Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Post-Osama Afghanistan

I had planned to write a piece on the future of the US involvement in Afghanistan, but Osama bin Laden’s death adds a new twist to our commitments there that needs to be incorporated into any discussion. In effect his killing may raise the question of whether or not this event will be seen as marking the beginning of the end of our engagement in Afghanistan.

When we first invaded Afghanistan, our actions stemmed from attacks on US assets, particularly the devastation of September 11, which had been orchestrated by members of al-Qaeda living in the country. Our purpose was to flush them out, capture or kill them, and create an environment in Afghanistan that would no longer be conducive for groups like al-Qaeda to freely operate in and attack us from.

To accomplish these goals we invaded, orchestrated the overthrow of the existing political structure, and supported and financed the creation of a new authority—a secondary aim to our primary mission of removing al-Qaeda. The result was that a part of the country supported this move, while another part fiercely contested it, even as most attempted to continue with their daily lives uninvolved in a larger political struggle. Ten years later that general breakdown holds true.

During this past decade while we have attempted to develop tactics and strategy for defeating the Taliban—the main, if not decentralized, adversary to the Karzai-led and US-supported government—it is important to come back to our original goal in order to put our strategies and tactics in perspective. In that context it is important to remind ourselves that our main goal was, and still is, the removal of Afghanistan as a home for a global terrorist movement.

Yet along the way to achieving this goal we become embroiled in nation-building and fighting an insurgency, even as both of those outcomes were secondary to our primary concerns with al-Qaeda and should not necessarily be looked at as aims existing unto themselves. In fact, neither secondary element would exist if not for our central mission. And in many ways this main objective has already been accomplished. Al-Qaeda has moved operations away from Afghanistan to its franchises around the world, particularly in Yemen and Africa, it has a presence of less than 100 members remaining in Afghanistan according to the US military, and, if bin Laden’s death and the killing or capturing of other top associates over the years has shown, Pakistan and not Afghanistan has become the “safe-haven” for many of its important figures.

The problem is, our war in Afghanistan has crept well beyond the original impetus for our involvement and even our original mission—removing al-Qaeda. Instead the secondary goal—a Taliban-free and democratic Afghanistan— has taken the majority of our focus and has, in many ways, superseded our primary concern.

In attempting to deal with this additional objective, we have been forced to fight a counterinsurgency (COIN) war against the Taliban and its affiliates. At its most basic, COIN involves a governing authority's attemps to stop or control an insurgency that has challenged it. The goal of the insurgent is to undermine or wipe out that authority, and its power, in the area or population they are attempting to dominate. The counterinsurgent is attempting the opposite—to protect their influence and clout and eliminate or contain the insurgent. Simple. Right?

Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Without going into depth over the diverse reasons as to why various insurgencies exists—in Afghanistan the Taliban’s loss of power is the fundamental component to their struggle—the key towards successfully fighting one is through maintaining, securing and expanding a government’s control over the contested domain it is facing an insurgency in. To successfully do that the government must have some sort of combination of the following: legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the population and/or the willingness and ability to annihilate their enemy and its support base.  Herein lies the problem of Afghanistan—the Afghan government and the US do not have the needed legitimacy nor do they have the willingness to totally destroy the Taliban and anyone who might support it considering the mass civilian casualties that will cause, even if the US might have that capability on paper.

That the US has hitched itself to an Afghan government that does not have widespread moral or political legitimacy is at the core of the problem with our engagement in Afghanistan and our stated goal of a democratic and Taliban-free country. If we can remove the possibility of a scorched-earth type campaign against the Afghan insurgency from the playbook, there remains only one real option for succeeding in this operation— a more legitimate authority than the current one. But that too does not seem like a real possibility. Unfortunately, there is not a readily available alternative to the Karzai government that does not involve the Taliban.

Given these fundamental issues, it's important to reevaluate our situation and go back to the original impetus for our involvement in Afghanistan—the denial of a home for al-Qaeda—as a means of questioning whether or not our primary concerns have been accomplished to an acceptable degree and if our secondary aims are both important enough to outweigh the costs they accrue and feasible enough to be accomplished.

In light of Osama’s death, it seems likely that pressure will mount to draw down our troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban was never a global threat to the US, nor the reason we invaded, and killing bin Laden, as symbolic as it might be, is evidence of the waning of al-Qaeda—even as events in the Arab Spring have further demonstrated.

Yes, there will be concerns over what will happen in Afghanistan if we withdraw and whether or not a contested state will allow elements like al-Qaeda to again find refuge. But instead of conjecturing about a potentially worse “what if” scenario in the future, we should focus on the already bad present—both in terms of costs in blood and treasure and our inability to defeat the Taliban—in evaluating the benefits of our continued commitment. Within that appraisal it seems logical that our decision-making should be based not on unknowns but on the realities we face—including the reality that al-Qaeda, without Osama bin Laden as its ideological head, is no longer the organization it once was.

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