No military solution in Afghanistan
Political and economic development are the keys to combating al-Qaida along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border
It appears there is only one kind of news coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan these days: bad news. Violence and casualties are up, military options are down and al-Qaida has moved into a new safe haven across the Pakistani border. Seven years is a long time to be fighting to be back at square one. Whether out of necessity or innovation, it is time that American and European strategy in the region lessen its reliance on military force as its primary instrument and pursue a more robust political and economic development programme that can enable Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach a more sustainable and secure future.
June was the deadliest month both for US and coalition forces in Afghanistan since the October 2001 invasion. The dramatic rise in global food prices has hit the already impoverished Afghan population hard, a problem that could be compounded by an expected weak harvest this year. Poppy cultivation has not slowed, however, increasing by 17%, and the latest UN World Drug Report (pdf) puts Taliban earnings from the drug trade last year alone at close to $400m.
The Pakistani wing of the Taliban has firmly established itself in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and is openly conducting cross-border operations that have led directly to the spike in casualties in Afghanistan. European and American intelligence services believe that al-Qaida has gained a new base of operations in the FATA complete with the same kinds of terrorist training camps it ran in Afghanistan under the Taliban and has now regained the capability to orchestrate attacks similar in complexity to 9/11.
The American response in the FATA has been limited to misguided airstrikes that roil the population, such as the recent attack that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers, after a secret plan to increase special operations missions stalled because of intra-agency bickering. And just this week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, admitted that the ongong war in Iraq has left the US military without enough troops to respond to the increasing violence across the border in Afghanistan.
Yet, perhaps the paucity of fresh military options available to the United States and its allies on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is not bad news at all. Because the principle threat to the west is of spectacular terrorist attacks, it is easy to fall into a one-dimensional response that focuses heavily on military and intelligence operations targeting Taliban and al-Qaida leaders' suspected hideouts and training camps. After almost seven years of massive investment of blood and treasure which yielded at best modest gains, the limits of such a strategy are abundantly clear, and it is beyond time for a serious reappraisal of the allied approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
First, we must stop thinking of Afghanistan and Pakistan as two separate issues but rather as part of the same challenge. The porous and virtually ungoverned border is the locus of escalating tensions, but the root of the problems lie in Kabul and Islamabad. Trust between the two governments has always been low after the decades-long involvement of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, with the Taliban, yet it has now plunged to new depths after the Afghan government accused the ISI of involvement in an April 2008 assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai. No long-term progress can be made, regardless of how much money is spent or how many troops are thrown into the breach, until the Afghani and Pakistani governments agree to work together to solve their common problems. Achieving such a political accord should be the priority of American and European diplomatic efforts that seem bogged down in the attempt to persuade other Nato countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Shifting attention to the tribal areas on both sides of the border, the faltering attempt to assert government influence has vacillated between a scheme of top-down security and state control to one of negotiated surrender. What is needed is a bottom-up economic development and political integration plan to draw the extremely poor and isolated tribal areas closer to mainstream Afghani and Pakistani society. Part of the Taliban's appeal in these areas is certainly an ethnic and tribal bond that will never be erased. Yet it is also clear that the Taliban wields such influence through fear, intimidation, and a lack of real alternatives for young tribesmen. In this environment, a sporadic strong-handed presence from the central government does little to encourage young men to turn away from the Taliban. But the chance at a real future just might.
This is not a new idea, and one can point to positive recent commitments of $750m in aid going to the FATA over five years from the US and a doubling of British assistance to Pakistan to $956m announced just this week. Yet these millions in development assistance, while welcome, are still structured to support military and intelligence operations costing billions. What is needed to put Afghanistan and Pakistan on a sustainable pathway to a more prosperous and peaceful future is a dramatically scaled up political and economic development programme that is supported by military and intelligence operations when necessary.
Nothing would be worse than a large-scale western presence in these tribal areas, even if it was building dams and not dropping bombs. Consequently, care must be taken to channel assistance through new and established conduits to indigenous organisations and companies to ensure the best possible results.
Such a programme will take a fair amount of time to bear fruit, but I have little patience for those who persist in sacrificing long-term gains at the alter of short-term necessity year after year after year. As long as the threat of terrorism persists, military and intelligence operations will be an important part of any strategy in the region. But the list of foreign armies brought to their knees in the mountains of the northwest frontier is long and distinguished. It's time to try something new.