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    South Asia
     Sep 10, 2010
There's another side to Obama's COIN
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Amid continued high levels of violence and a steady stream of reports of high-level government corruption in Kabul, a growing number of foreign policy specialists are urging United States President Barack Obama to reconsider his counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

In a new report released on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of three dozen former senior officials, academics, and policy

 
analysts argued that the administration's ambitious "nation-building" efforts in Afghanistan were costing too much in US blood and treasure and that, in any event, "prospects for success are dim".

Calling for an accelerated timetable for reducing the US military presence, the "Afghanistan Study Group", which also urged intensified efforts to reach a negotiated solution with the Pashtun-based Taliban, echoed many of the points made in the latest strategic survey that was released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London on Tuesday.

"As the military surge reaches its peak and begins to wind down, it is necessary and advisable for outside powers to move to a containment and deterrence policy to deal with the international terrorist threat from the Afghan/Pakistan border regions," said IISS's director general John Chipman in introducing this year's report.

"At present, the COIN strategy is too ambitious, too removed from the core security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military energies needed both in the region and elsewhere," he noted. "For Western states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not be in the service of their wider political and security interests."

The two reports come amid growing public skepticism both in the United States and its European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners - two of which, Canada and the Netherlands, have just withdrawn all of their troops - about the course of the war, which will soon mark its ninth anniversary. Currently costing US taxpayers US$100 billion a year, the Afghan war became the longest in US history this summer when it exceeded the Vietnam conflict.

Despite the appointment in June of General David Petraeus, the author of the US COIN strategy in Iraq, to head US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, two out of three respondents in a recent CNN poll said they believed Washington was "not winning" the war. Half said the war could not be won.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken last month said they were "less confident" that the war would be brought to a "successful conclusion" - a striking increase from the 58% who took that view last December. Only 23% said they were "more confident".



The increasingly sour mood is no doubt due in part to the preoccupation with the economy and growing political support in both parties for cutting the yawning government deficit, of which the $100 billion spent on Afghanistan is not an insignificant part.

But the persistent high casualty rates - this year's total US military death toll, 331, already exceeds 2009's high of 317 - has also contributed to the growing popular conviction that the war is simply not worth the cost.

Meanwhile, the virtually daily reports of high-level corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai - this past week, major stories have featured the run on the politically well-connected Bank of Kabul - have persuaded a growing number of people, including members of the foreign policy elite and even a number of normally hawkish Republicans, that Washington simply lacks the kind of local partner that any true COIN campaign requires to prevail.

Released as congress returns to Washington after the long August recess, the Afghanistan Study Group's report, entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking US Strategy in Afghanistan", appears designed to provoke debate about US policy during the mid-term election campaign and in the run-up to a formal review in December by the Obama administration of how its COIN strategy is faring.

On the advice of Petraeus and the Pentagon, Obama has increased the number of US troops deployed to Afghanistan from some 35,000 when he took office in January 2009 to about 100,000 today. He has vowed to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, although the pace at which they will be withdrawn has not yet been determined and remains a source of considerable contention within the administration.

The administration has been split for some time. The so-called COINistas have argued for a major "nation-building" effort combined with a military campaign directed against the Taliban that they depict as inseparable from al-Qaeda. Others within the administration, reportedly led by Vice President Joseph Biden, have argued for a less ambitious counter-terrorism campaign (CT) aimed more narrowly against al-Qaeda on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

In that respect, the Study Group, whose membership spanned the political spectrum from the Democratic left to the libertarian right but was weighted most heavily towards "realists" who until George W Bush generally dominated the post-World War II foreign policy elite, is aligned more closely with the CT advocates.

Quoting former US statesman and arch-realist Henry Kissinger, the report noted that "Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces" and that "waging a lengthy counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarrelling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the US economy, and prevent the US government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems."

"We've been creating enemies faster than friends," noted Paul Pillar, who served as the US Central Intelligence Agency's national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, at the report's release at the New America Foundation (NAF). Complaining of a "disconnect" between the conduct of the war and the US aim of destroying and disabling al-Qaeda, he described the US intervention in Afghanistan as "a nine-year-long mission creep".

The report called instead for a five-pronged strategy that would "fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties"; intensify diplomatic efforts with Afghanistan's neighbors and others "to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability"; and lead an international effort to develop the country's economy.

Obama, it said, should "firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing US forces in the summer of 2011 - and earlier if possible. US force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human-rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed."

In particular, US forces should maintain their capabilities "to seek out known al-Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities," the report said. "Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are only some 400 hardcore al-Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan's northwest provinces."

Besides Pillar, other signers of the report included Gordon Adams, a top White House budget official for national security under the Bill Clinton administration who is currently with the Stimson Center; Steve Clemons, the head of NAF's American Security program; Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security; W Patrick Lang, who served as the top Middle East/South Asia officer in the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency during the 1990s; Selig Harrison, an Afghan specialist at the Center for International Policy; and Stephen Walt, a Harvard University scholar considered a leader of the "realist" school of international relations.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com

(Inter Press Service)

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