Afghan Conflict – Has US Failed and Defeated?
We these days often come across argument regarding US failure in Afghan conflict with some enthusiastic and overly sanguine commentators even proclaiming defeat of American hegemonic designs in the region. The most convincing interpretation mention current US fiscal issues, military drawdown that is scheduled by December 2014, transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces and emerging situation in Middle East – Arab Spring as the plausible indicators of waning American interests in Afghanistan. An effort will be made here to delineate what was the state of Afghan insurgency at the time of US military surge decided at the fall of 2009, options available to American President other than reinforcement of military mission in Afghanistan, the objectives sought and finally, what has so far been achieved from desirables. At the fall of 2009 when President Barack Obama announced military surge in Afghanistan, the insurgency had complete sway over country side while it was knocking at the doors of major urban centers. The than Commander International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), US General Stanley A. McChrystal’s review of Afghan situation in August 2009 portrayed a dismal picture of ISAF mission in Afghanistan. General McChrystal concluded that neither success nor failure can be guaranteed as the Afghan mission was under resourced and campaign faced serious challenges unless it was reinforced with 40,000 troops. Prior to the request of military surge by General McChrystal through his review of situation, President Obama had already reinforced the Afghan mission by almost 20,000 troops, an increase which was sanctioned by the outgoing President George W. Bush. At that time Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) stood below the figure of 100,000, while this force was inadequately trained, poorly equipped and ethnically fragmented. The alternative strategy proposed by Vice president Joe Biden, commonly known as ‘Biden’s Hybrid Theory,’ opposed the military surge and instead recommended Counter Terrorism (CT) missions from military bases inside Afghanistan through air and drone strikes. It was envisaged that Biden’s proposal assured lesser body count and reduced financial expenditure. President Obama however, decided in favour of reinforcement of Afghan mission as advised by Pentagon, and announced military surge of 35,000 troops in November 2009. Military surge was thus aimed at breaking the momentum of the insurgency, defeating Al-Qaida and developing 350,000 strong ANSF.
The military surge did allow ISAF to hunt down insurgent field commanders and fighters in the country side through special operations, gain adequate time to achieve force goals of ANSF and eliminate Al-Qaida chief Osama Bin Laden. However, as the situation stands now, insurgency is far from defeated; surge troops have withdrawn, entire US post 2014 strategy hinges on the conclusion of Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan while ANSF though 354,000 strong, lack capacity to ensure security of the country at their own. Meanwhile the US military strategy during this entire campaign has been oscillating between the concepts of Counter Terrorism (CT) and Counter Insurgency (COIN), and the confusion continues to prevail even now. But is it enough to draw inferences and suggest failure or defeat of US in Afghanistan? Conversely, certain other aspects if taken into consideration may reveal another side of the story. Compared to 2009, the present force ratio of pro Afghan Government troops is far superior to insurgents as in addition to 354,000 ANSF, there are almost 30,000 Afghan Local Police (ALP) members operating in rural areas. Beside these government troops, little more than 100,000 private security contractors (Black Waters, Academia etcetera) including 40,000 American citizens, are also present in Afghanistan with the probable residual force strength of 15,000. In sum total, there would be almost 400,000 anti Taliban troops after December 2014 compared to a combined strength of 160,000 in 2009, which is adequate to face Taliban, if sustained financially. In addition to the superior force ratio, another aspect likely to favour long term US engagement in Afghanistan is growing number of young and educated Afghans who are critical of the civil war era of 90s and supportive of present dispensation despite serious governance issues. Besides, anti Taliban ethnic groups are also well prepared to protect their socio-political gains in post 9/11 Afghanistan and in a position to jealously guard their interests against a probable Taliban onslaught.
It is thus naïve to assume that prevailing environments in Afghanistan have critically turned against US, and may force NATO allies to completely abandon the country. Rather more realistically, the environments as they are today are best recipe to ensure continued foreign presence on Afghan soil without significant regional or international opposition. It is quite evident that US / NATO has yet to face a game changing setback in Afghan conflict that forces the Coalition Forces to undertake a total withdrawal from the country. At the moment, even the regional countries, that may have otherwise serious reservations with the continued US / NATO presence in Afghanistan, see American role as that of ‘hegemonic stabilizer’, according to the theory of neo-realism and thus are least prepared to challenge it.
To summarize, US is well prepared to continue its long term engagement in Afghanistan, may be to the utter disliking of many of us. With reduced financial expenditure and lesser body count owing to the development of ANSF, we may see the realization of Biden’s hybrid theory in Afghanistan, unless some unforeseen development jeopardizes US designs.