Five Flawed Assumptions Of Obama’s Afghan Strategy

President Barack Obama knows the Afghan war is going badly, but he insists that the specter of an al-Qaeda comeback makes Afghanistan a “war of necessity”. So he has ordered some 30,000 new troops to the front, hoping to hold the line enough that Afghan forces can be built up to eventually take over the mission from the U.S. It may sound like a limited goal after the sweeping visions of democracy promised during the Bush years. But even that relatively modest strategy is based on some very questionable assumptions. 
Here are five of them: 
 The Qaeda Threat Requires a Ground War 
Obama made the threat of al-Qaeda returning on the back of a Taliban victory the primary rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan. But, as many have pointed out, al-Qaeda doesn’t need sanctuaries in order to plot terror attacks, and its leadership core is based in the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan. Which means that 100,000 U.S. troops are now being committed to a mission whose goal is to prevent a few hundred men from re-establishing a base of operations. 
And then there’s the problem that having masses of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, inevitably creates a nationalist backlash that fuels the insurgency — a problem that even Defense Secretary Robert Gates had noted early in the debate. The fact that the Taliban is now in effective control of as much as half the country eight years after being routed by the U.S.-led invasion is a sign that the local population is at least more tolerant of an insurgency against foreign forces. Expanding the ground war may not solve this problem. As University of Michigan historian Juan Cole wrote Wednesday, “The U.S. counter-insurgency plan assumes that Pashtun villagers dislike and fear the Taliban, and just need to be protected from them so as to stop the politics of intimidation. But what if the villagers are cousins of the Taliban and would rather support their clansmen than white Christian foreigners?” (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.) 
 Afghan Security Forces Can Be Trained to Take Over the Mission 
The centerpiece of Obama’s exit strategy is the training of Afghan security forces to take responsibility for fighting the Taliban, just as Iraqi forces have taken charge of security in Iraq. But Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq, and training may not be the decisive issue: Despite the U.S. having officially trained 94,000 Afghan soldiers, there’s no sign of an effective Afghan security force capable of fighting the Taliban. Desertion rates are high — one in four soldiers trained last year, by some accounts. So are rates of drug addiction. Most importantly, the most effective elements of the military are dominated by ethnic Tajiks, which does little to help win support of the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group and the one among which the insurgency is based. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan had no powerful army or strong state before the U.S. went in — nor does it have the oil wealth that allows Iraq to pay for its own armed forces. And then there’s the question of whether they’ll be willing to fight the Taliban on behalf of a foreign-backed government.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Obama, Pakistan, Terrorism, USA, war, War On Terror

25 responses to “Five Flawed Assumptions Of Obama’s Afghan Strategy

  1. Samson Simon Sharaf

    If anything, the new strategy is a tight balloon in hot air likely to rapture even before it reaches anything close to its objectives.

    Use of Al Qaida is just an excuse (face-saving) to hang around and leave at an opportune time. Like a wish not fulfilled, the speech makes all the right noises of an establishment given up on the doctrine of ‘Shock and Awe’.

    There is a definitive disconnect within the US establishment, otherwise the second surge would not have gone into an oblivion and petered out into the Iran sponsored militants in Helmand.

    Obama is under the similar sort of establishment pressure that Kennedy was when he wanted to thin out from Vietnam. The war there would have ended much earlier had Kennedy not been assassinated.

    It will soon dawn on Capitol Hill that nothing is possible without Pakistan.

  2. yasserlatifhamdani


    What you wrote has a worrisome aspect. It means that Pakistan will be the scapegoat for the eventual failure of a bad strategy.

  3. Majumdar

    Sometimes I think the best option for Pakistan is do what the rightwingers suggests. Just get out of the WOT, forego US aid and let USA and the Talibs slug it out.


  4. yasserlatifhamdani

    Many of us- in the center- are coming around to that view… especially after the way US is making a mess of things in NWFP.

  5. Samson Simon Sharaf

    Happy to see you agreeing with me.
    What are the connotations?
    I see it loud and clear.
    In quest for the face-saving, they will have no option but to negotiate with Taliban of Mulla Omar and Jihadists of Sarobi (Hikmatyar). These are not religious fanatics that the world wants us to believe. They are the same Mujaheddin who fought USSR. At some stage they will have to be de stigmatized and disconnected from al Qaeda. These resistance groups are Pashtun and still comprise the single largest ethnic group. My report from Afghanistan is that they have hardly fought the US Coalition for the past six months. Its the Iran sponsored groups that are active and that is why CENTCOM went to Helmand during the second surge and not Kandhar.

