“Can we improve the Afghanistan Government? Maybe. Can we do it by July 2011? No.”
This statement came from Dr. David Kilcullen, an expert in counterinsurgency and former advisor to General Petraeus, during rigorous questioning at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) hearing last week titled, “Perspectives on Reconciliation Options in Afghanistan.” Along with Kilcullen, the two other expert witnesses—Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, and Ms. Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International—echoed concerns about the Obama Administration’s insistence on setting a deadline for the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The testimonies by the expert witnesses recommended an all-inclusive strategy toward Afghanistan to win the hearts and minds of the people, fight from a position of strength, assure the civilian population of U.S. long-term commitment, and create an “Afghanistan Reconciliation Committee” in which senior Afghan leaders could come together and focus on realistic and pragmatic steps toward reconciliation in Afghanistan.
The Heritage Foundation has long advocated revoking the artificial deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals, which was first raised by President Obama during his speech at the West Point Military Academy last December. In a recent Webmemo, Heritage Foundation analysts noted that one of the biggest impediments to weakening the perception of inevitable Taliban victory is the July 2011 withdrawal date, which has “provided a psychological boost to the enemy by signaling a lack of long-term U.S. commitment to the mission.”
The participants in last week’s SFRC hearing also agreed that negotiations in Afghanistan can only succeed if the U.S. is bargaining from a position of strength. As Ambassador Crocker noted, “our experience in Iraq demonstrated that in order to take apart an insurgency, you need to change your enemy’s calculations. Reconciliation and reintegration become possible on a large scale when insurgents feel they are no longer winning…You don’t get cracks and fissures in a rock until you bring a hammer down on it.”
Lisa Curtis highlighted this point last March when she wrote “Seeking to negotiate with the Taliban leadership (primarily based in Pakistan) before U.S. and NATO forces gain the upper hand on the battlefield in Afghanistan would be a tactical and strategic blunder with potential serious negative consequences for U.S. national security.” She further noted that “Instead of conferring legitimacy on senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan by seeking high-level political negotiations, the U.S. should focus on reconciling with Taliban commanders on the ground in Afghanistan by concentrating on providing jobs, development assistance, addressing local grievances, and reintegrating Taliban leaders into local governing structures.” In last week’s hearing, Dr. Kilcullen echoed this idea in his written testimony which said, “A focus on reconciliation/reintegration at the local level, as distinct from a ‘grand bargain’ with Taliban leadership, is more appropriate at this stage.”
The Obama Administration must actively counter the perception that the U.S. is war-weary and ready to strike a grand bargain with the Taliban. Such perceptions weaken the U.S. position in the region and dampen prospects for overall success of the new counterinsurgency strategy. The U.S. instead must continue to assert a vision for the region that strengthens those who support democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism and weakens those who adhere to destructive, extremist ideologies. The Obama Administration should recognize that the war against the Taliban cannot be won through half-hearted political gestures of commitment, and pledges to withdraw U.S. troops before they are even fully deployed.
Tasha Haug also contributed to this post.