The New America Foundation (NAF), a nonpartisan Washington think tank, published a report Sept. 8 advocating a new strategy in Afghanistan. Washington think tanks produce reams of reports, but this one caught STRATFOR’s eye.
The report, titled “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan,” was composed by a group called the Afghanistan Study Group — not the Afghanistan Study Group co-chaired by U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones (Ret.) and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, but a different, bipartisan group by that name composed of nearly 50 former military officers, former officials, academics and foreign policy analysts. This new Afghanistan Study Group and the report it produced are both clearly titled intentionally to evoke memories of the congressionally mandated “Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward — A New Approach” published at the end of 2006.
But more interesting is a potential parallel to a different report, “Iraq — a Turning Point.” This report initially was released by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neo-conservative think tank, around the same time as the official Iraq Study Group Report and essentially advocated the specific surge strategy that ultimately would be pursued in Iraq. It was formally unveiled by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman at AEI five days before then-President George W. Bush’s announcement of the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq on Jan. 10, 2007. The AEI report is considered by many to have been an important force behind that surge.
NAF has a number of well-regarded foreign policy heavyweights, including Steve Coll, on its board. Coll, along with Peter Bergen, conveys significant authority on al Qaeda and Afghanistan. And NAF’s political orientation puts it in a position to propose a policy that the White House might eventually adopt. STRATFOR has no comment on the various political connections and associations between the administration, NAF and the authors of the report, or on how directly the report is or is not connected to the administration. What STRATFOR will say is that the report is consistent with numerous discussions on the need for a shift in strategy. The 12-page report is noteworthy for its brevity — especially as it spends as much time and space discussing the failings of the current strategy as it does discussing the alternative — which could suggest that it is actually intended to be read by policymakers.
Washington is fully in campaign mode for the midterm elections slated for Nov. 2. The official White House position on the war in Afghanistan appears to be that the surge is just now being completed and needs to be given time to work. There is little sign that the White House position will change before Nov. 2, or even the December review of the progress of the strategy. But significant challenges for the current counterinsurgency-focused strategy are at this point undeniable. The Taliban are winning — top Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar has gone so far as to declare that victory is close (though he obviously has ulterior motives for such a statement).
- The timetable dictated by U.S. political realities is incompatible with the counterinsurgency strategy currently being pursued.
- Since the counterinsurgency strategy cannot be pursued to its end, political accommodation is — and has long been — of central importance to U.S. success in Afghanistan. But the Taliban are not being compelled to negotiate.
- Al Qaeda and the Taliban, never one and the same, are now ideologically and geographically separate. The former remains and will remain a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. This need not be the case with the latter.
- U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and U.S. national interests in terms of geopolitics and grand strategy have diverged.
Based on essentially the same conclusions, the NAF report makes five recommendations for a new strategy that allows for a relatively rapid U.S. drawdown, though not complete withdrawal (quoted here verbatim):
- emphasise power-sharing and political inclusion.
- Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint.
- Keep the focus on al Qaeda and domestic security.
- Encourage economic development.
- Engage global and regional stakeholders.
Ultimately, prudence dictates that the White House and the Pentagon have alternative strategies in hand, and STRATFOR sources indicate that top officials in both the administration and the Department of defence are anxious to implement a more efficacious exit strategy and are actively searching for an alternative.
Thus, the NAF report is noteworthy for its timing, origin and content. Preliminary, short and with few specific details, the report admittedly does not contain any revolutionary new ideas or proposals. However, it cogently opens for discussion the broad outlines of a potential alternative strategy in Afghanistan. These broad outlines are likely to be consistent with any shift in U.S. strategy, and they reflect what appears to be an emerging consensus on what an alternative strategy should be. No matter how connected or unconnected the report is with the administration and the Pentagon, both are likely to pay close attention to its public reception and criticisms of it in order to gauge the best way to present an actual alternative strategy to the U.S. public.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
For more reports, visit www.stratfor.com
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