    As for Al Qaeda and OBL. Its a handful who had influence with the Jihadists. Remember the US Bombing of Afghanistan in 1997. Many Pakistani Jihadists were killed. They are anti Shites and now the Urban Terrorists of Pakistan. I feel that US will not be inclined now to exploit the Punjab Taliban angle as they are sure that Pakistan will eventually sort them out.

    My bigger worry now would be newer fronts in Balochistan and Sindh. But I feel that the Shock and Awe stuff is now a relic and Obama saner the Bush and his Hawks.

  6. Majumdar

    So why is it that the GOP refuses to do what seems obvious?

    Kanjaroon elite can’t do without the 1.5 bn moolah? Or is it that US has dope on the leaders of GOP?


  7. Milind Kher

    The “urban terrorists” of Punjab are anti Shia and anti India as well. They need to be controlled, else they will create problems for Pakistan.

    Let them not feel that the heat is on only in Waziristan.

  8. Gorki

    Brig. Sharaf Sahib is quiet right in his assessment. Obama, like Kennedy (and even more so like Nixon and Vietnam) is ready to get out. Everyone in Washington is at great pains to point out that this is not Vietnam which means it is exactly what it is shaping out to be if it is not already. However it is in Pakistan’s interest to stay put for the time being as discussed below.
    Also in the long run it is in Pakistani interest to remains friendly to the US for this time around it appears that the US is indeed willing to invest in a long term relationship that is based on shared long term goals rather than that of a client state. It wants to see a strong US friendly democracy (like Japan, South Korea etc.) on Iran’s Eastern border. The US support for a democratic government will also make an army coup less likely.
    Five reasons why Pakistan will stay involved in the War in Afghanistan:

    1. Pakistan is already fighting the War on its own terms, mainly against the Pakistani Taliban which is threatening its own state anyway; it is letting the US take on the Afghan Taliban and ignoring the Punjabi Taliban as well as other terrorist like the anti-India groups since these are neutral towards the PA. There is nothing to get out of.

    2. The US, has basically signaled that it has no good options, is tired and wants to get out. This is good news for Pakistan since after 8 years of war; it will now be in a position to dictate terms to the US. As a party most acceptable to both the US and the Taliban, it will have a big seat at the conference table that decides the post war arrangements. When that happens it will be able to push for more concessions for its favorite Taliban leadership at the cost of Indian backed ones now in power. Ironically the US will look to Pakistan to watch for its interests in Afghanistan once it gets out. Pakistan may even get some of its strategic depth back. It is a win win situation for Pakistan.

    3. Cutting with the US at this stage leaves it without major international backers against India something it has always feared. China is still not willing to back Pakistan against the full diplomatic might of the US at this stage. Pakistan may be looking at Iran like isolation if it raises US ire; something that is needless at this stage.

    4. The leadership in Islamabad is weak and split. The civilian government in general and Asif A Zardari in particular are very vulnerable. US support is the single best guarantee against another army inspired direct or indirect take over.

    5. Then there is the issue of US billions that appears to be easy money at this point….

  9. hossp


    I agree with you that the surge and withdrawal plan Obama announced in his speech has no connection with the reality on the ground and does not address the stated goals of the US establishment. This surge and withdrawal would force exploding outside to avoid pregnancy. So the sewage will end up on either side of the afghan body. There are only two sides next to the afghan body–Pakistan and Iran. The intended or unintended result of the surge could end up in another disaster in the area. The US has taken fancy to creating one disaster after another in the last eight years. It is like a blind man shooting everyone insight including in his own house.

    I have posted my thoughts on the true and unstated plan elsewhere on PTH, please read that post too. I still don’t think that the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan are some credible opposition for both Pakistan and the US. Pakistan has shown twice in a span of just a few months that how fragile the Taliban alliances are. Like you mentioned the previous increase this year in March was deployed in Helmond which the Brits already controlled. I am sure that this surge will be deployed in Kabul to provide security to the capital.

    You mentioned the disconnect during the Kennedy era, I would also add the Clinton era and would leave this for you to ponder that after 2004, the Bush White House was taking care of the PR side of the Hawks policy.

    The Obama speech is a classical example of political manipulation, and shows that the two major factions within the US establishment are pursuing different paths. Without naming names, let me just say this: Partly, the speech was an attempt to cut off the other group from taking over the policy. Restricting more requests of surge in future, while still giving in to the minimum request. With the withdrawal date, set in stone or not, the hawks have to show progress, if not, the President can announce that he will stick to his announced withdrawal date, which incidentally the hawks are trying to walk away from in their public statements.

