Recent gains made by American troops in Afghanistan could easily be squandered, unless the international community redoubles its commitment to the strife-torn country's political and economic reconstruction process. To promote success, two prominent security experts argue, counter-insurgency efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan should be closely coordinated.
Such were the findings of the two American civilian counterinsurgency specialists Bruce Hoffman and Seth Jones - who recently returned from Afghanistan, where they spent time with the 82nd US Airborne Division, and visited four Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Bruce Hoffman, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, presented their findings during a briefing, titled "America's Counterinsurgency Conundrum: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Quest for Stability," held April 18 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Hoffman began by observing that "the lawless border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has, I think, become really America's most acute foreign-policy challenge, even more so than Iraq." He noted that, "every single major Al-Qaeda plot or attack since 2004 has emanated from precisely that area," referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"At least some 14 different terrorist and insurgent groups based in Pakistan regularly cross the border to target Afghan security forces, US military forces, and NATO military units stationed there," Hoffman added.
American troops have made adjustments that are enhancing their chances of battlefield success against Islamic insurgents, Hoffman asserted. For example, American troops are now much more careful to limit the chances of civilian casualties in any given engagement. A high amount of collateral damage a military term for civilian casualties can bolster popular support for insurgents.
In Hoffman's assessment, American military forces now "actually implement the three core principles of counterinsurgency: security, governance, and development that is separating the population from the enemy, building the capacity of the Afghan government to address the needs of its own people, and facilitating reconstruction, development and economic growth."
The main problem with the counterinsurgency efforts remained "inadequacies in resources," Hoffman explained. He bemoaned the US "preoccupation with Iraq" that, he argued, is causing needed resources to be diverted away from the more strategically important Afghan-Pakistan theater of operations. To buttress his point, Hoffman stated that the US civil affairs planning office in Iraq was many times larger than its counterpart in Afghanistan.
Hoffman said there is "an enormous paucity of American civilian expertise to ensure the permanence of this reconstruction process." The best way to defeat Islamic militant groups, he added, is to get serious about building up Afghan governmental institutions and security forces. "The numbers and the competency available to train both Afghan security forces and government officials and the resources that we're able today to devote to Afghanistan border on the anemic compared to the resources we are able to devote to Iraq."
Jones suggested that the ability of the United States and NATO to achieve strategic goals is complicated by the fact that they confront a highly decentralized enemy. "What you actually have are multiple Talibans," with varying loyalties, depending on their respective commanders and geographic locations. All groups, however, have a relatively easy time infiltrating the Afghan-Pakistani border and all seem to possess the ability to coordinate actions on either side of the border. Echoing Hoffman, Jones expressed the belief that that "certainly parts of the [Pakistani] government continue to provide resources and funding to groups that are fighting against the United States, NATO, even in Afghanistan."
Given the improved US response to the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, Jones argued that American troops needed to deploy in the country's southern regions to "fill that vacuum" because "the East and the South almost have to be integrated into one front where the United States plays a predominant role." At present, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops have the lead role in the South, which is a Taliban's stronghold.
Both speakers urged the international community to treat the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an integrated whole. Jones argued that, "while this war can certainly be lost in Afghanistan for the United States, it actually can not be won there, or at least can not be entirely won there." Hoffman similarly warned that "both indigenous and foreign Islamic militants threaten not only nascent democratization and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, but also the very stability of future cohesion of nuclear-armed Pakistan."
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.