Strategist: Afghanistan Is Winnable

Wednesday, 18 Mar 2009 10:14 AM

By Arnaud De Borchgrave

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Few know more about Afghanistan than Marin Strmecki. He has been involved with bloody events there for the past 20 years.

He served as a policy coordinator and special adviser on Afghanistan with the defense secretary and is a member of the Defense Policy Board, the secretary's think tank. Critically important, his recent congressional testimony was overlooked by the mainstream media.

Director of programs at the Smith Richardson Foundation, a private foundation that supports public policy research and analysis, Strmecki sees Afghanistan as both opportunity and challenge at a time when experts are beginning to seek ways to exit from what a growing number see as a Vietnam-like quagmire.

For Strmecki, the vast majority of the 30 million Afghans oppose the Taliban as they experienced their pseudo-religious excesses for four years in the late 1990s. Afghans also have known nothing but war for the past 30 years. The problem is that local communities cannot defend themselves from Taliban intimidation and attacks.

Strmecki says reversing these negative trends will require 1) rededicated U.S. leadership; 2) greater resources, including more troops; 3) improved strategy and tactics; and 4) geopolitical therapy for Pakistani generals who hedge their bets with the Taliban out of fear the Vietnam syndrome may return and collapse the U.S. commitment.

None of this will be possible until Pakistan has eliminated the Taliban's safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. So the focus of U.S. policy should be to defeat a real and growing threat arising from a set of violent extremist groups based in Pakistan's tribal areas and their supporters in Pakistan.

This also means "strengthening elements in Pakistan opposed to extremism and finding ways progressively to narrow the areas in Pakistan in which the extremists can operate until these organizations have in effect been smothered." A key task, Strmecki adds, is "to induce elements of the Pakistani government that have historic ties to the Taliban and other groups to make a strategic choice to cooperate fully in eliminating extremist sanctuaries."

Both former President Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, and his successor, Asif Zardari, now trying to play by democratic rules, have pledged to do just that.

Pakistan, "a major non-NATO ally" of the United States and one of the world's eight nuclear powers, has been unable to cope with nationwide terrorist actions against the government, let alone wipe out the privileged sanctuaries enjoyed by the Afghan insurgency in the border tribal areas.

Taliban guerrillas have grown steadily stronger since late 2005. At the same time, a corrupt Karzai government has lost popular support.

Violent extremists operating out of Pakistan and eroding Afghan legitimacy at home produced today's Pentagon view that we are losing by not winning.

Strmecki believes this grave situation can be reversed, even though former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell heard from a Pakistani general that the Pakistani military was supporting the Taliban.

A subsequent U.S. intelligence report said Pakistan "regularly gave the Taliban 'weapons and support to go into Afghanistan to attack Afghan and coalition forces.'"

"The starting point in trying to change (the alleged) orientation of (elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment) is to understand the reasons for their actions.”

Strmecki says there are five:

1. Fear that Pakistan's regional rivals, particularly India, will secure undue influence in the Afghan government. Among Pakistani complaints are President Hamid Karzai's close ties to India and accusations that anti-Pakistani intelligence and political activities are orchestrated from Indian consulates and road building companies in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

2. A belief that the United States, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, lacks staying power and will abandon Afghanistan. This, in turn, will lead to the failure of the Karzai government and a reprise of the proxy competition among regional rivals of the 1990s. Ergo, now's the time to field proxy forces to gain positional advantage in the fight to come.

3. Fear that a successful Afghanistan will exert a dangerous political appeal to ethnic Pashtuns who live in Pakistan. The unresolved legal status of the Durand Line (that marks the frontier) and the history of tensions with Afghanistan over the Pashtunistan issue exacerbate this concern.

4. The strategic aspiration of some in Islamabad to project Pakistani influence into Central Asia through Afghanistan.

5. The belief that the United States will remain engaged with Pakistan, and provide military and economic assistance, only if security threats draw us into the region. This leads to the view that Pakistan's interests lie in acting as a "strategic rentier state," perpetuating a degree of insecurity in order to be paid to reduce it."

It would seem Pakistan, elevated to "major non-NATO ally" by President Bush, needs a geopolitical psychiatrist, a role now assigned to a special envoy, Richard Holbrooke. Meanwhile, Strmecki says a key objective should be to draw out from Pakistani military and intelligence leaders what their strategic concerns are and to advance discussion between the two sides about how these might be addressed in a manner consistent with a strong and stable Afghanistan.

His five-part psychotherapy:

1. Create a system of redlines governing the activities in Afghanistan of all regional powers, including both Pakistan and India, to allay concerns that one rival is gaining unilateral advantage and to provide a transparent system for monitoring compliance.

2. Craft credible commitments on the part of the United States to remain the principal external power engaged in state-building in Afghanistan, particularly regarding security institutions, and to take Pakistani security concerns into account in formulating its policies.

3. Mediate discussions between Afghan and Pakistani leaders to arrive at a common understanding of the border regime and use relations between the Pashtun communities in both countries to foster constructive social and economic ties.

4. Make commitments to plan, jointly with Kabul and Islamabad, and to finance the construction of the infrastructure to connect Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus enabling expansion of trade, cultural, and political ties.

5. Develop a major package — on the order of U.S. assistance to Egypt — to support economic and social development in Pakistan, including support to improve the educational system, to stimulate growth of private enterprise — all to demonstrate that the United States values a long-term relationship with Pakistan for its own sake, not just as a tactical necessity in the war on terror.

Geopolitical psychiatry is not America's diplomatic strong suit.

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