    Unfortunately, your former colleagues are tied with the Hawks in the US admin and that complicates the situation for Pakistan. This would mean they will attempt to defy the White House pressure to produce or at least actively look for OBL and Mullah Omar in Pakistani areas. For peace in Pakistan to return, your former colleagues will need to start untying the umbilical cord and straighten out the maze of knots that join them with the Hawks. It is time for them to say enough and force the US to stick to July 2011 date.
    I know you trust your former colleagues but so far there is no hint that the rest of the country can trust them too.

    One more thing; the US has minimum interest in Sindh and Baluchistan and the interests are restricted to a smooth flow of supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The US sure would not do anything to also have Sindhi, Balochi and Punjabis blocking the supply routes like the Pathans are doing now. Karachi is not only Sindh’s capital, it is the defacto capital of Balochistan also, and you can’t have a peaceful Balochistan, if its access to Karachi is cut off.

    Most of the issues in Sindh and Balochistan are part of the internal politics and you know the forces that create these situations to have the civilian governments at bay all the time. So please don’t tangle up Sindh and Balochistan with some US policy.

  10. Samson Simon Sharaf

    Lets wait and see.

    This strategic depth is all nonsense. At one stage when war with India was imminent like Brasstacks and 1990 mobilizations, the edge that Pakistan had was a peaceful Afghan Front. Earlier Pakistan always hypothetically had a two front threat ie an hostile India and unfriendly Afghanistan. Analysts extended this notion to a point where Pakistan could use the Afghan laterals to shift troops etc, which was never part of military planning. It is an unfair statement.

    HP has answered your question

  11. Gorki

    Dear Brig. Sahib:

    “This strategic depth is all nonsense”

    I agree.
    My comment was more tongue-in-cheek on this point. Good to hear a senior Pakistani officer say that though.
    The other point I made are valid though.


  12. Gorki

    “Unfortunately, your former colleagues are tied with the Hawks in the US admin and that complicates the situation for Pakistan. This would mean they will attempt to defy the White House pressure to produce or at least actively look for OBL and Mullah Omar in Pakistani areas.”

    The above is somewhat unclear. Are you implying that there are elements in the current US administeration that are acting\will act through someone in Pakistan to sabotage the US plans?

  13. hossp

    Lets wait and see.
    We have been playing this wait and see game for the last eight years. I am not going to doubt your loyalties to your former colleagues but I genuinely feel and my honest analysis tells me that the wait and see will come after there will be nothing left to see. Remember what Bhutto said before he died…the winds from Himalaya are already teared up.

    Sharaf is playing games with you. There were two parts of the strategic depth. The military part was ridiculous to begin with and it died the minute US army landed in Afghanistan. The second part is very much alive and the Pak army is not willing to give it up. You just have to think harder to grab the concept. The military part as Brig. Sharaf said was non sense and showed the depth or rather no depth of strategic thinking in Pakistan army.

    “Are you implying that there are elements in the current US administeration that are acting\will act through someone in Pakistan to sabotage the US plans?”

    You will get it if you switch to the “White House plans” instead of the US plans in you last line above. So yes, the US establishment had many instances of betrayal before. Just think about the Plame outing and Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger as one well known example.

  14. sharafs

    Unfortunately your comprehension of strategy would vastly differ from mine due to many reasons. You keep referring to former colleagues who though remain my colleagues. Score a brownie where it is merited and concede where not.

    [Remember what Bhutto said before he died…the winds from Himalaya are already teared up.]
    At this point, the Pakistan Army is adhering to all what Bhutto died for and I elucidated it in my article, ‘A Dream turned Nightmare’

    PENTAGON also believes in a parallel diplomacy called Defense Diplomacy. I also happened to attend such forums with large attendance from armies world over. It is like a heart bypass. Similarly the State Department also has its own by pass instrument like NSA. Once the two do not agree, there are schisms like the second surge.

    At some stage US felt that Mc Crystal’s transfer from NSA to Afghanistan will result in better coordination. It has not happened because organizational intertia has its own dynamics described as SUPERTANKER by the Times article.

    HP has a long held view that both PakArmy and Pentagon-CENTCOM maintain a direct contact. However, he also chooses to say that PakArmy bypasses the political establishment to keep the connect.

