Trotsky in Baluchistan

Trotsky in Baluchistan

Mini Teaser: Afghanistan is in crisis. Unless we redouble our efforts, the Taliban will take Kabul and throw the entire region into chaos.

by Author(s): Ahmed Rashid

IN AFGHANISTAN: a war going in the wrong direction, a fatally flawed election, reconstruction at a standstill and a growing political vacuum that the Taliban is filling even as some NATO countries contemplate withdrawing their troops.

In nuclear-armed Pakistan: a long-running multidimensional crisis, political and ethnic strife, an unprecedented economic depression, and growing local Islamic extremism which plays host to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

In central Asia: the start of a suicide-bombing campaign by Taliban-inspired extremists wanting to derail regimes and governments that are themselves beset by corruption, unwilling to carry out economic reforms, practice authoritarianism and pauperize their people.

In Washington and European capitals: growing doubts about President Obama's commitment to and the viability of the U.S.-led military and nation-building campaign in Afghanistan, continuing suspicions about the intentions of Pakistan's military, the inability to push ahead with a regional strategy or engage with Taliban moderates, and now a lack of a credible government in Kabul.

Some of these points were highlighted by General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, when he sent his new Afghan strategy document to the White House on August 30, 2009. McChrystal called for a widening and deepening of a proper counterinsurgency campaign with the deployment of more U.S. troops and civilians-a campaign that was outlined by President Barack Obama in March when he presented his assertive new Afghan strategy to the American public. Obama then, and McChrystal now, stressed the need to rebuild the Afghan government and win the people's support-in other words, carry out nation building, a phrase that was banned from the Bush White House for eight years.

The speed of the deterioration in Afghanistan, however, has blighted Obama's March strategy, depressed U.S. congressional and public opinion, and called NATO governments to openly question their future commitments. The rigged Afghan elections have created enormous doubts about Karzai's credibility and legitimacy, while Western forces suffer the heaviest casualties to date under a continuing and withering Taliban offensive. Although talking to the Taliban has been a major plank of the Obama plan, it is impossible to imagine any such talks while the Taliban remains militarily strong and is convinced it is winning.

Every news day in Washington has brought different ideas and more dissent to the debate. Yet with all the talk about policy options, two issues remain exquisitely undebated. Although McChrystal clearly described the threat from the Taliban as lethal, what is still only hinted at in Washington is that it is the Taliban and not al-Qaeda that could capture power in Kabul and send the entire region into a tailspin as neo-Taliban members spread into Pakistan and central Asia.

Al-Qaeda still poses a global threat to Western and Muslim states alike, and defeating it is the main focus of U.S. policy. However, all the concerns about instability in Pakistan and central Asia should actually revolve around how to contain the Taliban and local extremists.

The proposal by some Americans to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and instead fight al-Qaeda with drone-fired missiles would only push this vast strategic region swiftly into chaos. Moreover, such thinking still does not address how to get at the leadership of al-Qaeda and the various Taliban movements-all of whom are sitting in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has not been persuaded to turn its ship around and develop a clear policy that does not differentiate between the pro-Pakistan Taliban and the "bad" Taliban.

Ultimately the choices are stark. Either the United States and Europe abandon the region to the forces of violence, extremism, poverty and the danger of loose nukes-with all its consequences-or they remain committed and prepare to carry out both counterinsurgency and nation building. Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia are on the cusp of a critical historical moment on which the region's future stability depends. Only U.S. leadership alongside that of the international community can assure that the region does not fall to extremists or other vicissitudes.


THE DISASTROUS legacy that Obama inherited in Afghanistan is primarily the fault of former-President George W. Bush and his failure to deliver sufficient political, military and economic resources to both the country and the region writ large. But lest we think revisiting the past is an unnecessary detour into mistakes no longer relevant, it is fixing these missteps that is key to preventing a complete radicalization of the region.

The descent of Afghanistan to the brink of anarchy was solidified last year. It was the result of eight years of blunders, miscalculations and wanton neglect. It is in these areas that Obama must now course correct.

It was the Bush team's lack of a strategic agenda for Afghanistan in three critical areas that led to an inevitable escalation of violence. There were woefully insufficient U.S. troops and no comprehensive strategy that would have integrated U.S. military and civilian activity to help the Afghan government increase capacity, improve governance and speedily build its security forces. Greater interagency cooperation in Washington and Kabul-similar to the relationship built up in Iraq between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. commander General David Petraeus-was nonexistent.

Second, there was no comprehensive diplomatic or regional approach to Afghanistan's six direct neighbors, a necessary precondition if Bush's team was to come to grips with the complex history of these states' interference and battle for influence in Afghanistan. Two of them, Iran and Pakistan, were clandestinely backing the Taliban. Still, Pakistan's military ruler, then-President Pervez Musharraf, remained Bush's hero. And Afghanistan's influential distant neighbors Russia, India and Saudi Arabia were also ignored.

Last, there was no political strategy for state building and improving governance by dealing comprehensively with President Hamid Karzai, government ministers, warlords, tribal elders, governors, the parliament and other players. Setting out clear benchmarks for Karzai and his government to adhere to should have increased Afghan effectiveness, but Bush's regular telephone calls to the president were largely wasted on fireside chats, rather than focusing on setting priorities and resolving policy issues. To top it all off, Bush made only two trips to Afghanistan in eight years, the last just a few weeks before he finally stepped down.

The only positive agenda that seeped through into Afghanistan in 2008 was the new U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, pushed by General Petraeus, that was working well in Iraq. However there were insufficient troops to carry out its principal tactic, which rather than chasing insurgents meant protecting population centers and building trust in the government. In July 2008, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned the Bush administration that Afghanistan needed at least three more brigades, about twelve thousand soldiers, but admitted troops could not be spared because of Iraq. Later that winter, Mullen diverted U.S. troops destined for Iraq to Afghanistan, so that they could clear out the Taliban from provinces adjacent to Kabul and reopen Taliban-blocked roads. But though necessary, this served only to stem disaster. It was not enough to make progress. Greater U.S. funding for a faster buildup of Afghan security forces only started in 2007. And, unlike Iraq, which had an existing army, the new Afghan army had to be built from scratch. By the end of 2008, Taliban attacks had risen by 40 percent over the previous year. Compared to Iraq, the new doctrine arrived in Afghanistan without resources.

Essay Types: Essay