In many respects, Afghanistan represents a more difficult problem set… It does not have a number of the blessings that Iraq has, in terms of the oil, gas, land of two rivers, the human capital that Iraq built up over the years, the muscle memory of a strong government, albeit one that was corrupted over time… These kinds of difficulties make Afghanistan very, very hard. We have seen that and we will continue to see that. That's why, up front, I've said this is going to take sustained, substantial commitment.19
Afghanistan, General Petraeus notes, further, is landlocked, rural and has a high illiteracy rate.
Many of these difficulties threaten to worsen. Population growth is a crucial source of future difficulties. With a 2005 population of 24.5 million, Afghanistan is already estimated to have grown to over 33.6 million, and has among the highest rates of population growth in the world. Afghanistan is one of the states among those where "population is expected to triple by mid-century".20
Afghanistan's institutional structures have also been "unhinged by war for nearly 30 years".21 Despite the past eight years of liberal - though often misdirected - US and international support, the capacities for Governance remain abysmal. Worse, the destruction of infrastructure, the systematic slaughter or flight of educated elites, and the crisis of national leadership, place rigid constraints on the very possibility of rapid augmentation of capacities - even with significant infusion of foreign financial resources.
Just 19 higher education institutions currently operate in Afghanistan, though enrolment had increased from 4,000 students in 2001 to 37,000 by 2007.22 Despite the tremendous decline in Iraq as well, it is useful to note that the country's higher education system currently comprises as many as 20 Universities and 47 technical research institutes, under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which oversees 200 colleges, 800 departments and 28 research centres.23 Higher education enrolment in Iraq in 2008 stood at 370,000 - ten times the figure for Afghanistan in 2007.24 [There are, of course, tremendous concerns about the content and quality of education in both countries, but these cannot detain us here].
President Obama's AfPak policy, of course, purports to address many of these concerns, with a declared 'clear, hold and build' approach. Regrettably, there is little within the outlined AfPak policy that inspires confidence that this is, in fact, being implemented. Indeed, current AfPak policy merely regurgitates the failed policies of the past seven years; the "policy framework and the importance it attaches to this region have not changed dramatically from the previous administration."25 The essence of this strategy is summed up by Brahma Chellany as "surge and bribe",26 preliminary to an accelerated withdrawal. Obama's AfPak strategy, consistent with that of the previous administration, seeks to weaken the Taliban militarily and later strike a political deal with them from a position of strength. This experiment involves a continuation of the futile search for the 'moderate Taliban', the working out of unprincipled deals with fanatical warlords, and the raising of private armed militia, each of which has proven to be tragically counter-productive in the past. Given the fractious tribal politics of Afghanistan, and the limitless sanctuaries provided by its terrain, as well as the current and rising disruptive dominance of the Taliban, any deal-making with particular groups "will only strengthen the global jihadists' cause".27 Past experiments in Afghanistan justify little optimism regarding the success of this renewed attempt. In any event, the tiny 'surge' that is being attempted lacks the potential of creating even the transient dominance that would be necessary to negotiate, from a position of strength, even with the more opportunistic elements within the Taliban.
Another much-talked-about component of contemporary COIN strategy is the 'hearts-and-minds' component, the effort to win over local populations through developmental works. In the first instance, it is highly improbable that any such initiative can be successful as long as Predator and missile strikes continue to inflict disproportionate 'collateral damage' - though President Obama has committed particularly "to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties".28 Crucially, the USD 65 billion allocation for Afghanistan includes a developmental component that "doubles the size of the pot of money used by American commanders in Afghanistan to win over the population".29 Significant commitments for further financial relief were also announced at the London Summit. Unfortunately, the record of developmental investment in Afghanistan has been disastrous - what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as "heartbreaking":
For those of you who have been on the ground in Afghanistan, you have seen with your own eyes that a lot of these aid programs don't work… There are so many problems with them. There are problems of design, there are problems of staffing, there are problems of implementation, there are problems of accountability.30
A very large proportion of the aid, moreover, simply flows out of the country, funding profiteering western implementing agencies. Noting that "Foreign aid accounts for 90 per cent of public expenditure in Afghanistan",31 the aid agency OXFAM had earlier charged that much of the U.S. aid in Afghanistan is wasted on consulting costs, subcontractor fees and duplication.32 Another commentator observes,
It is estimated that less than half of development-assistance money budgeted for roads, schools, hospitals, electricity and other structural needs actually reaches the projects it was ear-marked for and only a quarter of those funds actually get to end users in the rural areas where most Afghans live.33
At bottom, it is necessary to contend with the reality of the collapse of governance in Afghanistan, and the principal that you cannot develop what you do not control. Development can only follow once the disruptive dominance of the Taliban over an overwhelming proportion of the country is effectively neutralized. The truth is, "NATO forces may be able to defeat the Taliban in individual battles, but they are not able to hold territory, much less clear, build and develop."34 There is little possibility that NATO or the Afghan Government will be able to meet this necessary objective of counter-insurgency - to clear, build and develop - under the present policy framework and disposition of forces and resources.
