March 4th, 2009
05:18 PM ET

Afghanistan: The regional solution

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F. Stephen Larrabee, RAND

Julian Lindley-French, Netherlands Defense Academy

The Obama Administration’s decision to commit another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan is unlikely to have an important effect unless it is part of a broader shift in U.S. and coalition strategy.

Given that the insurgency in Afghanistan is fueled by radical Islamic groups based across the border in Pakistan’s north-west, any strategy that concentrates primarily on Afghanistan has little prospect of success. What is needed is an approach that recognizes the important linkage between the insurgency in Afghanistan and its roots in Pakistan, and which also takes into consideration how India fits into the broader regional security equation.

A strategy toward Pakistan should be an integral part of a plan to stabilize Afghanistan. This strategy should include a coherent package of economic assistance. Mass anger at rising food prices and electricity cuts could again lead to widespread protests and undermine support for Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zadari. The resulting instability could wreck any hope of Pakistan continuing, let alone intensifying, its campaign against the insurgents in the largely ungoverned tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

In addition, the United States and European allies should address the development gap in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas, since it is a root cause of extremism on both sides of the border (and well beyond). Government institutions in the tribal areas are weak, and social and economic conditions are among the lowest in the world.

Currently, international reconstruction and development assistance has focused on the Afghan side of the border. But this is at best a half-measure that leaves undisturbed the safe havens in Pakistan from which the Taliban and al Qaeda strike. This is particularly the case with the Taliban leaderships in Quetta and Peshawar. The Coalition could win the hearts and minds of every Pashtun in Afghanistan and still lose the war, since three-fifths of the Pashtun population lives in Pakistan.

Security options are limited without a strategy that provides tangible benefit to local disaffected communities. Without undermining the power of militant groups, however, it remains unclear who will benefit from development funds in the federally administered tribal areas, or FATA. Today the likely beneficiaries are local religious leaders and militant leaders, as well as the military-run Frontier Works Organization (FWO).

The current military strategy also needs to be revised. Much greater effort should be invested in empowering local elements quietly and discreetly. It is vital that the state institutions are reinforced in Pakistan and not undermined by coalition action. Current U.S. ground incursions across the Pakistani border have generated widespread public opposition in Pakistan and run the risk of drastically undermining the Pakistani state and creating greater regional turmoil.

A more tailored approach is also needed to conduct effective counterinsurgency operations with the focus on generating effective police forces central to such a strategy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A light footprint strategy could help enhance intelligence through building local leadership engagement, which is key to successful counterterrorism operations.

India is in many ways the key to peace in the region. Many in Pakistan’s national security establishment bristle at the Indian government’s close relationship with President Karzai, as well as India’s wide-ranging development projects in Afghanistan, including on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Indeed, Pakistan regards Afghanistan as strategic depth in the event of a conflict with India over Kashmir. If Pakistani anxiety about India could be reduced, it would enable the Pakistani government to direct greater attention and resources to combating the insurgents in the tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border. This in turn would make it easier to combat the threat of insurgency in Afghanistan

Finally, U.S. strategy should distinguish between the Taliban, which poses a local threat, and al Qaeda, which is an international terrorist organization, and should encourage a dialogue between the Taliban and the Karzai government aimed at promoting a new balance between central and local power in Afghanistan and security of the wider region. This strategy should also include stronger pressure on the Karzai government to reduce corruption, much of which is linked to drug production and trafficking.

Taken together, these steps would form part of a broader regional strategy that addresses the linkage between the insurgency in Afghanistan and the stabilization of Pakistan and reduction of Pakistani-Indian tensions. Such an approach has a greater chance of success than one that deals with the problems in the region separately and in isolation from one another.

Editors Note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. Julian Lindley-French is a Professor of Military Operational Science at the Netherlands Defence Academy. This article is adapted from a forthcoming report by RAND and Bertelsmann Foundation titled Revitalizing the Transatlantic Security Partnership: An Agenda for Action, which they co-authored.

Filed under: Afghanistan • Pakistan • President Barack Obama
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    We should learn from Russia's experience in fighting in Afghanistan – you just can't win. The diplomats can probably do a better job on a solution for this country than our military forces can in the end. So lets send in our diplomats and bring our military home.

    March 4, 2009 at 8:10 pm |
  2. Jim Warren

    We should get out of Vietnam – oh, I mean Afghanistan – now. They have successfully resisted invaders for thousands of years, and aren't about to knuckle-under this time.

    Pay local tribal leaders to fight Al Qaeda, just like we "won" in Iraq by bribing its "insurgents" to stop shooting at us; VERY cost-effective, although less profitable for no-bid contractors and other war profiteers.

    And if the DEA can forego their enforcement and seizure profits, pay the Afghan poppy growers to stop growing dope, just as we pay American Big Agri-biz to not grow excess crops.

    March 4, 2009 at 6:04 pm |