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Breaking the Stalemate in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
March 20, 2009

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After more than seven years of war in Afghanistan, the United States is upping the ante. With an additional seventeen thousand troops slated to begin arriving this spring, President Obama and his military commanders say they will seek to improve security and in turn, clear space for governance and development to take hold. But as the Obama administration fine-tunes its approach to the Afghan fight, it is also paying heed to a view long-held among experts in the region: To win the fight in Afghanistan, progress must be achieved in Pakistan first.

In an interview with the New York Times this month, Obama said his new strategy aims to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists; curb the cross-border flow of militants; and promote stability in the tribal regions of Pakistan. This week, Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, told the Newshour the only way to break the stalemate is to take "an Afghanistan-Pakistan approach to the insurgency." The U.S. is also planning a corresponding civilian surge (WashPost). Yet whatever policy the new U.S. administration pursues, predictable hurdles await. A political and constitutional crisis is rattling Pakistan and the weakness of Islamabad's elected government has raised concerns that Washington lacks a capable partner. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, told the Washington Post aid money will not be authorized if Pakistani institutions appear unable to use it effectively.

If aid were linked to progress, Islamabad could be in for a financial hit. The Pakistani Taliban has in recent months tightened its grip on the Swat valley (al-Jazeera), despite a series of failed cease-fire agreements. Pakistan army efforts to control the militants--considered proxies in Islamabad's regional political strategy--have also frustrated U.S. observers, and the United States has broadened its use of unmanned aerial drones in the border region as a result. But this tactic has led to deep resentment among innocents on the ground. A new interactive map by the Center for American Progress counts as many as 543 people killed by U.S. strikes since 2006; only twelve were top al-Qaeda operatives. U.S. military commanders, meanwhile, say the majority of civilian deaths are attributable to insurgent activity. While the Obama administration has not commented publicly on how it might proceed if Pakistani military efforts continue to falter, advisers are encouraging an expansion (NYT) of U.S. air strikes in Pakistan, as well as the use of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Operations commandos for ground missions, a program approved by President Bush.

On the Afghan side of the border, experts see different risks. Last year was the deadliest (iCasualties.org) thus far for U.S. and coalition forces, and CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says lawmakers should prepare for an increase in casualties as the United States deepens its commitment. Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress (PDF) on March 10 that "enemy-initiated violence" in Afghanistan increased 55 percent in 2008; roadside bombings jumped by 106 percent. Given the instability, most experts say the key requirement for any new Afghan plan is restoration of security to rural regions (CSIS). Analysts say Afghans have become easy targets for co-option by a rapidly evolving enemy (NPR) that includes the Taliban, criminal gangs, clans, and drug runners. And while public support for the Taliban remains low (PDF), a security vacuum has left many Afghans with no other option but align with the Taliban. But until that vacuum is filled, say observers, victory on either side of the border will continue to be elusive.

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