To reiterate, then, the surge is not a solution; only a sufficiency of forces and resources, deployed within a coherent strategic framework, can constitute a solution. Current US-ISAF-NATO strategy contains none of these elements. It brings, in effect, far too little and much too late to the Afghan theatre.
Pakistan: Instrument of Darkness
It is in Pakistan that the AfPak strategy faces its greatest challenge, and where its policy fails most comprehensively to break new ground. Crucially, President Obama's perspectives remain firmly fixed on near-term challenges and the objective of securing a tenable 'exit policy' for US forces in Afghanistan, with drastically diminished goals within the region - specifically, denying the al Qaeda safe haven and an operational base in Pakistan's border areas. The strategy to secure these limited objectives appears to be a virtual blank cheque to the Pakistan Army and Government, notwithstanding some tough rhetoric about 'conditionalities' and the diluted terms imposed by the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement (PEACE) Act, 2009, which gave approval to a tripling of non-military aid to Pakistan, even as it deleted the reference to "cross border attacks into India" - replacing this with the expression "neighbouring countries". While this may appear to be no more than a quibble, the reality is that Pakistan reads this as near-immunity for acts of terrorism on Indian soil.
In any event, US conditionalities are of no real relevance. The US has no punitive capacities against Pakistan in view of its continued dependence on the latter to secure any kind of action against the Taliban - al Qaeda combine on Pakistani soil. Indeed, if the US had the capacities to impose effective penalites on Pakistan, it would not have ignored the Pakistani role in the hundreds of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including many in which American lives were lost; or ignored the repeated and well documented warnings of an expanding Pakistani nuclear arsenal at a time when the security, from extremist forces, of the country's existing arsenal is suspect. The truth is, the same old 'strategic' calculations and the logic of Pakistan's 'indispensibility' to the 'war against terrorism' or "COIN (counter-insurgency) campaign"- or whatever politically correct euphemism the Obama Administration may now choose - will inevitably prevail the next time US or ISAF lives are lost in Afghanistan, or Indians are targeted in Afghanistan or in India, in an ISI-backed terrorist attack.
Curiously, augmenting US aid to Pakistan comes at a time when President Obama explicitly recognizes that the "civilian government there is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services."35 Worse, despite the apparent magnitude of aid flowing in to Pakistan, these are paltry amounts in terms of the sheer demographic explosion and developmental deficits in the country. Far from addressing the country's poverty and backwardness, infusions of foreign aid have historically acted as no more than bribes to the national elites - military and political - to secure minimal compliance with reduced US and Western policy objectives. There is no reason to believe that President Obama's policy brings anything new to the table.
Worse, as Pakistan's implosion gathers pace, neither the US nor the wider international community appears to be exploring the imperatives of responding to what is obviously a rapidly failing nuclear-armed state. Ignoring the entirety of the destructive dynamic that has been unleashed by enduring pathologies within the Pakistani state and society, the US leadership continues to clutch at the straws of 'negotiated settlements' with the 'good Taliban', of concessions on 'outstanding disputes', including Kashmir, and of developmental aid that is expected to choke off the "assembly lines of jihad" and the progressive formal and informal (non-state) militarization of Pakistan. But billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan in the post-9/11 era and a succession of failed experiments with the 'moderate Taliban' on both sides of the AfPak border have done nothing to stabilize this catastrophic country, and have only seen a continuous increase in the spaces for radicalization and religious extremism on its soil. Pakistan has, today, established itself as the very heart of global terrorism and the necessity of re-examining past policies with regard to this failing state is now inescapable.
