US President Barack Obama has chosen to adopt a high-risk counter-insurgency strategy against the Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The choice is itself a pointer to the gravity with which Washington views the deteriorating situation in this vital theatre of war.
A clear signal of the new strategy was the sacking this week of General David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan considered too conventional, and his replacement by a counter-insurgency expert, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded America’s Joint Special Operations Command for five years, from 2003 to 2008.
One of McChrystal’s units captured Saddam Hussein in December 2003. He is also credited with tracking down and killing the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. More of the same cloak-and-dagger hard-hitting operations will now be expected of him.
The new strategy is said to have been adopted on the advice of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General James Jones, Obama’s National Security Adviser.
Unwelcome developments across the region are challenging US war aims, and are even threatening to make nonsense of America’s involvement in the war. In Afghanistan, for example, President Hamid Karzai is allying himself with notoriously cruel and corrupt warlords, no doubt in a bid to ensure his re-election next August. Among the men with whom he is said to be striking deals are Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a terrorist on America’s ‘most wanted’ list, and Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, wanted by the United States for his links with Osama bin Laden. This is not the Afghanistan which America has sought to liberate and build.
Pakistan poses an even greater challenge. General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, said last Sunday that its very survival was at risk from the Taliban. The next few weeks, he added, would be important in rolling back “this existential threat, a true threat to Pakistan’s very existence.”
What does the new US strategy imply? It means, of course, being militarily agile, matching the insurgents’ hit and run tactics, and killing their leaders, when and where possible. But it also means the deliberate use of disproportionate force, even at the cost of massive civilian casualties.
The key idea is to make life so intolerably dangerous and harsh that the local population will desert the insurgents, and that both will lose the will to fight. That is the theory behind the strategy.
Israel adopted a similar counter-insurgency strategy in its war against Hamas in Gaza last December/January. It did not, however, have the desired effect since Hamas remains very much in control of Gaza, and may even have increased its legitimacy. The UN and several human rights organisations criticised Israel for the large-scale killing of civilians and the massive destruction of homes, mosques, schools, factories and agricultural land. But the use of heavy weapons against civilian targets was no accident. It was a deliberate strategy, although never officially acknowledged. The resort to disproportionate force to overwhelm the enemy, and make him despair of ever winning, is an essential aspect of counter-insurgency strategy.
What America and the Pakistan Army are doing is not unlike what Israel attempted at Gaza. America’s use of a Hellfire missile strikes by pilotless drones is a typical counter-insurgency technique. President Karzai has pleaded with the United States to stop the strikes because of the cost in civilian lives. “How can you expect a people who keep losing their children to remain friendly?” he asked in a taped interview with American television.
But General Jones objected: “We can’t fight with one hand tied behind our back... We have to have a full complement of our offensive military power when we need it.” What he did not -- and could not -- say was that terrorizing and killing of civilians is part of the strategy.
Afghan sources said 147 civilians were killed by US airstrikes last week in the western province of Farah, and that many more suffered severe burns, as if from phosphorus bombs -- another resemblance with Israel’s war in Gaza. The United States claimed the figure was exaggerated.
Under American pressure, the Pakistan Army has also deliberately resorted to the disproportionate use of force, launching this month a sudden and massive assault on the Swat valley, which is said to have so far killed 700 militants. It also forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to run for their lives, thereby creating a vast and virtually unmanageable refugee problem.
To be fair, although Obama is doubling US troops in Afghanistan from 32,000 at the end of December 2008 to 68,000 by the end of December 2009, he understands that military means alone will not be sufficient to defeat the Taliban. He is planning a surge in development assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and he hopes to create conditions for an eventual negotiation with ‘moderate’ Taliban.
But, in the meantime, counter-insurgency is a high-risk strategy because it sometimes has the opposite effect to what is intended. Instead of driving a wedge between the population and the militants it can bind them together in adversity. Instead of drying up the pool of jihadi recruits, it can swell their ranks.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been destabilized by America’s war. The next six months will show whether the situation can be retrieved.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global