Obama Must Tread Warily in Afghanistan

November 21, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on November 21, 2008.

US president‐​elect Barack Obama said on Sunday, on 60 Minutes, that capturing or killing Osama bin Laden will be his top priority. He made similar commitments on the campaign trail, as when he insisted that, if given actionable intelligence, he would go after al‐​Qaeda hiding in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Today, the two countries are inextricably linked by a spreading Islamic insurgency. Afghanistan is in danger of a “downward spiral,” according to a draft report of the National Intelligence Estimate, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro‐​Taliban militants regularly cross Pakistan’s highly porous border with Afghanistan to attack US and NATO troops.

Mr Obama will have an important opportunity to save this failing mission. But will he be better than President George W. Bush? If he sticks to his campaign pledge to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, and to take the fight into Pakistan, his policies will be a continuation — and possibly an escalation — of Mr Bush’s policies.

Senior US and NATO officials say this year has been the bloodiest for US and NATO forces since the October 2001invasion. The war has not gone very well in recent months, and Mr Obama wants to strengthen US and allied forces by adding more troops to the nearly 70,000 already there. His strategy is to withdraw US combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, leaving behind 60,000 for support. That cut, at least in theory, would free up more troops for Afghanistan.

On the ground, the Afghan government, the White House and US Central Command (Centcom) are currently reviewing new approaches to stabilise the war ravaged country. One plan is to peel Pashtun tribes away from hardcore elements of the Taliban. The incoming Obama administration has indicated that it will consider adopting this approach. While reaching out to Afghan tribes associated with the Taliban sounds promising, dialogue with rank‐​and‐​file, pro‐​Taliban insurgents may have no impact on the senior leadership’s decision to renounce violence or stop recruiting.

Certainly, there are risks to engaging jihadist militants. But, if the Obama administration wants to neutralise the insurgency in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, it must direct Centcom to implement some of the proven counterinsurgency techniques introduced in Iraq’s Anbar province during the summer of 2007. It will have to buy off tribal loyalties, work on the ground and develop relationships with tribal leaders, and establish legitimacy with the local population by employing minimal use of force.

Mr. Obama’s stated commitment to “killing” and “crushing” al‐​Qaeda may upend the myth that only Republicans are strong on national security, but his unflappable temperament will be put to the test when his actions begin to undermine the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders, pushes wavering Pashtun tribes further into the Taliban camp, and further destabilises an already turbulent region in a failing “war on terror.”

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