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Jan 30, 2009

Winning will be more about diplomacy than body counts.

By Matt Testing

Most presidents do not have to face the decision to send Americans into combat in their first 100 days.
For America’s 44th president, however, that decision is imminent. Those he sends will confront war on many fronts, one of which is a nuclear state on the brink of failure. And their deployment could prove worse than bootless without a diplomatic initiative of almost unparalleled ambition, one that succeeds in aligning the deeply conflicted interests of such regional players as China, Russia, India and Iran.

Watch FLYP Media’s short documentary on the status of the conflict in Afghanistan, and what it means for both the new president and the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and South Asia.

The Way Out of Chaos: FLYP’s interactive map shows how the keys to success will be building mutual confidence among all regional powers through diplomacy.

More than seven years after America went to war against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, victory is a word without meaning. 
Three months ago, a leaked draft of Washington’s latest National Intelligence Estimate described the trajectory of Afghanistan as a “downward spiral.” 
More recently, the British envoy to Kabul was quoted as saying, “the current situation is bad, the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption, and the government has lost all trust.” Britain’s former commander in the region, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, says flatly: “We cannot win in Afghanistan.” 
Meanwhile, the Taliban have become an ever more lethal threat inside Pakistan, a nuclear power now drawing perilously close to chaos.
Against this discouraging backdrop, President Barack Obama is about to receive a flurry of strategic reviews—one by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, another by General David H. Petraeus’s Central Command, still another from the UN. All of them are expected to conclude that the government of Afghanistan is in desperate need of further support. That seems likely to mean a large new deployment of U.S. combat troops. Thirty thousand are already promised, which would double the size of the present force. 
The question is why?

Legacy of Failure: Afghans “just want to be able to walk down to the bread shop without being shot.” Watch FLYP’s video on the topic.

Afghanistan has become the new Kashmir, proxy territory for the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan.
Over the past few years, several high-profile Kashmiri jihadists have very publicly migrated to the lawless tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to join the Taliban’s struggle for power in Afghanistan. There, they have combined their deadly skills, tactics and extremist ideology with those of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mixed into that deadly brew are also disaffected Pakistani army officers who had trained and run the fighters of Kashmir.   
Since then, this neo-Taliban have taken over more than half of Afghanistan. Their activities are bankrolled by the poppy crop and drug trade, an underground reservoir of wealth equal to more than half of the official Afghan economy. 
The war in Afghanistan has so far cost 644 American lives, far fewer than the Iraq conflict, but the trend is in the wrong direction.
Allied air strikes—a blunt-instrument approach driven by a lack of troops on the ground—have driven an increase in civilian casualties, and combined U.S. and NATO casualties have increased by 50 percent in the last two years, from 191 to 294. The fighting is expected to intensify when the snow melts this spring. 

Afghanistan is a different country from the one ruled by the Taliban until November 2001. Despite continued corruption in the government of Hamid Karzai (who has a “limited talent pool of corruption-free officials to choose from,” as one Congressional report drily observed), Afghanistan has a constitution, a rambunctious parliament and free elections (a second round to be held this year). 
Within bounds of a country where conservative Muslim values have an honored place, the media are relatively free. Since the Taliban era, 350 newspapers have opened, as well as 40 radio stations and seven television networks. Women now have an important place in the political and economic life of the country. One-quarter of the seats in the upper house of Parliament are reserved for female legislators, girls’ schools thrive and the burqa is optional. Except, that is, where the Taliban rule—which means, in the common phrase, “everywhere the soldiers are not.”  
Today, there are 60,000 U.S. and NATO troops and 130,000 Afghan military and police spread around a country of more than 30 million—a third of what is theoretically required.

Check out FLYP Media’s interactive timeline infographic that details America’s troop involvement in Afghanistan.

“The total number of Afghan National Army soldiers by the time we’re done is probably going to be north of 200,000,” says John Nagl, a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and an expert in counterinsurgency at the Council for a New American Security. “An Afghan National Army of that size with an international presence of perhaps 100,000 would in my eyes be sufficient to provide security to the population of Afghanistan.” 
Training new troops for the Afghan National Army and slowing the insurgents’ gains—so the theory goes—will allow the pace of national reconstruction and good governance to quicken in a country that has been at war for more than 30 years and remains the poorest nation in Asia.
Almost no one believes that that will be enough.

