23 June 2011

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme



President Obama's announcement that 33,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2012 means that the number of Western troops in Afghanistan will return to levels existing before the 'surge'.

The 'surge' followed a re-assessment of US strategy towards Afghanistan which had concluded that a more effective counter-insurgency campaign required a much-expanded troop presence. Before the surge, the Taliban had been gradually gaining control of parts of Afghanistan, notably in the South. Too few Western troops were leaving their barracks to challenge their growing presence.

Has the surge worked?

The answer is an unmitigated yes and no. The recognition that more troops were needed to create space for the Afghan government to build up its capacity and effectiveness was long over-due. And in military terms, the Taliban has clearly been pushed onto the back foot (although this is a consequence of an increase in drone attacks as much as the military surge). It is clear that the growing Taliban presence in large parts of the South, in particular, has been reversed.

But the military success has not been complemented by political success; the Afghan government has often failed to meet its side of the bargain - in part because of oft-cited corruption, but equally because of the low levels of human capacity to be expected in a country marred by 30 years of civil war.

And while the Taliban may be being defeated militarily, its numbers continue to rise. Every misjudged drone attack, or night-raid leads to new recruits. A couple of years ago, the best guesstimates of its strength stood at 8,000-10,000. Now it is thought to number 35,000.

Like it or not, the Taliban has a support-base within Afghanistan. Its narrative which claims to be fighting foreign oppression has more resonance a decade after 9/11 than it did in the early years when the Western strategy involved a 'light footprint'. Reducing troop numbers should play well in the US, but is unlikely to persuade the average Afghan that he should shift off the fence and unequivocally throw his lot in with the government.

Dialogue with the Taliban

Consequently, a satisfactory outcome is likely to be achieved politically rather than militarily. More important than the troop reduction for Afghanistan is the slew of recent statements regarding dialogue with the Taliban and the separation from the Taliban from al Qaeda on the UN blacklist. For now, nothing substantial appears to have been achieved in terms of talks. And until a more formalised process starts, there is an obvious lack of clarity over the Taliban's conditions, and indeed on the ability of any one individual or group of individuals to speak for the Taliban as a whole.

Osama bin Laden's death has clearly changed things, enabling the West to claim success in its core objective. Afghanistan's political importance to the West has declined relative to that of Pakistan. Will the Taliban agree to sell out al Qaeda? The relationship between the two groups is more often defined by the political inclinations of Western observers rather than by any detailed evidence. But, logically, it would seem reasonable to assume that the death of bin Laden and the fact that al Qaeda is based in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan would allow it some leeway to do so.

So as the focus shifts away from a 'kinetic' approach towards diplomacy, the most important impact of the reduction in troop numbers is less on the military balance per se, and more on how it will play into the negotiating strategies on both sides.

Some in the military would clearly have preferred more troops to keep the Taliban on the back-foot for longer. But while the Taliban may claim to have the time, while the West has the clocks, it may well be as war-weary as Western publics.

Mission accomplished?

If some sustainable political agreement could be forged with the Taliban, Obama will be able to say that the job is done. That is the job of preventing Afghanistan being used as a safe haven by international terrorists. Not the job occasionally mooted of nation-building and improving women's rights. As the months go by, the ambition to make Afghanistan the Switzerland of Asia is fading fast; only in high rates of gun ownership would the comparison seem to be valid.