Nine Years Into War, No Easy Exits From Afghanistan
Last week, a NATO helicopter killed three Pakistani soldiers while engaging insurgents who had launched an attack in Afghanistan from across the border. In retaliation for the breach of their sovereignty, Pakistan has shut down the main supply route – which runs through the Khyber Pass and, eventually, to Kabul –that NATO uses to transport fuel for the war effort.
Insurgents have taken advantage of the stranded NATO convoys to attack the fuel tankers. More than 20 trucks were blown up in the past days, seriously compromising the security of NATO’s fuel supply for the Afghanistan war and increasing the tension between Pakistan and the United States.
Richard Holbrooke, special representative of the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said last week that a solution to the US’s nine-year military engagement in Afghanistan is “not achievable unless Pakistan is a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem.”
Holbrooke also noted that “there will never be a day when we will be violence free” in Afghanistan, implying that some of the problems faced in the country are intractable and cannot be solved no matter how “successful” the United States mission in the country may be.
In the months since President Obama increased the US presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops, operations have focused on the southern region, close to the Pakistani border. Operation Moshtarak – the largest military operation in the country since the initial invasion in 2001 – was launched in Helmand Province in February. Executed under the leadership of then-commander Stanley McChrystal, the initiative was to use the city village of Marjah as a triumphant introduction of the civilian-friendly counterinsurgency strategy of winning over the hearts and minds of the local population.
However, weeks into the operation, Marjah remained a militant hotbed, more an exercise in what the Marines stationed there called “mowing the grass” than truly holding and building upon territory gained.
When General David Petraeus took over the command of the International Security Assistance Force – otherwise known as the American-led NATO force in Afghanistan – the policy community regained hope that the tide would turn in Afghanistan. Petraeus was responsible for the 2007 surge in Iraq that resulted in significantly decreased attacks on soldiers and significantly increased stability in the war zone.
However, the number and deadliness of improvised explosive devices used against ISAF troops in the country have been increasing. The current operations focus in Kandahar, initially designed to build upon the progress that was assumed would be made in Helmand, have become bogged down in frequent firefights with insurgents.
Winning hearts and minds in the country has been exceptionally difficult. The presence of foreign troops is increasingly being seen as the core of the problem, no matter how many humanitarian missions ISAF embarks upon or how many schools the Americans build.
Moreover, there has been a creeping realization over the past years of the war that the crux of the insurgency problem lies entirely outside of Afghanistan. Militants are being trained – and provided a safe haven – in the mountainous North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Just look at the distribution of American troops in Afghanistan; the US troop presence is highly concentrated on the Afghan side of the border region with Pakistan.
Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, the main front of the war has shifted into an entirely different country.
The Obama administration realized that Pakistan was a more important front in the “War on Terror” than Afghanistan, and has adjusted its counterinsurgency focus accordingly. The CIA’s covert war in Pakistan has heated up exponentially over years past, with more unmanned drone strikes in the NWFP in 2010 than all years previous. September 2010 was the most active month ever, with at least 21 known drone strikes targeting insurgents in the region.
The unmanned drone strikes come at a significant price, however. A recent poll in the NWFP of Pakistan revealed that only 16 percent of the citizens in the region believe the strikes “accurately target militants.” The rate of casualty death from the strikes is high, with estimates hovering at between 60 and 70 percent. Most damningly, close to 90 percent of residents in the region want the drone strikes to stop, and nearly 60 percent of those polled went so far as to indicate support for suicide bombings of American soldiers.
The United States is hardly winning hearts and minds in Pakistan, let alone Afghanistan.
The fundamental question resulting from this shift in focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan is this: why does the United States maintain such a massive troop presence in Afghanistan if the main front of the war has shifted elsewhere?
Drone strikes now target not only Pakistan, but other emerging fronts in the war on terror. Yemen has also seen a rise in covert drone strikes. With the massive foreign presence in Afghanistan causing significant resentment among the local population, a concerted conditions-based withdrawal from the country could ultimately help the effort to win hearts and minds more than hurt. United States troop presence there now reflects dated priorities and ineffective methods. The focus of US counterinsurgency efforts has certainly long-since shifted from Afghanistan.