The difficulty is that the world's imagination has been conquered by a skilfully constructed nightmare fantasy, and this has long paralysed responses to a Pakistan that is now approaching the threshold of state failure.36 Islamist extremism and terrorism have remained integral to the ruling establishment's approach to domestic political management and regional strategic projection, as well as of international resource mobilisation. In the latter context, Pakistan presents itself as part of the solution to the problems it creates, combining manipulation, intimidation, and blackmail - including nuclear blackmail - and is then handsomely rewarded for its minimal 'cooperation'. Against this backdrop,
…it is useful to conceive of Pakistan as a state acting as a suicide bomber, arguing that, if it does not receive the extraordinary dispensations and indulgences that it seeks, it will, in effect 'implode', and in the process do extraordinary harm to others. Part of the threat of this 'implosion' is also the spectre of the transfer of its nuclear arsenal and capabilities to more intransigent and irrational elements of the Islamist far right in Pakistan, who would not be amenable to the logic that its present rulers - whose interests in terrorism are strategic, and consequently, subject to considerations of strategic advantage - are willing to heed.37
This threat has yielded enormous rewards in foreign assistance as well as great latitude in conduct that would otherwise be construed as unquestionably criminal and as appropriate grounds for international sanctions. It is under a benign international dispensation - rooted in fears of possible state collapse - that Pakistan has consistently remained a 'minimal satisfier', doing as little as is possible to secure itself against punitive action, but preserving its instrumentalities and networks of terrorism, sustaining its campaigns of terrorism at currently available levels of deniability and the international 'tolerance of terrorism'.
The instrumentalisation of Islam and jihad remain an integral element of the political and strategic ambitions and outlook of the military-feudal-fundamentalist bloc that has ruled Pakistan since its creation. Despite the colossal 'blowback' of the jihadi-terrorist enterprise that the country is now experiencing, it remains the case that a powerful constituency in the political-military establishment remains sympathetic to and complicit with the Islamist extremist and terrorist formations that continue to operate with varying degrees of freedom across Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid thus notes,
A nuclear-armed military and an intelligence service that have sponsored Islamic extremism as an intrinsic part of their foreign policy for nearly four decades have found it extremely difficult to give up their self-destructive double-dealing policies after 9/11, even under the watchful eye of the CIA.38
Pakistan's accelerating hurtle into the abyss now appears irresistible. Unfortunately, US policy continues to fail to deal with the realities of Pakistan and its enduring pathologies, and with what one commentator has described as "the slow transformation of the Pakistani state itself into an instrument of the jihadist agenda."39 The sheer urgency of the crisis has largely been neglected by America's status quo policies, which ignore the fact that, as Rashid notes, "the situation in Pakistan deteriorates at a pace faster than policymakers can grasp."40
It is critical to recognize the augmenting danger, in this context, of WMD terrorism. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and a leading nuclear expert, observes,
When you map W.M.D. and terrorism, all roads intersect in Pakistan… The nuclear security of the arsenal is now a lot better than it was. But the unknown variable here is the future of Pakistan itself, because it's not hard to envision a situation in which the state's authority falls apart and you're not sure who's in control of the weapons, the nuclear labs, the materials.1
Despite a growing realization among wide segments of its national elite that terrorism is doing irreparable damage to Pakistan, and despite the best-intentioned abundance of aid and advice from other countries, Pakistan's paper-thin institutions and deeply compromised leaderships simply lack the capacities, the vision and the will to check the augmenting momentum. Traditional 'solutions' - democratisation, development, negotiated settlements and peace processes - have little scope for success in this context. The Army is the only significant and relatively stable power in the country, and it has historically held the nation together principally through the application of brute force and the instrumentalisation of radical Islamism - devices that are now producing diminishing returns. Crucially, this Army remains deeply ambivalent about the ongoing jihadi terrorism, treating it still as a principal instrumentality of regional power projection and domestic political management, even as it is locked in uncertain war with its own fanatic creations, stretched to the limits of its diminishing capacities across multiple theatres of internal conflict. This is an Army, moreover, that has long been mobilised on precisely the same ideology and principles of an aggressive, conquering Islamism that motivate the Taliban, al Qaeda and the numberless lashkars that project carnage across South Asia and into the wider world through their 'global jihad'. It is an Army that cannot commit itself unambiguously to the objectives of counter-terrorism - even if the tasks of counter-terrorism could still be assessed to be within its capacities.
Crucially, as the Western will shows signs of exhaustion, Pakistani efforts to aggressively enhance its agenda and influence in Afghanistan have intensified. Pakistan has offered its 'good offices' to negotiate with the 'moderate Taliban', an offer that appears to have found some traction in the international community. Pakistan is also seeking a wider role in training the Afghan Army, Police and Administrative Services - an eventuality, if realized, that would have catastrophic consequences for Afghanistan, for South Asia, and the world at large. If Pakistani proxies are once again entrenched in the Afghan system, they would simply take over and revert to a Talibanised order immediately after the withdrawal of the Western Forces, creating a situation that is best described as "pre-9/11 plus", with the extremist now much better networked, organised and armed, and operating under an umbrella of infinitely greater impunity.