  15. Hayyer

    ‘Strategic depth’ in the context of Indo-Pak relations was first mentioned I think by Gen Aslam Beg. He did so after staging his Operation Zarb e Momin in 1990. It involved strategic space in Eastern Afghanistan (which had recently come under the sway of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s fighters.
    With due regard to Brigadier Sharaf’s superior knowledge of the subject I must submit that it could not have only just meant peace in the west while the country fought India. In Pakistan’s earlier conflicts with India Afghanistan neither mobilized nor threatened Pakistan.

  16. sharafs

    Yes it was enunciated by Beg but not started by him. The indoctrination began soon after Charlie Wilson’s war began. Violence and religion were mixed to motivate a cadre of die hard mujaheddin to fight the godless. Religion became the preamble to every military document. It was needed because the military had to train the warriors. By the time USSR left, the indoctrination had become an inertia.

    It never was any part of military’s strategic planning. You must believe me.

  17. Bloody Civilian

    In Pakistan’s earlier conflicts with India Afghanistan neither mobilized nor threatened Pakistan

    1947/48? india/afghanistan supporting fakir ipi and pakhtunistanists? the mehsuds and others – from both sides of the durand line – going to kashmir meant neither were available for ipi and his handlers to recruit.

  18. Majumdar

    Civvie mian,

    the mehsuds and others – from both sides of the durand line – going to kashmir meant neither were available for ipi and his handlers to recruit.

    You have hit the nail on the head. Unless you can divert the tribesmen to Kabul and Kashmir they will turn against you. Perhaps it is best for Pakistan to do precisely what the ringwingers suggest.


  19. Bloody Civilian

    Religion became the preamble to every military [??] document

    why couldn’t the military and its doctrine and mentality have been kept separate and protected from the ‘mujahideen’ that needed to be trained? did the int’l volunteers, arabs and others, need any more religious/jihadi indoctrination? they could have been and, in many cases were, the trainers. but now 8 or 9 out of every 10 retired pak military officers in any way involved in the afghan war have flowing beards and the craziest worldview. at least the ones we see and hear appearing even briefly in the media, give that impression.

    similarly, the military regime was least bothered about keeping the alien refugees separate from pakistani cities and general population. the military made a mess of both it’s own job and the one that it had claimed itself to be better at than the civilians it had snatched the job away from.

  20. Hayyer

    I was not referring to India’s games with its friends allied to KAGK. We Indians understood strategic depth to mean, not its own country but the neighbour Afghanistan.
    We first heard of the term in 1990. Sharafs assures us that it is older and means something quite different from what we understand, and is not part of Army strategy. A lot many writers on military matters should feel embarrassed by that.

  21. Bloody Civilian

    majumdar da

    tribesmen to Kabul and Kashmir they will turn against you

    1. both kabul and kashmir, rather inconveniently for the rightwingers (although they blissfully ignore), have their own history, realities and dynamics.

    2. tribals are raiders. they get homesick after about 6 months, max.

  22. Bloody Civilian

    …. also, the southern tribesman is a ‘trader’. his trading habits are rather unconventional, but so are his natural environment and, more important in this modern world, the unnatural system imposed upon him by the british and continued by pakistan. he is as averse to war/violence as any other trader. in fact, since he knows better than anyone else the true cost of war, he is good at avoiding it… as far as possible. raiding is considered purely on commercial/business merits, and only if it cannot escalate into war. of course, he miscalculates sometimes and makes blunders too. he is an illiterate kept in animated suspension in a modern, complex world.

  23. Milind Kher

    Two major flaws in the strategy are glaring amongst all the ones pointed out.

    1. The Taliban simply cannot be engaed in a ground war with hope of a victory over them. Their familiarity with the terrain as well as local support gives them a distinct edge.

    2. Having the army dominated by Tajiks does not help the army’s cause either.

    Without large number of Pashtuns in the army, led by a strong leader, Afghanistan cannot be dominated by the army.

  24. Gorki

    Hossp, Brig. Sharafs, Hayyer:

    Fascinating exchange.

    “PENTAGON also believes in a parallel diplomacy called Defense Diplomacy”

    1. Is this a consensus statement by all?
    2. Does the this extend to policy itself or only to the means employed to achieve the ends; as outlined by the civilian leaders?
    For if it was the former, it would constitute a treasonable offence atleast in the US. (Remember Iran Contra affair)


  25. sharafs

    Laws are for activists and public.
    Dark alleys, corridors and mysterious organizations are above law.