Americans Have the Clock, But the Taliban Have the Time

Cap Ferrat, France

President Obama’s surge and de-surge strategy in Afghanistan has landed the United States in a strategic cul-de-sac.  As America withdraws troops from remote areas of Afghanistan like the Tangi, Korangar, and Pech Valleys, insurgents are flooding back in to wreak havoc, necessitating US retaliatory raids, redeployments, and stiffening operations to kill insurgents and to protect local Afghan units and villagers, even though some of these Afghan units and villagers may on occasion be in league with insurgents.  As the American withdrawal continues, the noose around the cul de sac will tighten, because fewer and fewer forces will be available to cope with the menace posed by spreading hit and run attacks by small decentralized insurgent groups operating in quick time in distant places.

Inevitably, continued troop withdrawals imply the US military will find itself in an increasingly reactive operational posture, where it is responding to events rather than shaping them.  Faced with this loss of initiative, military leaders will have to substitute even more reactive air strikes and nighttime airborne raids for boots on the ground as it gradually abandons more and more territory to the insurgents.  You can think of this as a clear and hold process, only one that is now going into reverse, with the insurgents doing the clearing and holding. Moreover, the growing dependence on airpower will increase the unintended killings of civilians that are pouring gasoline on the fires of this insurgency.

Obama’s surge and de-surge has, therefore, created a reinforcing dynamic that is playing into the hands of the insurgents by seducing the United States into increasing its reliance on a pointless, reactive, “whack-a-mole” strategy.  Like a judo specialist, the insurgents will use the expenditure of American energies to exhaust American forces and paralyze American political willpower by inducing our military to over and under react to an unfolding welter widely dispersed insurgent attacks.   Moreover, this dynamic will be unfolding at the very time President Obama is struggling to extricate both our military forces and himself from the quagmire he so quickly plunged into with ill-considered escalation decisions made during his first year in office.  Finally, the interplay of a ubiquitous guerrilla menace with the onerous psychology of retreat is a prescription for paralysis by a thousand cuts and eventual political defeat.

The probable result is that the US will not leave Afghanistan on its own terms but on its adversary’s terms, because as the Taliban propagandists quite correctly claim, “The Americans have a clock, but we have the time.”

Obama can truthfully say he inherited this mess from a strategically inept predecessor, but he is not blameless, because his actions of the last eighteen months have made the Afghan predicament much worse. Recent events have placed the dilemma created by . Obama’s the surge and de-surge strategy into sharp relief and illustrate how the dangerous reinforcing dynamic introduced above is now locking itself into place.

There were 32,000 troops in Afghanistan when Barack Obama became President in January 2009.  However, another 11,000 troops had been approved by the Bush Administration in its final months and were in the pipeline to deploy to Afghanistan.  Obama ordered his first escalation of 21,700 more troops in March 2009, and he added another 33,000 with his much ballyhooed surge decisions finalized in December 2009.

So, by the end of this first year in office, Obama had more than doubled down on the American commitment to what was  clearly a failing war in Afghanistan. While he bought off the hawks with these escalations, he sweetened the deal for the doves by promising he would begin reducing our deployed troop levels within eighteen months, beginning in July 2010, together with a vague albeit quickly forgotten promise to withdraw the rest by 2014.

But his promise to begin a withdrawal in July 2011 was predicated on a fatally flawed assumption: namely, that the US military could quickly build up and then hand over security responsibilities to the notoriously corrupt and ineffective Afghan military and police forces.  I described the ramifications of these flawed assumptions in the 22 September 2009 issue ofCounterPunch [here], and in the 29-31 January 2010 issue, showed how these ramifications were subsequently confirmed in the leaked Eikenberry Cables [here].

Of course, surging by one side in a conflict does not take place in isolation. As Clausewitz implied, war is a duel between animate beings who react unpredictably to changing conditions, according to the dictates of their own free will.   And no one would deny the Afghans are, if nothing else, seasoned duelists.

It is now clear that the Afghan insurgents have made good on their promise to respond to Obama’s escalations with escalations of their own.  To this end, in recent months, they have ratcheted up the size, frequency, and effectiveness of what appears to our orientation as a menacing welter of hit and run attacks. To name but a few of the more spectacular examples:

  1. In April 2010, the Taliban engineered the escape of 480 Taliban prisoners from the Kandahar Prison.
  2. On 28 May, the Taliban exploded a bomb in a government building in northern Takhar Province, killing the regional police commander in the North, a police chief and two NATO soldiers, as well as wounding the German commander of NATO’s northern command and the Takhar provincial governor
  3. On 30 May, the Taliban launched an unusual attack on targets in the western Afghan city of Herat, including a NATO base.
  4. Less than a week after Obama announced his plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, insurgents launched a spectacular attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, supposedly one of the most secure building in Kabul, that resulted in a five-hour firefight requiring the intervention NATO troops and helicopters.
  5. On July 12, President Karzai’s half-brother was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.
  6. On July 17, Jan Mohammed Khan, who was a key ally and adviser to the Afghan president Karzai was assassinated. Etc…

These attacks demonstrate the enormous reach of the insurgency and appear to have been orchestrated by a variety of groups of insurgents.  The US military believes many of them can be blamed on the notorious Haqqani Network, a belief no doubt inspired in part by the military’s predilection to find the critical nodes and hi-value targets governing its adversary’s behavior. (The American military’s obsession with identifying critical nodes derives from the strategic bombing theories developed by the Army Air Corps in the 1930s and, together with the promises of precision warfare, have fostered a silver bullet mentality that assumes military strategies can be reduced to mechanical plans for finding and killing such hi-value targets.)   On July 31, the New York Times carried a revealing report saying that NATO forces are responding to the rising number of insurgent attacks by “strengthening a layered defense” long the Afghan border with Pakistan to capture militants from the Haqqani Network as they try to make their way to the Kabul area to carry out their attacks.  What was most revealing in the Times’ report relates to what it did not say.

