Archive for the ‘Drug Trafficking’ Category

Build, Buy, Leave

January 29, 2010

Following the conclusion of the London conference on Afghanistan yesterday, it became clear that the West’s exit strategy for the war-torn country can be summed up in three words: Build, Buy, Leave.

Build–The US and its NATO allies are trying to recruit and train more Afghans security personnel.  The Western coalition wants to increase the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from approximately 100,000 troops to 178,000 by October 2011 while adding 14,000 patrol officers to the Afghan National Police (ANP), which currently has 95,000 patrolmen.  Plans call for the security forces to eventually total 400,000, comprised of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police.

Buy–Britain and Japan have agreed to donate $500 million to help the Afghan government persuade Taliban fighters and their commanders to lay down their arms and engage in peaceful politics.  Officials believe that militants can be bought off with promises of money, protection,  jobs and political appointments.

Leave–America and its European partners have said that they will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next year when security conditions are expected to improve.  Western leaders want to reduce casualties and costs at a time when the war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home.  They also fear that an extended foreign presence will alienate Afghans and make them turn against international forces.

The odds that the coalition’s exit strategy will work according to plan are low.  Nearly doubling the size of the Afghan army in less than two years may not be feasible because recruiting and training quality troops takes a lot of time, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that 90 percent of Afghans are illiterate, which means that training manuals cannot be widely used.  Most Western soldiers are engaged in combat or combat support duties, so there might not be enough military trainers to do the job.  The current police force is considered by many to be corrupt and ineffective, so augmenting the ANP might not make much of a difference in terms of improving security on the local level.

Buying off the Taliban probably will not be as easy as some policymakers think.  Although some lower echelon militants have left the battlefield after being offered incentives by the government, the latter has not lived up to its end of the bargain; safety and employment for former fighters remain elusive.  In addition, many Taliban, especially senior leaders, are ideological fanatics and ardent nationalists who are determined to drive foreign elements out of their country and re-establish an Islamic state, and they seem to believe that their ultimate victory is inevitable if they continue their attacks.

Pullout Western troops out of Afghanistan next year would likely create a security vacuum given the strenth of the insurgency and the high probability that the Afghan security forces will not be much stronger by then.  In that case, the US and NATO will have to choose between maintaining their current operational footprint or letting the situation on the ground deteriorate.  If they go with the second option they will have to scale back their objectives, which now include defeating the Taliban, facilitating economic development, increasing the capacity of the government to deliver basic services to its citizens and protecting human rights.

Shifting Allegiances in Afghanistan

January 26, 2010

Yesterday, this blog noted that it would be difficult for Afghan officials and their Western allies to co-opt insurgents into supporting the government in Kabul.  A similar point can be made about other powerbrokers in Afghanistan, including warlords and tribal leaders who are not members of the Taliban.  Two weeks ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a darkly humorous article that highlights this problem (the article is titled “Afghan Warlord Not Sure Which Side He Feels Like Helping Today”).

Powerful figures in Afghanistan are notorious for switching allegiances whenever it serves their short term interests.  Warlords and other non-governmental players benefit from the weakness of the central government because it enables them to traffic in narcotics, form private armies, extort money from vulnerable people and generally exert power for egotistical reasons (an impulse that Nietzsche referred to as “the will to power”); consequently, it is highly unlikely that they will submit to the will of leaders in Kabul for a considerable length of time.  Thus, the future stability of Afghanistan is not only threatened by the Taliban, which is the main target of US and ISAF military efforts there, but also local and regional kingpins who exploit both sides of the conflict and pursue their own political and financial ends.  This fact does not bode well for the fate of nation-building efforts in the war-torn country.

Making Peace With the Taliban

January 25, 2010

Western officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai hope that a peace agreement can be reached with the Taliban as a way of ending the insurgency in his country.  The topic will almost certainly be discussed at an upcoming conference in London where world leaders will confer about the future of Afghanistan and the eventual withdrawal of foreign military forces from the war-ravaged nation.

Gen. David Patraeus, the head of Central Command, told reporters that “The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility” when it comes to counterinsurgency efforts.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, said “I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future and not the past” after he was asked if Taliban leaders should be allowed to serve in government posts.

But the prospects of a broad peace deal with the insurgents are slim for two main reasons.  One is that the insurgency is comprised of muliple factions with different aims and interests, including Mullah Omar’s Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG).  Mullah Omar and his comrades want to return to power in Kabul where they once governed before they were overthrown by the Northern Alliance with critical assistance from the US, whereas the Haqqani network is more like a criminal organization and HIG is a tool of warlord Gulbuddin Hekatyar.  All three factions have ties with Al Qaeda or have expressed support for the terrorist movement.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that various tribal leaders and other powerbrokers are connected with the insurgency out of loyalty, self-interest or fear, and it would be difficult for the central government to win their allegiance.