The strategic and foreign policy challenges for the US and the global community, within the emerging scenario, principally involve the neutralisation of Pakistan's nuclear assets and the containment of the fallout of the country's collapse into anarchy or takeover by a Talibanised terrorist order. Evidently, these are colossal challenges, and the temptation to lapse into the make-believe of aid-driven development, democratization, 'peace processes', 'negotiated settlements', and deals with the 'good Taliban' will be great. But these are precisely the contours of past failure. Unless the hard core of Pakistan's 'enduring pathologies', its risk of state failure, and the cumulative consequences of these, are directly addressed, policy initiatives, including Obama's AfPak fantasy, will secure nothing of enduring value.
The World at Risk
A premature Western 'exit' from Afghanistan would have a direct and devastating impact on India's strategic and security concerns. A Pakistan-backed Taliban regime can be expected to be established at Kabul, either immediately, or shortly thereafter, with extremist elements - both state and non-state - in Pakistan and Afghanistan coalescing. Any element with Western sympathies would be a natural target of such a regime.
With the collapse of moderation at Kabul, an inevitable crystallization of an extremist alliance between Afghanistan and Pakistan would occur. This would impose a 'pre-9/11 plus' situation, particularly across the Eurasian mass, as 'victorious' Islamist Forces and their State sponsors escalate their jihad. Any existing differences, particularly those arising out of current Pakistani action against particularly groups of Islamists (the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) would easily be papered over, if necessary, with the 'sacrifice' of a few 'collaborators' who may have 'supported' the Americans and their anti-Islamist campaigns.
The levels of violence directed against the 'enemies of Islam', according to the extremist definition, in such a situation would be unprecedented. This is because the Islamists are now infinitely better organised and have far greater experience, as also access to more effective technologies and weaponry, including, potentially, chemical, biological and radiological weapons.
The US failure in Afghanistan would immensely widen jihadi recruitment. The Islamists will be perceived as having 'defeated' the world's sole superpower, and tens of thousands of 'fence-sitters', who have long had sympathies with the ideologies of Islamist extremism, but who remained away from the jihad, would be tempted to cross the line and join the terrorists. Jihadi triumphalism would find recruits across the Muslim world, and among Muslims across the world. This could take total jihadi forces to many multiples of their present strength. Such elements would be drawn from across the world to the 'victorious' AfPak complex.
Crucially, the Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors would be operating under an umbrella of impunity. Since the US-led Western coalition would have failed in Afghanistan, it would be clear to the state and non-state Islamist extremists that no country or power in the world would have any effective punitive capacities against the jihadi combine that would come to be located in AfPak. If the world's Great Powers were unable to impose their will on a tiny country like Afghanistan, with a population of 34 million, they could hardly have sufficient deterrent or punitive capabilities against a nuclear armed Pakistan of 170 million-plus. This calculus would also factor in the cultural and civilizational obstacles to any escalation beyond the nuclear threshold, in case of a catastrophic or WMD terrorist attack, including one on any Western target. In any event, state sponsors of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan would continue to exploit the interstices of deniability, transferring the blame for terrorist attacks - including potential WMD attacks - on unidentified groups operating 'outside their control'. An impotent West, with no capacities or stomach for a sustained war, would eagerly seize upon such alibis.
Unprecedented forces would be unleashed by a perceived jihadi 'victory' in Afghanistan, and that such forces would not only target the South Asian neighbourhood, but, overwhelmingly, the Western world as well. This is not Vietnam; the US cannot simply 'walk away' from Afghanistan. A continuous focus on short term goals is permanently undermining the long term and enduring interests of the international community. The US-Western perspective on AfPak remains incoherent, and, unless drastically re-envisioned, can only add to global chaos.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative.
See, "Pakistan: The Footprints of Terror", South Asia Terrorism
i-casualties.org: Operation Enduring Freedom, http://www.icasualties.org/OEF/.
South Asia Terrorism Portal data,
See, Ajai Sahni, "AfPak Cul de Sac", Paper presented at Plenary Session Four: "'A New Era of Peace': Opportunities for Advancement in the Middle East and South Asia", 23rd Asia-Pacific Roundtable, "Strengthening Comprehensive and Cooperative Security in the Asia-Pacific", Kuala Lumpur, June 2-3, 2009, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/ajaisahni/09AS06klrt.htm.
