A New Strategy for Afghanistan

Lessons Learned from Iraq?

Obama's new US strategy on Afghanistan is forcing the European states to make decisions. If they want to increase their influence, they will have to fulfil the tasks they are already doing much more effectively. By Guido Steinberg

Barack Obama visiting Hamid Karsai in July 2008 (photo: AP)
Even before his election, Obama showed pronounced interest in solving the conflict on the Hindu Kush: Barack Obama visiting Hamid Karsai, July 2008

​​ Though Barack Obama's presidency is still in its early stages, the first indications of intent with regard to his policies on Iraq and Afghanistan are already surfacing. Afghanistan is going to be given top priority. The sending of an initial force of 17,000 additional US troops has already been announced.

Obama, moreover, has also made it clear that he does not intend to rely solely on military strategy; the reconstruction of the country is also something he wants to push ahead with. There are some indications that the American military and political leadership are preparing to import some significant aspects of their Iraq policy of 2006 to 2009 into Afghanistan.

The gradual calming of the situation in Iraq since 2007 was a major success for the Bush administration. Over the following two years, the US and its Iraqi allies succeeded in bringing an end to the civil war that had ravaged the country and in stabilising the security situation.

Factors behind the fall in violence

Although levels of violence are still high, the excesses of the past are no more. There are three main reasons for this success.

Firstly, the increase in American troops from around 30,000 to 160,000 along with changes in military tactics; secondly, negotiations with Sunni insurgents in order to persuade them to give up the armed struggle; and thirdly, the taking of decisive action against Shiite militias, particularly against the Mahdi militia of populist cleric Muqtada as-Sadr.

Members of the Mahdi militia in Sadr City, Baghdad (photo: AP)
Increasingly on the defensive: the Mahdi militia led by the radical Shiite preacher Muqtada as-Sadr

​​ The US army in Iraq used the extra troops in order to adopt a more aggressive strategy against the insurgents. Smaller outposts were set up away from the larger military bases in order to establish a more visible presence and offer protection to the local population. It was a strategy that succeeded in forcing the insurgents onto the defensive.

At least as important as the intensification of the struggle on the ground were the negotiations with those Sunni groups who were primarily engaged in fighting the American occupation troops and who had no objectives beyond what they were trying to achieve in Iraq.

The US troops were aided by the fact that al-Qaida's role in the insurgency had been marked by unprecedented levels of brutality, noticeable even in a country which has known more than its fair share of that particular commodity. From the end of 2006, former insurgents were coming together in militias and uniting with the Americans against the al-Qaida jihadists.

More important, however, was the American offensive against the Shiite militias in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army's attacks against Sunnis in Baghdad, beginning in 2005, had caused the escalation of the civil war in 2006.

President Bush's new Iraq strategy of 2007 was first and foremost a declaration of war on the Sadr movement. The Mahdi militia decided against an open confrontation with superior American troops and, since the beginning of 2007, no significant threat to the country's internal security has come from that quarter.

Political progress elusive in Iraq

In spite of all the military successes, political progress in Iraq has been much more elusive. Currently, the main source of potential danger lies in the possible escalation of the conflicts between recently strengthened president Maliki and the Kurdish parties. The Iraqi army and the police remain very weak, and there are still many unpredictable militia groups in existence.

US troops in Bakuba, Iraq (photo: AP)
Despite considerable military success, Iraq is going to be dependent on the presence of American troops for years to come, writes Steinberg

​​ Iraq is going to be dependent on the presence of American troops for years to come. The Obama administration also sees the necessity of this. Although an announcement on the withdrawal of American troops by August 2010 was made at the end of February, up to 50,000 soldiers are to remain in Iraq until at least 2011.

In Afghanistan things have worked out very differently. Taliban resistance has strengthened considerably since 2005/2006, putting the multinational forces under extreme pressure. On the one hand the Taliban have been adopting increasingly complex military tactics involving more active personnel – a clear indicator of their growing strength.

They have also adopted some of the tactics used by insurgents in Iraq – above all improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings. The main reason for the resurgence in the Taliban's fortunes was the Bush administration's lack of interest in what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the fact that military and intelligence resources had already been pulled out of South Asia for deployment in Iraq in 2002.