A second key reason that the outlook for a peace agreement is bleak is that the insurgents, many of whom are radical ideologues and hardcore nationalists, do not appear to be at all interested in laying down their arms.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said “We cannot say how soon we will achieve victory.  Our mission is sacred.  Victory and defeat are in the hands of God.  But Afghans will defeat this regime as they did that of the Russian-backed regime.”

Mr. Hekmatyar also claims that the US will suffer the same fate in Afghanistan as the Soviet Union, which withdrew in defeat after 10 years of fighting guerillas.

Even if some sort of tentative peace pact or ceasefire were reached, it would likely be fleeting and merely give the Taliban and other anti-government forces the opportunity to regroup and rearm before returning to battle.  Offers of reconciliation may ultimately succeed in luring some low level fighters away from the insurgency, but militant leaders and most of their followers will probably reject such overtures for ideological, political and financial reasons.  Therefore, Western policymakers and Afghan officials should not be too optimistic that extending olive branches will bring an end to the war anytime soon.

The US-Colombian Alliance

December 9, 2009

Colombian-Venezuelan relations are severely strained.  Venezuela is opposed to the Colombian alliance with the US, including the military cooperation agreement signed in October.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of American foreign policy, recently dispatched 15,000 troops to the Colombian border as a show of strength.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, the confict over the stationing of US forces in Colombia was discussed by Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the US, and Carolina Barco, Colombia’s ambassador in Washington.  Not suprisingly, Mr. Herrera argues that the US presence in the region is destabilizing and Ms. Barco says that is beneficial.

The Venezuelans claim that US assistance to Colombia will cause Colombia’s internal conflicts, such as the government campaign against the FARC, an insurgent group involved in the drug trade, to spill over into neighboring countries.  Venezuelan officials point to the Colombian air force’s bombing of rebel bases inside Ecuador earlier this year as evidence of this.  But it is very hypocritical of Venezuela to make that argument considering the government of Hugo Chavez has provided assistance to the FARC, including weapons, and given the group safe haven.  As for the attack inside Ecuador, the Colombian military would likely have bombed insurgents there regardless of its relationship with the US.

Although Ms. Barco cites statistics that joint interdiction efforts have put a major dent in the international drug trade, it is uncertain if they have actually impacted drug usage in the US and other places.  However, American counterinsurgency/counterterrorism assistance, which includes money, training, equipment and intelligence support, has certainly helped the Colombian government reduce the level of violence in the country compared to the 1990s when drug lords wreaked tremendous havoc and seriously threatened the political establishment in Bogota (Mark Bowden’s book “Killing Pablo” provides an interesting account of the situation in Colombia when drug kingpins like Pablo Escabor were at the height of their power).

It is understandable why many in Latin America are wary of US involvement in the region given America’s history of imperialistic behavior in that part of the world.  It is also obvious why Latin American politicians use anti-American rhetoric to drum up popular support.  But US involvement in Colombia has been beneficial overall, even though elements of the counternarcotics strategy might have been counterproductive.  America should continue to support the efforts of Colombian officials to secure their nation because doing so serves US and Colombian interests and has a positive humanitarian effect.

Obama’s Speech About Afghanistan

December 2, 2009

Last night, President Obama spoke at West Point and laid out his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.  He announced that 30,000 more troops would be deployed there, but also said that a withdrawal of American troops would begin in July 2011.  The three core elements of the strategy are:

1. A military effort to stem the Taliban’s momentum and increase the capacity of the Afghan security forces to the extent that the US can start withdrawing in 18 months.

2. A civilian surge to provide assistance to NGOs and Afghan officials.

3. Developing an effective partnership with Pakistan to combat militants based in Pakistani territory.

It is very doubtful that sufficient military progress will be achieved in the next 18 months to allow American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.  Hopes of training enough Afghan army and police personnel to secure the country without the continued assistance of 100,000 American troops in that timeframe are almost laughable.  The vast majority of Afghans are illiterate, which makes training Afghan soldiers difficult because manuals cannot be used extensively, and it is unclear if the US military will have enough trainers on hand given the need to use the surge troops for combat duty. 

A civilian surge is unlikely to succeed for two reasons.  One is that security problems and rampant corruption will hamper attempts to promote development and good governance.  The second is that the US simply does not have enough civilian capacity to be effective in warzones, partly because civilians cannot be ordered to go into dangerous areas and stay there.

Developing an effective counterterrorism/counterinsurgency partnership with Pakistan, which the US has been trying to do for the last eight years, will probably continue to be an elusive goal.  Members of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan because the Pakistanis do not believe it is in their interest to take on those militants; the security forces in Pakistan are busy fighting the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban, which is a separate group.  The president’s declaration that the US will begin to leave Afghanistan in 2011 will only strengthen the Pakistani government’s desire to maintain ties with the Afghan Taliban and not antagonize them in case the they come back into power after American forces pullout.

President Obama is either naive about the prospects of success in the next 18 months or, more likely, he is promising a fairly quick exit to maintain political support for the war effort.  He will almost certainly be faced with the choice of bringing troops home before the mission is accomplished or violating his pledge to start reducing America’s footprint in Afghanistan in 2011.