October 11, 2009

The Perfect Strategy

Hope and change had barely faded into the afterglow when President Obama deployed another slogan to bring down the very expectations he had just lifted. With no time to waste in fulfilling his promises, Obama set about warning against the perils of perfection.

“Let’s not let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he preached, whether stumping for health care, the economy, or Palestine.

Now this motto is facing the ultimate test in Afghanistan, where Obama is trying to discern its many qualities independently and relative to Iraq. As the insurgency gathers by the day, he and his national security team have aborted the Taliban - “the perfect” - as a selling point. The narrow goal of defeating al-Qaeda - “the good” - the essential and necessary, remains the same as when Obama took office.

Except he is still on a quest for the perfect strategy, one that removes al-Qaeda without confronting the full might of the Taliban, glues together and shields a broken government, and doesn’t require building a whole nation. He must be on guard and prevent the perfect strategy from becoming the perfect storm.

Days after the Taliban downplayed a global agenda, the White House raised eyebrows by admitting it’s prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's future. Ambiguity was quick to follow. Did Obama and his team agree that the Taliban doesn’t pose a direct threat to America, or did Pakistan's veto on drone strikes in Quetta force a change of position?

Luckily the confusion didn’t last long. Focus may have permanently shifted off the Taliban when the latest intelligence report estimated its full-time fighters has ballooned from 7,000 in 2006 to 25,000, about one insurgent for every four coalition troops. Despite an influx of foreign fighters, the report concluded “most insurgents are Afghans.” Coupled with General McChrystal’s dire review, Obama apparently realized the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily or politically.

"The Taliban is a deeply rooted political movement in Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said, “so that requires a different approach than al-Qaeda.”

Reality being what it is, Obama has wisely chosen to sidestep prolonged war with the Taliban and its political consequences. Complete annihilation of al-Qaeda may be impossible, but displaying its weakness is easier, at least until another major attack. Unfortunately Obama’s plan to maneuver around the Taliban could be even more dangerous than fighting it.

Pitfalls are already manifesting themselves.

Hoping to bring General McChrystal’s request under 40,000, White House and Pentagon officials are calculating the number of troops necessary to destroy al-Qaeda and keep its remnants from regrouping. The search is on for how many troops will keep the Taliban from overrunning the central government. “That's the question,” a senior administration official said. “That's the sweet spot we're looking for.”

Perfection is the sweet spot and such a mindset could short-arm the war effort, like aiming pitches instead of just throwing the ball.

Tuned to the chatter, one Pentagon official responded, “The real question is, do you want the Taliban to be in power in Afghanistan? If you don’t, then they have to be addressed through a counterinsurgency campaign."

No doubt should exist that the Taliban will aggressively capitalize on troop shortages. Keeping it at bay requires nation-building, the furthest extreme of counterinsurgency opposite of counter-terrorism. Under speculation that America withdrew from the outpost near Kamdesh, false according to the military, the Taliban raised its flag in what could become an infamous event. Sound bite extraordinaires, the Taliban instantly disseminated its message worldwide.

"This means they are not coming back," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid declared. "This is another victory for Taliban. We have control of another district in eastern Afghanistan. Right now Kamdesh is under our control, and the white flag of the Taliban is raised above Kamdesh.”

The US military quickly countered that it's still operating in Nuristan province and an official involved in Obama's review told AP that he would “not tolerate their return to power,” but how will he guarantee that promise with limited troops? How can America nation-build or prevent the Taliban from doing anything if it retakes territory? Can the government be protected when it’s perceived as fraudulent and corrupt, or when a shadow government is ruling the south and east?

“If you accept as a premise that you will not eradicate every last element of the Taliban,” mused one official, “preventing it from providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda or threatening the government will still require resources.”

Yet a strategy that targets al-Qaeda and tolerates Taliban influence is similar to the strategy employed after the Soviet war: let the parties duke it out upon withdrawal. The Taliban swept into power after four years of warlordism. The next phase will see factional fighting between Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns, only this time the government controls the semblances of a real Afghan army. Besides a potential to tear the army along sectarian lines, the Taliban could sheer off some of the army for itself.

All the space America voids will be gobbled up by the Taliban. From there, who knows.

Avoiding the perfect sounds rational, but this advice is rendered useless when no good options exist. Stay in the country and the Taliban will rabidly attack; withdraw into urban environments to protect the populace and it will feed off conquest in the south like before. Hoping to thread the needle, to pinpoint the exact number of troops necessary to control but not destroy the Taliban, is both improbable and prone to protraction.

President Obama, were he to pursue this strategy, must taste the forbidden fruit. Ignoring the Taliban in cold silence is a recipe for disaster, dishonorable and cowardly. Examining its negotiating position is a prerequisite to tacit acceptance. A treaty or some kind of understanding must be pursued, possibly within a jirga system between all parties involved.

Forget al-Qaeda for a moment. The Taliban will want a seat at the table if the door is left open, otherwise it may blow the house down.

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