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US leaving the Pech Valley, a strategic or tactical shift?

February 25, 2011

The U.S. military announced yesterday that it will pull out of the Pech Valley in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, near the Pakistani boarder. The move comes after a six year long military effort to pacify the valley which was said to be “vital” to the war effort and after recent complete pullouts from Nuristan Province and the Korangal Valley.

The military has now changed its tone on the importance of the valley. What is less clear, however, is whether these recent withdrawals represent a strategic or tactical shift in the US war in Afghanistan.

The US military has been slowly shifting from Counterinsurgency (COIN) to Counter Terror (CT) for some period of time now. To be sure, the US military’s departure from the valley is in and of itself a tactical shift. That said, the move may speak to a larger strategic change underway. Even though CT is a set of tactics within COIN, the question of which leads the way is not merely tactical, it’s also strategic.

The qualifier is which strategy dominates operationally. Essentially, is winning the hearts and minds of Afghans through good governance, security and development (COIN) taking a back seat to training, arming and supporting militias while using drone strikes in remote valleys (CT), such as the Pech Valley? Counter Terror operations may take the lead in many parts of Afghanistan in the coming months, meaning we’ll see a strategic change in the US war strategy.

The failure of COIN to bring stability and governance to Afghanistan and the region is not really news–don’t be fooled by the seasonal lull in fighting either. It has been clear since last February’s incursion into the village of Marjah in Helmand Province  that “government in a box” doesn’t unpack itself; moreover, successfully standing up the Afghan National Army (ANA)–a cornerstone of the COIN strategy–has proved an elusive than anticipated, as attrition rates consistently hover around 32 percent.  The FY 2012 funding request for just the ANA is around $13 billion dollars. To put that in perspective, the countries Gross National Product is $14 billion; clearly Afghanistan cannot sustain the army the US is trying to build.

That sentiment holds true for much of what the US is trying to do in Afghanistan–it cannot be sustained.

A big part of the complication is that Afghans don’t care to be occupied by the US military (or the former Soviet military for that matter). One military official familiar with the decision to leave the Pech Valley put it like this:

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

Indeed, the US military presence is destabilizing the area–and the region. The longer the US military stays in Afghanistan, the more Pakistan will become increasingly destabilized. With 100,000 US troops, 40,000 NATO troops, and 160,000 contractors in Afghanistan, as well as 140,000 Pakistani troops on the Afghan boarder, the situation could deteriorate very quickly.

Adding to the complicated US-Pakistani relationship is the recent high level impasse over Raymond Davis, a contractor working for the CIA in Pakistan who is accused of killing two Pakistanis in what he claims is self defense.  The US holds that he has diplomatic immunity, but Pakistani officials say Davis’ status will be decided by Pakistani courts. The incident is causing great unrest and anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.

Potential Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment aside, strain on an already troubled relationship between the US and Pakistan is problematic no matter what happens to Davis. Viewed as a key strategic ally, Pakistan’s cooperation is crucial for the US war in Afghanistan. The incident and strategy shifts could spell the difference between planned ending or crash landing for the US war in Afghanistan.

The situation is truly dire. The sense of open-ended engagement coming from the Pentagon and  the White House is breeding many of the regional problems and fueling corruption in Afghanistan. President Obama should bring order to the madness by agreeing to more concrete framework and announcing a plan for how this mess will end. A bilateral agreement, such as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) like the US has with Iraq, could bring the woefully military led strategy to a reasonable end, rather the seemingly imminent crash landing.

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (CA) offered a bill that would establish a SOFA between the US and Afghanistan earlier this month. HR 651 is a bipartisan effort that would redeploy US military forces from Afghanistan and require an agreement which does not establish a permanent presence in the country. Currently, FCNL is working to establish a Senate version of the same bill as well.

A tactical or strategic shift without an overarching agreement and plan for withdrawal will not result in regional stability or a self governing Afghanistan. Moreover, if the current US strategy doesn’t change it will not matter when the US leaves Afghanistan; the end result will be disastrous without the pursuit of political reconciliation within Afghanistan and a posthaste military withdrawal.

One Comment leave one →
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