It is time for Western governments to develop a new approach to their engagement in Afghanistan. The present counterinsurgency strategy is too ambitious, too draining and out of proportion to the threat posed by that country.
It is well to recall the original purpose of the Western presence there: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and prevent its return.
War aims traditionally expand, but in Afghanistan they have ballooned since 2001 into a comprehensive strategy to make Afghanistan stable and secure, as well as to develop and modernize the country and its government. This is a case not just of mission creep, but of mission multiplication.
Defeat of the Taliban insurgency has been seen as virtually synonymous with the defeat of Al Qaeda, even though much of Al Qaeda’s organized capacities have been displaced to Pakistan.
But the two tasks are not the same. The original aim has been achieved: Senior American officials confirm that Al Qaeda is now hardly present in Afghanistan. The campaign against the Taliban, however, promises to remain extremely taxing if it is continued. Yet the Afghan Taliban poses no external threat to the West.
President Barack Obama has announced that the American troop presence will begin to wind down from mid-2011. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has said that by 2015 he does not want Britain to have combat troops in Afghanistan. Other contributors of troops will quite naturally take their cue from these. So the stage seems set for a significant drawdown in the next few years. What is missing is a strategy that will allow this to happen while preserving Western interests.
The best way forward is to adopt a containment and deterrence policy that addresses the international terrorist threat from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions. This is a strategy that will in any case need to be implemented whenever combat forces withdraw. But it should be introduced more quickly.
Containing the international threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border and deterring the reconstitution of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would have political, diplomatic, economic and military elements.
It would require political deals in Afghanistan and among key regional powers, including India, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states. It would entail promises of economic and development support to those who embrace it, as well as the threat of military strikes against any re-concentration of international terrorist elements.
Unlike the present counterinsurgency strategy, this new approach would not be so dependent on orchestrating near-ideal internal political and developmental outcomes in Afghanistan. Nor would it require the degradation of Taliban capacities to the point of near-surrender, a prospect that is by no means immediate.
It would not depend on winning an ever-lengthening succession of local battles against an enemy that is motivated by the presence of foreign forces.
Rather than signaling victory for the enemy, it would represent a policy that could meet the principal security goal over a longer period than the current approach, given the low support for the campaign among Western electorates.
Indeed, it would underline the fact that the original goal of the combat has already been achieved.
As a first step, foreign forces should be restructured to deter and prevent the reconstitution of a terrorist threat. This would mean redeployment to the north of Afghanistan and the arrangement of a status-of-forces agreement that would allow intervention in the south against any reconstitution of jihadist capacities.
This could involve targeted operations, but not attacks on Taliban forces that posed no extra-provincial threat.
Second, outside powers should seek to orchestrate a more federal Afghanistan, where the provinces accept that formal rule and external authority resides in the capital, and the capital cedes practical sovereignty on most issues to the provinces.
However paradoxical it may sound, a balance of weakness between the capital and the provinces may be more conducive to stability. International cooperation would continue, but not to the extent of investing more power in a central government that cannot deliver.
Third, the new strategy should accept that the Afghan National Army will need to have a federal character, co-opting local forces with local roots.
Coalition military leaders have already discussed with President Hamid Karzai the creation of uniformed local security forces: Afghan Army badging could follow.
Fourth, the United States and others will have to further deepen the engagement with Pakistan, persuading Islamabad that contact with a wide variety of actors in Afghanistan is necessary, and engage more fully with other regional actors, including India.
If the foreign combat presence in the south were removed, it is not obvious that the area would become a magnet for Al Qaeda’s reconstruction. Taliban leaders would think twice about inviting it back, given the experience of the last decade. At least they could be made to think twice. An effective containment and deterrence strategy could make sure that this did not occur.
John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.