The theater where American soldiers can fight is Afghanistan, but experts say the war will be won or lost in Pakistan.
At least until recently, elements of Pakistan’s military command and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been playing a double game with the U.S. and the Taliban, publicly allied with the former while privately encouraging the latter. (The first country to recognize the Taliban regime in Kabul, Pakistan was also the last to break with it.) 
In keeping with their vision of Pakistan as a protective homeland for all South Asian Muslims, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment saw the Taliban regime in Kabul as a counterweight to India, which has long been perceived as Pakistan’s greatest threat. 
“Important officers within the Army continue to believe that the threat they were called to service to defend Pakistan against is India,” says Steve Coll, director of the New American Foundation and the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. These officers think of the U.S. as “a fickle friend and an unreliable partner” and believe “that to defend Pakistan against its true enemies, sometimes it’s necessary to do unpleasant work with groups like the Taliban.”
That may be changing.
The neo-Taliban have renewed their attacks on Pakistani security forces in the tribal region and launched forays into the cities. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and a deadly truck bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad four months ago—meant to rid the government of her husband just hours after his first speech to Parliament—may be persuading even hard-liners that the greater threat lies within.

Pakistan, 2009: “The most dangerous place in world right now for the United States.” Watch FLYP’s short documentary on the subject.

Taliban terror has also come to the people of Pakistan.
In the picturesque Swat Valley, within easy reach of such major cities as Peshawar, Rawalpindi and the capital, a few thousand Taliban fighters keep four times as many government troops at bay and 1.3 million citizens in constant fear. A nightly radio broadcast castigates those who shave their beards, dance, watch television and send their daughters to school—and announces the latest exemplary assassinations. 
The New York Times recently reported that more than 70 police officers have been beheaded or killed otherwise in the region in the last year. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters have destroyed at least 169 girls’ schools, forcing others to court bombing or stay closed.
As despised as the Taliban appear to be in Pakistan, America is even less popular. Many Pakistanis blame the U.S. war in Afghanistan with chasing the Taliban into their country. They resent the U.S. pressure on the Pakistan military to fight the Taliban, and have been outraged by U.S. attacks on jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal regions. America’s very presence in Afghanistan is believed to reflect a longstanding bias toward India. 
The recent U.S. nuclear accord with India serves as a further source of mistrust in Pakistan, which has been excluded from the nuclear club because of its illicit history of proliferation. Talk in the West about how Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might be destroyed or debilitated in the event of a national meltdown does nothing to instill confidence in the U.S. or NATO as an ally.
In a country penetrated by the fear that America’s ultimate goal is the destruction of the Muslim world’s only nuclear power, the U.S.’s cross-border pursuit of violent extremists in the tribal areas represents a threatening insult to Pakistan’s sovereignty. Demands for the Pakistani military to join the fight against the Taliban can seem in Islamabad like a call to national suicide.

On its own, Afghanistan will never be able to afford a security force equal to the threat, and international support can only go so far. The long-term solution depends on eliminating the need for a huge Afghan army by creating regional stability. That, by all accounts, will require a diplomatic coup.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have given that job to Richard Holbrooke as U.S. special envoy to the region. For now, his brief notably excludes India. But it’s hard to imagine stabilizing Pakistan without addressing the thorny bilateral issues that keep the two neighbors always dangerously close to war.
And it will require more than that.  “What we need is a regional strategy so they can help in resolving and stabilizing Afghanistan,” says Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
Besides the local powers, key players that must be brought into that complex diplomacy include Iran, Russia and China. The aim would be to stitch together a deal that guarantees Pakistan’s territorial integrity, supports a political solution for Kashmir and resolves governance issues in the tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Iran, which has in the past been supportive of action against the Sunni Taliban, needs assurance that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging area for U.S. military action against it. 
Russia needs to see the U.S. and NATO not as a threat to its interests in Central Asia but as a defender of them. Like Beijing, Moscow faces a Muslim extremist threat of its own. 
China, the largest single investor in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, must also be made to believe that neither the U.S. nor NATO is trying to undermine its interests in the region.

That’s an enormously complicated agenda, and it may require a very delicate task: talking to the enemy. The good news is that the Taliban are not a monolith.
“When I think of counterinsurgency, I think of an onion,” says Nagl. “In the hard core of the onion are committed insurgents…who simply have to be captured or killed. But as you get further outside the onion, the level of commitment to the cause decreases…In Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are a number of layers to this onion.”
If troop strength is sufficient to reduce the level of violence and fear, if diplomacy can reach agreement among the parties on the need for and path to stability—both very big “ifs”—then Afghanistan may just get the time and space it needs to achieve good governance, eliminate corruption, move against the opium trade, create jobs and markets and coopt the Taliban movement’s appeal to Islamic values. 
“Today, such suggestions may seem audacious, naïve or impossible,” Rashid and his co-author, Barnett Rubin, wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. They concluded: “without such audacity there is little hope.”

Expert Voices: Hear the full versions of FLYP’s interviews with authorities on counterinsurgency, fixing failed nations and the region in conflict.

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