The administration of President Barack Obama should begin shifting to a counterterrorism (CT) strategy requiring many fewer troops in Afghanistan if its pending review finds that the current counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy is not working, according to a new report by a bipartisan task force of 25 prominent analysts and former top foreign policy officials.
The report, released here Friday by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), concluded that Obama should, in any event, stick to his plans to begin withdrawing the approximately 100,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Afghanistan in July 2011 despite growing pressure from the Pentagon and Republicans to put off the date.
The 92-page U.S. Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan also concluded that Pakistan’s efforts in cracking down against terrorist groups that threaten Afghanistan, India, and the United States "have so far been lacking" and warned that military aid could be cut off if Islamabad continues to "nurture or harbor these groups."
Islamabad has denied sheltering, let alone supporting, such groups.
"The United States still needs to seek a shift in Pakistani strategic calculations about the use of militancy as a foreign policy tool," according to the task force, which was co-chaired by George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, and Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger.
"Washington should continue to make clear to Islamabad that at a basic level, U.S. partnership and assistance depend upon action against LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network, and relative international terror groups," according to the report.
It also called for Washington to maintain its 1.5-billion-dollar-a-year non-military aid program, particularly in light of last summer’s disastrous flooding; offer preferential market access for Pakistani textiles; and encourage improvement in relations between Pakistan and India.
The report, which will likely receive considerable attention here given the prominence of the task force members, comes just as the White House is gathering data for a formal review of the ambitious COIN strategy Obama announced last December and that has increased the number of U.S., NATO and other coalition soldiers in Afghanistan to more than 140,000.
The review is designed to assess "how this current approach is working" according to broad range of military and political criteria, according to a senior White House official who briefed reporters by telephone earlier this week. The official added, however, that it will not consider alternatives or recommend changes in the basic approach.
In the run-up to the review and next week’s key NATO summit in Lisbon, where Obama is expected to gather commitments from U.S. allies to maintain forces in Afghanistan until at least 2014, the U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, and his subordinates have claimed that they are making significant progress against the Taliban, especially in the insurgents’ traditional stronghold in and around Kandahar.
They and other senior U.S. officials have also reported that some Taliban leaders, allegedly as a result of the increased military pressure that includes cross-border drone attacks in Pakistan, have responded more favorably to offers by President Hamid Karzai to enter into peace talks.
Critics have cast doubt on both claims, however, suggesting that they are designed to persuade an increasingly skeptical public, NATO allies, and the White House itself that the COIN strategy is indeed working and should be given more time well beyond July 2011 to achieve its mission.
The CFR task force noted that there were indeed "hopeful signs of progress," such as the acceleration in the recruitment and training of Afghan security forces and the targeting of Taliban networks. However, in other areas, notably in improving governance, fighting corruption and, and promoting reconciliation, "trends are less encouraging."
Armitage told reporters that he thought the recent claims about Taliban contacts with the government regarding peace talks "don’t amount to much" and were more likely "an attempt …to try to sow some discontent within Taliban ranks."
"The cloudy picture and high costs (of the current strategy) raise the question of whether the United States should now downsize its ambitions and reduce its military presence in Afghanistan," the report said. It added that such a change carried "significant risks," including the consolidation of Taliban control over important parts of the country and possibly wider ethnic and regional conflicts.
"That said, the current U.S. approach is at a critical point," it went on, arguing that the pending review "should mark the start of a clear-eyed assessment of whether there is sufficient overall progress to conclude that the strategy is working."
If the review concluded that the strategy is indeed working, "then that should enable the United States to steadily draw down its forces starting in July, based on conditions on the ground, as the president has announced."
"If not, however, a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted," it said, suggesting the adoption of a CT strategy that would require as few as 10,000-20,000 troops "led by Special Operations Forces armed with cash, weapons, surveillance, and the ability to call in U.S. airpower…"
Those recommendations drew a sharp dissent by eight members of the task force, including a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Barno; an architect of the Iraq "surge" Gen. John Keane (ret.); a former director of national intelligence, John Negroponte; the chief U.S. diplomat behind the creation of the Karzai government in 2001-2, James Dobbins; and the head of the influential Center for a New American Security (CNAS), John Nagl, who reportedly is in line to become the next assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.
"While lack of progress by July 2011 should rightfully be seen as a dangerous indicator the most logical response is to reassess the strategy not to reflexively end it and move to large-scale withdrawal," they complained, adding that such a move would "preemptively tie the president’s hands."
The majority position, however, was hailed by some of the three dozen policy analysts, academics, and former senior officials who made up the "Afghan Study Group," a joint project of the New America Foundation (NAF) and the Center for International Policy.
That group called for early adoption of a CT strategy that would accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops, arguing that "(w)aging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarrelling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems."
"Their recommendations are an important step in the direction of a smarter strategy," said Steve Clemons, the director of NAF’s American Strategy Program, speaking of the CFR report. "It provides the president more political cover if he decides to make the shift."
"They’re basically saying the same thing we’ve been saying," said Matthew Hoh, the Study Group’s director. "They’re very concerned about the costs of the war, as are we, and, like us, they’re very strong on the need for a real national reconciliation process, for constitutional reform, and other political initiatives to end the conflict."