First, let’s dispense with the worst case scenario: the Taliban can’t take Pakistan. Despite the bombing today of a luxury hotel in Peshawar, and significant Taliban gains, the Pakistani military is a large, well armed force, and the Taliban is relativley small. The idea that the Taliban will control Pakistani nuclear weapons is not credible.
Yet the Taliban has succeeded in doing something major empires have not: controlling the Pashtun tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, as well as significant territory usually within Pakistani control. They brutally murdered tribal leaders, imposed strict Islamic law, and have created a real sanctuary for Taliban and al qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. In some ways this ‘base of operations’ for al qaeda is as real and protected as pre-9-11 Afghanistan.
Across the border in Afghanistan the Taliban has been growing in strength for years. Having left the job unfinished in 2002, the small NATO force has been unable to stem the tide of arms smuggling and Taliban movement in Northeastern Afghanistan. The government of President Hamid Karzai controls an ever smaller section of the country as war lords, drug dealers, and Taliban insurgents make Afghanistan a virtual anarchy; power goes to those with weapons and the ruthlessness to use them.
The 35,000 troops the US had in Afghanistan at the end of 2008 were only enough to slow down the growth of Taliban strength. President Obama ordered 17,000 more to the country, meaning that soon over 50,000 American troops will be there. Other NATO countries have contingents in the country, but the US represents the primary force in the areas of combat with the Taliban.
Frankly, this will not be enough. First, the tactics used when the military has to make due with what’s available are contrary to effective counter-insurgency. They rely on bombing and air power, which usually means more civilian deaths. This only pushes people away from support of the US — it’s hard to embrace a country whose bombs have killed friends or relatives. Second, it is impersonal. The Taliban kills too, but they do so in a way which instills fear: if you don’t do what they want and give them all the information they require, they’ll kill you. The US cannot protect people from such threats.
Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, has rugged terrain, and Waziristan (the tribal regions of Pakistan) remains a sancturary and home base to the Taliban and al qaeda. The US can’t invade or cut off access; Pakistan won’t allow it, and the human cost of invading would be immense. Even a more effective US Afghan presence might just push Taliban fighters back to Pakistan.
To turn this around, the US would need to implement an effective counter-insurgency, and work to have a stronger and less corrupt central government. The odds aren’t good. A counter insurgency requires that troops are in close proximity to the population (in this case, numerous villages) and are able to protect them. Average Afghans have to have the capacity to choose to support the US and not the Taliban. That isn’t an impossible task — experts estimate that as much as 98% of the Taliban fighters could be flipped — only a small portion are hard core leaders or extremists. They think the Taliban will prevail and find it in their interest now to support them. Unless the US changes the calculation, the situation could get worse rather than better.
In Iraq the “surge” required 180,000 soldiers, and that was in very specifically targetted population centers. To work in Afghanistan at least that many soldiers might be needed, along with an influx of equipment and support. Given that President Obama was elected on the basis of extricating the US from an unpopular foreign policy, jumping big into Afghanistan certainly is not something he’s itching to do. Moreover, it could end up requiring 200,000 to 300,000 to really handle the kind of threat the Taliban presents, and even then the Waziristan mess means that unless Pakistan can effectively cooperate (with both the will and capacity), the US might not be able to control the outcome. That’s risky.
Yet leaving carries its own risks. If the Taliban continues to grow, they could threaten to retake the country, and we’d be back to the situation before 9-11 — a radical Islamic Afghan government closely allied with al qaeda, still wanting to hit the US. How would President Obama’s promise to keep Americans safe look if al qaeda and the Taliban regained their pre-9-11 position on his watch?
Other options might include engaging NATO more actively in the battle (early efforts by the President to do so have been rebuffed), expand regional diplomacy, or give Pakistan more security by using diplomacy to try to create a breakthrough in Indian-Pakistani relations. The Taliban, however, is resistant to almost all outside pressure; like North Korea, it is as much an organized criminal gain as a government. Yet the Islamic fundamentalism is real, and adds to their zeal.
Afghanistan could be Obama’s undoing if he chooses wrong. The US could leave, and hope that internal fighting in Afghanistan keeps the Taliban at bay, intervening selectively to try to prevent them from gaining power, or giving support to their opponents. But that could be an on going slog, with average Afghans suffering. He could go big, like he did with the economic crisis — he’s shown a propensity to avoid half way measures. Unlike Iraq, most Americans do think fighting the Taliban was necessary. Perhaps he has the political capital to get the country behind such a move. But the country is fickle – if he goes big and fails, his Presidency fails.
Finally, to go big in Afghanistan would require leaving Iraq with only a token force, and no guarantees that stability will be maintained. Afghanistan is more important to US security than Iraq, so that gamble may be necessary. It might also require the US cut deals with Syria and Iran to free up the force necessary to do the job in Afghanistan. All of this occurs with the specter of continued economic weakness at home, and rising oil prices.
President Obama will be one of the most consequential Presidents in American history. He has no choice, he is faced with dilemmas that cannot be ignored, and how he decides will shape the future. And, at least in Afghanistan, there are no good half way solutions — it’s either go big or leave.