Change of tack under Obama

Corrective tweaks were being made to this policy by 2008, but it was not until the Obama administration arrived that a complete change in priorities was adopted. It was change that was only possible, however, because of the stabilisation of Iraq that began in 2007.

The new US government is not planning a wholesale transfer of the Iraq strategy to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Iraq experience does hold important lessons that can be applied in Afghanistan.

Firstly it has shown that increasing troop numbers can constitute the basis for a successful counterinsurgency strategy. But, just as was the case in Iraq in 2007, the chances of success in Afghanistan depend on a change in military strategy.

Taliban fighters close to Kandahar (photo: AP)
In the past three years the Taliban have recovered strength and extended their resistance, particularly in the South and East

​​ Showing presence outside the main urban areas and protecting the local population from insurgent attacks will again be a priority, though the planned increase in American troop numbers will not suffice for the full implementation of such a strategy.

Secondly, it makes sense to negotiate with the enemy. Depending on the situation, this may mean convincing the Taliban of the need to cooperate politically with the government in Kabul, or at least persuading some of the insurgents to abandon the fight.

This also makes sense in the case of the Taliban. The movement consists of three parts: the Taliban proper under the leadership of Mullah Umar, the so-called Haqqani network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and the Islamic Party (Hizb-e Islami) of Gulbuddin Hekmatjar. Both the Kabul government and the Americans have tried at different times to persuade Hekmatjar to give up the fight.

Negotiations are currently being held with him, and apparently also with the Taliban of Mullah Umar. It would also make sense to talk to the local tribal and militia leaders in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's role

A similar approach already proved successful for the Americans in Iraq. However, any newly gained allies will have to be provided with effective protection against Taliban attacks and this will require the continued presence and strengthening of NATO troops on the ground.

The biggest difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that the insurgents in Iraq had admitted their defeat to the Shiite militias in the 2006 civil war. For many of them this was their main reason for joining with the Americans.

The Taliban in Afghanistan, on the other hand, have no internal adversary; President Hamid Karzai's government leaves the fighting to the NATO troops.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karsai (photo: dpa)
The Taliban have repeatedly rejected offers of talks from the Afghan president Hamid Karsai in the past

​​ Moreover, the Taliban have the perfect place of retreat. Pakistan tolerates their activities in the hope of winning back some lost influence in Afghanistan. This means that Pakistan needs to be considered in any new Afghanistan strategy.

The price for Pakistan's cooperation will be the involvement of pro-Pakistan groups in any new Afghan government. Not least of the problems with this is the fact that the Karzai government is vehemently opposed to it.

The first statements and steps taken by the Obama administration point to a strategy similar to that adopted in Iraq now being pursued in Afghanistan. More troops are to be sent to Afghanistan and efforts made to improve the security situation, accelerate reconstruction and intensify training of police and army.

At the same time, an attempt will be made to get negotiations started from a position of strength. Negotiating partners will be sections of the Taliban as well as Pakistan and other neighbouring states, including Iran, Russia and India.
Richard Holbrooke, the US's newly appointed special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has already made several calls for this kind of regionalisation of the conflict. The greatest stumbling block to moves of this sort, however, is likely to be the Karzai government. It has so far proved itself incapable of contributing to a solution to the problems in Afghanistan

Tough decisions for the Europeans

The new American Afghanistan strategy is forcing Germany and the rest of Europe to make decisions. If the Europeans want to have an influence on events, they are going to have to undertake to fulfil the tasks they are already doing much more effectively.

The USA will soon be pushing much more forcefully than has so far been the case for an increase in European troops. Obama will present his new Afghanistan strategy to the allies at the end of March.

Then it will be up to the Europeans to decide to what extent they want to comply with any request to send more troops. If the US government does decide to go down the path outlined here, Europe should do as much as possible to cooperate with its wishes.

Guido Steinberg

© Qantara.de 2009

Guido Steinberg is an expert in Islamic Studies. He has worked for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs since autumn 2005 where he specialises in developments in the Arab world and in Islamist terrorism. Previously he was an advisor at the German Federal Chancellery.

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