International Security Studies

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America's Counterinsurgency Conundrum: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Quest for Stability

April 14, 2008 // 12:00pm1:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Asia Program
Middle East Program
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This event was co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center (International Security Studies, Asia Program and Middle East Program), the Council on Global Terrorism, and Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

Dr. Jones and Professor Hoffman reported on their trip to Afghanistan in March 2008, under the auspices of the 82nd Airborne Division, during which they visited four front-line provinces along the border with Pakistan.

Professor Hoffman noted that every single major Al Qaeda attack or plot in the last three years has emanated from the Afghan-Pakistan border region – a geographical zone that Lord Curzon described a century ago as "the razor's edge." Some fourteen different terrorist and insurgent groups based in Pakistan regularly cross the frontier into Afghanistan to target the Kabul government's security forces and the American and NATO military units operating there. These insurgent operations pose a threat not only to Afghanistan, but also to the stability of Pakistan.

As in Iraq, a learning process in U.S. counterinsurgency tactics has produced significant, albeit fragile, tangible gains. According to Hoffman, heavy-handed methods that had alienated the civilian population in Afghanistan have been supplanted by a new approach that emphasizes separating the population from the enemy, building the capacity of the Afghan government to address the needs of the Afghan people, and facilitating reconstruction, development and economic growth. One officer noted that in contrast to the 82nd Airborne's previous deployment in Afghanistan, when 99 percent of its activities were combat operations, the current mix is 25 percent combat and 75 percent non-lethal.

A major constraint on the implementation of this new approach is the inadequacy of resources. Hoffman stated, "Our preoccupation with Iraq and ensuring the success of the surge continually undermine [and] threaten to vitiate the successes that have been achieved in Afghanistan." Although Afghanistan is larger than Iraq both in terms of population (31 versus 27 million) and geography (650,000 square kilometers compared with 435,000), coalition forces in Afghanistan (56,000 of which 23,000 are American) are roughly one-third of that in Iraq. As a consequence, coalition forces, operating with the Afghan National Army, are able to "clear and build," but they can't "hold" territory -- the third, and most critical aspect of counterinsurgency operations.

Dr. Jones also emphasized the centrality of the uncontrolled border region to the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. He noted that there are now more groups operating in this zone and that they operate with less centralization. Although violence is down in the east, the southern region continues to face a major insurgency. Although Pakistani officials in the northwest frontier province are providing support to the Taliban, these actions are not sanctioned by the central government. One factor affecting attitudes in Pakistan has been the emergence of the strategic partnership between the United States and India. Jones noted that some insurgent groups that had been focused on Kashmir have now turned their attention to Afghanistan.

Jones concluded that the war can be lost in Afghanistan, but it can't be won there. He stated that the United States needs to frame its Afghan counterinsurgency strategy in a broader regional context. The major challenge on the Pakistani side of the border is to increase not just military capacity, but also the political will to take on the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Jones noted that the increased "Talibanization" of Pakistan's northwest frontier province, and the resulting resistance of the local population that it has produced, creates a political opening for Pakistan's central government and the United States to reverse that trend.

 

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