The protests in Afghanistan over the burning of copies of the Quran confiscated from detainees at Bagram Airfield have led to more than two dozen deaths, and have severely — perhaps even permanently — undermined the United States’ determined efforts to win hearts and minds in the country. The killing of NATO troops by members of Afghanistan’s security forces, or militants in their uniforms, is a dangerous new trend, and one that severely complicates relations between international security forces and their local hosts. It may now be time to consider new strategies by which to achieve U.S. and Western goals in Afghanistan.
Ever since the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001 in retaliation for the 9-11 attacks, the Western alliance in Afghanistan had two broad objectives: to defeat al-Qaeda, and to establish a viable non-Taliban alternative government to ensure that neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban resumed their prior positions. These objectives remain the foundation for the United States’ base lines for engagement with its adversaries: renouncing violence, breaking ties to al-Qaeda, and accepting the Afghan constitution.
In recent years, the United States has largely pursued a classical counterinsurgency strategy, similar to that employed in the later stages of the Iraq War. This has involved a focus on population security, capacity building, and the eventual transfer of authority to the local government and security forces. The military and civilian surges, efforts to accelerate the recruitment and training of Afghan security forces, and the reintegration of the Taliban, were all essential elements of this strategy.
But Afghanistan has been beset by at least three major challenges that distinguish it from Iraq. First, the Afghan leadership under President Hamid Karzai has as yet failed to establish itself as an effective and popularly mandated government, and it remains unable to provide adequate governance and security on its own. Moreover, given the endemic corruption, the absence of political reform, and the feeble state of the Afghan security forces, there is little hope for meaningful improvements soon. By contrast, at a similar stage in its conflict in 2007 and 2008, Iraq had held successful national legislative elections, thus ensuring that established political parties represented every sectarian group in its legislature and that the government could exercise its authority over a larger proportion of the population. But without the promise of improved governance, Kabul’s demands for greater development assistance and a long-term security guarantee from the United States are beginning to look like a moral hazard. Karzai’s increasing recklessness may well be based on the conviction that his government is too important for the West to let fail.
Second, an intransigent Pakistan military continues to play the role of spoiler, providing safe havens and other forms of support to various Taliban factions that target Afghan and Western interests in the country, including the particularly aggressive Haqqani Network. Yet the United States’ ability to respond to Pakistani transgressions is limited by the leverage Pakistan exercises as a conduit for essential supplies to Afghanistan, as a provider of occasional intelligence, and as a possessor of nuclear weapons.
Lastly, the United States’ has been ambiguous about its own intentions, as evidenced by a rather arbitrary deadline for concluding combat operations, and public vacillating over its strategic goals in the region. This enables various actors in South Asia to cherry-pick from a variety of official U.S. statements to justify their own agendas or reinforce preconceived notions.
The United States and its allies must now consider whether their strategic objectives — which are no less important today than they were on September 12, 2001 — can be achieved with a lighter military presence, possibly one relegated to bases in Bagram and Jalalabad, and some of Afghanistan’s more stable northern and western provinces. This can only be seriously contemplated if there is certainty that violence will decrease, if relations with local stakeholders improve, and if the Afghan government and security forces behave more responsibly. At the same time, a lighter footprint may help address the challenges presented by inadequate Afghan governance, Pakistan’s leverage and duplicity, and the United States’ own strategic ambiguity by forcing Kabul to become more self-reliant, freeing NATO from its dependence on Pakistan for supplies, and reducing uncertainty about the United States’ long-term strategy. Such a strategy should not be misconstrued as withdrawal or abandonment, which is what the United States’ partners fear and its adversaries hope for. In fact, it will be a means of sustaining and prolonging the West’s presence in the region. At the same time, the only viable way forward in Afghanistan may require taking better advantage of the United States’ inherent strengths in dealing with an asymmetric threat: intelligence gathering, special operations, and drone capabilities.