The five officials removed from the UN list are Abdul Wakil Mutawakil, who was foreign minister under the ousted Taliban regime; Faiz Mohammad Faizan, a former deputy commerce minister; Shams-us-Safa, a former foreign ministry official; Mohammad Musa, a deputy planning minister; and Abdul Hakim, a former deputy frontier affairs minister. The UN statement said Abdul Hakim broke with the Taliban and has been governor of the Afghan province of Uruzgan since May 2007 while Mohammad Musa has been an elected member of parliament from Wardak province since May 2007.
"International Security Assistance Force: Troop Contributing Nations (TCNs) 12 January 2009", GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/isaf-tcn.htm.
"US Ground Forces End Strength", Global Security.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/iraq_orbat_es.htm
Ibid. A drawdown commenced in December 2007, and by July 2008, US troop strength had been brought down to 132,000.
"Iraqi Security Forces Arrive", Strategy Page, August 19, 2008, http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htworld/articles/20080819.aspx.
C.J. Radin, "Afghan National Army: February 2009 Update", The Long War Journal, February 24, 2009, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/02/afghan_national_army_1.php.
C.J. Radin, "Afghan Police Update: February 2009", The Long War Journal, February 26, 2009, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/02/afghan_police_update.php.
Ann Scott Tyson, "Military Wants More Troops for Afghan War", The Washington Post, April 2, 2009.
"Struggle for Kabul: The Taliban Advance", The International Council on Security and Development, December 2008, http://www.icosgroup.net/modules/reports/struggle_for_kabul, p. 8.
"Petraeus: Afghanistan could be harder than Iraq", cnnpolitics.com, April 25, 2009, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/04/24/petraeus/
General Michael V. Hayden, "Transcript of Director's Remarks at the Landon Lecture Series", April 30, 2008, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/speeches-testimony-archive-2008/landon-lecture-series.html.
Sam Oglesby, "Can We Win in Afghanistan?" The Bulletin, March 6, 2009, http://www.thebulletin.us/article/2009/03/11/arts_culture/doc49b11bccbfld7515260758.prt.
"Afghanistan: Country Summary of Higher Education", The World Bank, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EDUCATION/Resources/278200-1121703274255/1439264-1193249163062/Afghanistan_CountrySummary.pdf.
"The Current Status and Future Prospects for the Transformation and Reconstruction of the Higher Education System in Iraq", http://www.unu.edu/news/ili/Iraq.doc.
"Academics struggle for civil society in Iraq", Inside Higher Ed, November 25, 2008, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/11/25/iraq.
Teresita C. Schaffer, South Asia Monitor, Number 128, May 1, 2009, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, http://www.csis.org/component/option,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,5463/.
Brahma Chellaney, "An Afghanistan 'Surge' Is a Losing Battle; So why is Mr. Obama betting on it?" Wall Street Journal Asia, January 9, 2009.
Brahma Chellaney, op. cit.
"Obama says US, Pakistan, Afghanistan face common foe", Reuters, May 6, 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN06537589.
Gordon Lubold, "May 7, 2009: Obama's defense budget shifts focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan", The Christian Science Monitor, May 7, 2009.
Glen Kessler, "Clinton Calls Years of Afghan Aid 'Heartbreaking'
in their Futility", The Washington Post, March 31, 2009,
"Paris Conference must result in more and smarter aid to Afghanistan, OXFAM says", OXFAM International, June 11, 2008, http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2008-06-10/paris-conference-more-and-smarter-aid-to-afghanistan.
Glen Kessler, op. cit.
Sam Oglesby, op. cit.
Vikram Sood, "Uncomprehending in AfPak", South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 7, No. 40, April 13, 2009, http://satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/7_40.htm#assessment1.
Shahid R. Siddiqi, "A Report Card on Zardari", Foreign Policy Journal, May 13, 2009, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/05/13/a-report-card-on-zardari/.
Pakistan has, for instance, progressed up the Foreign Policy Failed State Index over the past years, with its ranking rising from 34th among states at risk in 2005 to 9th in 2008. Failed State Index 2005 and 2008, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, http://www.foreignpolicy.com; http://www.fundforpeace.org.
Ajai Sahni, "The State as Suicide Bomber", South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 1, No. 49, June 23, 2003, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/1_49.htm.
Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, London: Allen Lane, 2008, p. xxxix.
Praveen Swami, "Understanding Pakistan's response to Mumbai", The Hindu, January 26, 2009.
Ahmed Rashid "A Dangerous Void in Pakistan", Yale Global, March 4, 2009, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=12048.
David E. Sanger, "Obama's worst Pakistan nightmare", The New York Times, January 8, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11pakistan-t.html.
(Published in Limes Magazine, March 2010)