settlement, and seem to be willing to do so once the US withdraws. Yes, they will have much more bargaining power then, but a negotiated settlement (at this point) is a much more palatable option than continued warfare for either side. They have reached a "painful stalemate," and are ready to talk.

Ultimately, we must remember that most of the Taliban are folks with very well-defined and limited aims, that don't include attacking the US (as angry as they may be). To a large extent, we can use the NVDA/Viet Cong as an analogy for most of these fighters, even if international interests are involved in funding them.

The most important part, though, is finally getting Pakistan's full help. Pakistan is shifting for 2 reasons:
1) US promises of quick withdrawal have now made helping the US politically palatable. The Taliban are not popular in most of Pakistan, and carry out attacks against the Pakistani people all the time. If Pakistan can help the US in a way that is politically palatable, it will--the US has just given it that opening.
2) With the US withdrawing, Pakistan is now legitimately worried about the Taliban threat growing, and is going to take higher responsibility to deal with it, and take control of the Waziristan region. The US withdrawal has been a bit of a "wake-up" moment for both the Pakistani leadership and its people.

Ultimately, total defeat of the Taliban is unlikely. Unlike Iraq, where the there was a small group of "irreconciliables" that were systematically destroyed, the Taliban represent a large group that is afraid of marginalization (much like the Sunnis in Iraq felt), and it must be negotiated with and brought into the government in some way.

Focusing on strikes against the leadership is likely the way that the US can bring this negotiation to the forefront, while keeping the Taliban as weak as possible, and ultimately preventing any transnational attacks from occuring.
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