National Security Network

Gains and Mounting Challenges in Afghanistan

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Report 22 April 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan Obama Administration Taliban


Today finds evidence that the U.S.-Pakistan operation that resulted in the capture of the Afghan Taliban's deputy commander has paid dividends.  According to Reuters, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's interrogation, conducted by both U.S. and Pakistani officials, has resulted in intelligence, which has "been verified and has been useful to U.S. commanders and intelligence officers and analysts in both Afghanistan and Washington."

The information benefitting U.S. operations in Afghanistan comes at a critical time, as recent developments have demonstrated that the international coalition continues to face a range of challenges as it labors to stabilize the country.  In news that undermines the NATO-ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal's emphasis on securing the population, USA Today reported last week that Afghan casualties caused by coalition forces have risen dramatically. In addition, the Afghan government continues to face serious difficulties building its capacity.  These challenges have compounded Afghans' fears that a military offensive in southern Afghanistan planned for later this year will prove destabilizing. Going forward, the Obama administration must attend to these challenges, tackling the areas where its strategy has not measured up and holding itself accountable for any missteps. Most importantly, it must deliver on the President's admonition to stay focused on the core objective of the United States: "to disrupt and dismantle, defeat and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies."

Joint U.S.-Pakistani interrogation of Afghan Taliban's No. 2 provides actionable intelligence on militant operations in Afghanistan.  The interrogation of Baradar has provided useful intelligence, benefitting U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  According to Reuters, "Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in late January in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.  Some of the information given by Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's longtime military commander, has been verified and has been useful to U.S. commanders and intelligence officers and analysts in both Afghanistan and Washington, three U.S. officials involved in the matter said." The information gleaned from Mullah Baradar also vindicates the Obama administration's overall approach to counterterrorism, demonstrating the benefits of cooperation with international partners in confronting extremist activity.

With this good news comes a note of caution.  It remains clear that Pakistan sees its cooperation as a means of advancing its own interests.  Reuters continues, "Many questions about the capture and Pakistan's motivations remain a mystery months later, such as what intelligence led agents to Baradar's location and what prompted the ISI to act against long-time Taliban allies...A senior U.S. military official in Kabul described the arrest as part of a power play by Pakistan to ensure it has a major role in any Afghan reconciliation process."

In addition, such observations also come amid reports that detention policies in Pakistan could undermine support for U.S. efforts in Pakistan.  The Washington Post reports today that Pakistani authorities have indefinitely detained thousands of suspected militants. According to the Post, "[t]he majority of the detainees have been held for nearly a year and have been allowed no contact with family members, lawyers or humanitarian groups, the Pakistani officials and human rights advocates said. Top U.S. officials have raised concern about the detentions with Pakistani leaders, fearing that the issue could undermine American domestic and congressional support for the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan and jeopardize billions of dollars in U.S. assistance."  [Reuters, 4/20/10. Washington Post, 4/22/10]

Last few weeks have highlighted range of challenges to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan:

Civilian casualties have spiked in recent months.  USA Today reported last week that NATO strikes have killed an increased number of Afghan civilians, a development that threatens to undermine efforts, key to counterinsurgency strategy, to build public trust and support. According to USA Today, "NATO troops accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY. The numbers were released after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued measures to protect ordinary Afghans." [USA Today, 4/16/10]

U.S., allies and Afghan partners continue to confront difficulties in building Afghan governance capacity. Reuters reported on a sobering conference held at the Marine Corps University in which U.S. and Afghan officials "listed dozens of obstacles in building up ‘Afghan capacity' and boosting credibility of a government seen by many as inefficient and corrupt." "The Afghan government's past inability to deliver services and provide basic security in areas where the Taliban has been pushed out is seen as an important threat to the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy," said Reuters. Jilani Popal, head of an Afghan agency seeking to boost government effectiveness, told Reuters that "In many districts, more than half of government jobs were still vacant as officials faced constant security threats and more educated candidates chose safer, more lucrative private sector work." [Reuters, 4/22/10]

Complications emerge ahead of major offensive in Kandahar scheduled for later this year.  The killing of Azizullah Yarmal, Kandahar's popular Deputy Mayor, underscored the difficulties facing international forces in their preparations for a large-scale offensive to take place in and around the major southern city. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that "any sense of safety in the area is being worn away by assassinations, bombings and other attacks on American and Western contractors, political officials and religious leaders."  The Times also highlighted a recent survey, which found that "Kandaharis favored negotiations with the Taliban by a margin of 19 to 1 over continued fighting."  "Those views seem certain to complicate the planned large-scale offensive in Kandahar, which aims to use a surge of new foreign troops - and the prospect of more fighting - to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table," said the Times. [NY Times, 4/20/10]

U.S. must continue to refine strategy, maintain focus on core objectives of Afghanistan strategy.  The President described the U.S.' ultimate goal: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."

The viability of the Administration's approach will hinge on whether it can set the conditions for Afghans to govern themselves, creating the conditions for a transition to a U.S.-Afghan partnership that will endure without a military presence.  As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator John Kerry (D-MA) stated in January, "[t]he military is only one component in defeating an every turn, we need to empower Afghans to take control of their future.  That rationale guided the conditions I set out for the deployment of new troops, which I believe still hold today:  the presence of reliable Afghan partners, both political and military, and the civilian capacity to make our military gains sustainable."

Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.), the National Security Network's Senior Adviser, explained that if the President's strategy is to succeed, it will need to bring "the full power of the United States -   diplomatic, economic and military - to bear on our foreign policy challenge in Afghanistan." Eaton further emphasized that, "A description of an end-game to our direct military involvement in the region is essential.  Without one, continued drift is the only outcome."  Marc Lynch made a similar remark, saying that the best way "to help this strategy to succeed is to keep a sharp focus on the proposed mechanisms of change, demanding evidence that they are actually happening, and to hold the administration to its pledges to maintaining a clear time horizon and to avoiding the iron logic of serial escalations of a failing enterprise." [American Forces Press, 4/13/10. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), 1/21/10. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.), 12/1/09. Marc Lynch, 12/02/09]

What We're Reading

Two rockets were fired from the Jordanian port of Aqaba toward Israel but landed on an empty warehouse in Jordan.

A report by a Kabul-based think tanks says almost a quarter of the low-ranking Taliban commanders lured out of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan have rejoined the fight because of broken government promises and paltry rewards.

After being chased out of South Waziristan, militants in Pakistan have found a new haven in North Waziristan.

Iran began military exercises in the Persian Gulf after the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that President Obama's new nuclear strategy amounted to "atomic threats against Iranian people."

Kyrgyzstan's interim government says it will hold elections on October 10, after holding a constitutional referendum on reducing presidential powers.

Georgia's president said his country had seized a shipment of highly enriched uranium, and blamed Russia for creating the instability that allows nuclear smugglers to operate in the region.

Sudan's elections results, originally due today, won't come out for at least a week due to counting and logistical problems.

Armed men raided two hotels in the center of Monterrey, Mexico, hauling away four guests and as many as three staff members.

Just before the UK's second televised debate, Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrats, has surged in the polls.

Police in East Timor have declared a war on ninjas, which they consider a national security threat.

Commentary of the Day

John Mueller and Mark Stewart argue that terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S., and therefore further spending to reduce its likelihood isn't justified.

Matt Duss shows how Iran's number one concern is regime survival, not ideology.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Bill Gates make the case for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a new fund that will help developing world farmers increase their food security.