The long-awaited White House Review on Afghanistan demonstrates that General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy is beginning to pay dividends. The additional U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan have helped the U.S. and coalition forces begin to uproot the Taliban from some of their traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The most important task now is to gain greater Pakistani cooperation.
There has been less progress on standing up civilian government in the areas cleared of insurgents, however. While the U.S. and coalition forces have shown they are capable of clearing Taliban from their strongholds, they have yet to demonstrate that Afghan civilian leaders can hold these areas once military operations subside. This will be a key benchmark to watch over the next six months.
The strategy review also reveals significant gains against al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas, thanks to an intensified drone campaign that has eliminated key leaders and disrupted the terrorists’ ability to operate and train for attacks against the West. Although the U.S. must also focus on al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and Somalia, it is clear that the most significant al-Qaeda threat continues to reside in the borderlands of Pakistan.
Continuing to make gains against al-Qaeda and consolidating the security gains inside Afghanistan will require more cooperation from Pakistan. Pakistan has confronted militants in its border areas, and has lost many soldiers in these operations. The country also continues to suffer terrorist attacks throughout the country that claim hundreds of lives each month. Yet Pakistan continues to hedge on its support to the Taliban and is reluctant to take on Taliban-allied militants like the Jalaluddin Haqqani network in North Waziristan, which it believes can protect Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan.
Indeed some in Pakistan’s security establishment are pushing for a role for Taliban and Haqqani network members in a future Kabul government. Senior Taliban and Haqqani militants retain close ties to al-Qaeda and their return to positions of power in Kabul would provide al-Qaeda a safe haven in that country. This issue continues to be a major source of division between Washington and Islamabad.
The policies of the Obama administration are aimed at bringing Pakistan into closer alignment with U.S. goals in Afghanistan. However, a recent National Intelligence Estimate on Pakistan assessed that the Pakistan military would not give up its support for the Taliban and its allies.
The Administration must develop a strategy that will successfully bring the U.S. and Pakistani visions for the future of Afghanistan into closer alignment. The U.S. has offered Pakistan many carrots to this end. It must now be much more demanding of Pakistani cooperation. Without it, the war cannot be won.
The Administration has backed away slightly from the 2011 withdrawal date by highlighting the date of 2014 as the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. While the shift is welcome, the Administration must drop all talk of deadlines. Reiterating timelines for withdrawal tells our enemies and friends alike that we are only half-heartedly committed to the fight.
It will be important for President Obama to identify Holbrooke’s replacement as quickly as possible in order to continue momentum on the civilian/political aspects of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. Obama must identify someone with a measure of regional expertise and that carries political heft so as to be able to serve effectively as Gen. Petraeus’ civilian counterpart.
Some argue that the position of the Senior Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) should be disbanded or down-graded, but this would be a mistake. The terrorism threat involves both Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus it is necessary to have a high-level Washington-based official that can deal effectively in both countries. The position was not specifically created for Holbrooke as some have reported in the media. The idea of establishing a senior-level coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan pre-dates the Obama administration. It was included in the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act legislation dating back to 2006 and advocated by several South Asia experts during the 2007 – 2008 time period.
The Review brought some encouraging news from the battlefront in Afghanistan. Now the administration must focus on consolidating these security gains and taking a leadership role on political reconciliation that will necessarily involve regional players.