One curiosity in this report was that it did not explain what “strengthening a layered defense” means.  A conventional interpretation of the term suggests it means building some kind of escheloned defense in depth along the border.

But as Conn Hallinan pointed out in the 5-7 August edition of CounterPunch, the geography of the AFPAK border is too mountainous, too porous, too hostile, and far to long for NATO to maintain even a thin barrier defense of this border, let alone an in depth layered defense, especially given the limited — and decreasing — number of combat troops NATO has at its disposal. Indeed, one of the unchanging strategic features of the Soviet and US wars in Afghanistan has been an inability to seal that border, particularly in the wild region between Afghanistan and Pakistan from the northeast to the southeast of Kabul.  So, at the same time we are reducing forces, we are shifting to a layered defense, implying some sort of reinforcement. What gives?

There is more: A second curiosity of the  July 31 New York Times report is that it did not say that the layering mission included, inter alia, a return of US forces to dangerous Pech Valley in a remote region of Kunar Province.  US forces had been forced to abandon the Pech less than six months earlier.  The omission by the Times is made doubly odd by the fact that the Times carried a very informative contemporaneous report of the Pech evacuation, i.e., “U.S. Pulling Back in Afghan Valley It Called Vital to War,”on 24 February 2011.

The recent loss of a Chinook helicopter and 31 US troops (including 22 members of Seal Team 6) may have occurred  in a “layering mission” — in this case, a night raid — to stiffen Afghan forces in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province. The US abandoned and transferred its combat outpost in the Tangi to the Afghan forces last April.

Moreover, by omitting to say we were returning to areas we had abandoned and turned over to the Afghan security forces, the Times neatly dodged the need to explain what the expected a strategy of  strengthening the so-called layered defense was supposed to accomplish. However, Martin Kuz wrote an excellent 4 August report in the Stars and Stripes describing the return to the Pech Valley.  In it, he quoted US Army leaders as justifying their reentry into the Pech with the same reason they used when they went into Pech the first time, in 2003, namely the goal is to set conditions for a transition that will enable the Afghan army and Afghan Police to provide the local population with security.  In other words,  Army forces are returning to areas they handed over to the Afghan security forces, because the transition did not work. This brings us back to the fatally flawed assumption underpinning the entire escalation decision mentioned above — namely, the 2009 military analysis justifying the surge strategy did not realistically account for how the limitations of the Afghan security forces would upset its plans for transferring security responsibility to those forces.

If you have read this far, it ought to be becoming clear that, other than reversing the troop withdrawal and escalating with yet another troop surge, the only way out of the trap is to negotiate a political settlement with the insurgents. There is no dishonor in this; in fact, a negotiated settlement is the way most guerrilla wars end.

To be effective, such a settlement must involve and account for the legitimate interests of the regional players, including Iran, Pakistan, and China, as well as the interests of all the Afghan people, but also the United States and Russia, and the probably the Central Asian Republics to boot.

The goal should be one of establishing conditions for the emergence of a neutral and prosperous Afghanistan.  In view of the trauma and destruction suffered by Afghanistan, initially, perhaps, those conditions should be enforced and stabilized with some kind of multinational Islamic peacekeeping/economic development task force, lead by an major Islamic country without a dog in the hunt, like, Indonesia or Turkey.  In most circumstances, Turkey would be my choice: it is now the world’s leading Islamic country and a major regional power; it has a secular government and a rapidly developing booming economy and an educated population; and its reformist leadership has exhibited an ability to shape an exceptionally gifted foreign policy.  Some Afghans might object by saying Turkey has a dog in the hunt — specifically, Turkey is a member of NATO and NATO is fighting in Afghanistan.  Moreover, Pashtuns might take exception to Turkey’s connections to the Turkic ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan and the bordering regions, which used to be known a Turkestan.  The key point is that it is absolutely essential that the Afghan people view the leading peacekeeping country as an honest broker.

According to news reports, the Taliban have indicated a willingness to talk about a peace deal, but they have set one unbendable, typically Afghan precondition to any negotiation: all outsiders must promise to leave; specifically the US and NATO must agree to a complete withdrawal of all of their forces before sitting down to the negotiating table.

Like the Soviets and the British before them, the American clock in Afghanistan is running out while the insurgent adversary has the time.  It is too late for American leaders to be adhering to the primitive idea that one can only negotiate from a position of military strength abroad and economic strength at home — both those bases of power have been blown, thanks mostly to the madness exhibited by Obama’s predecessor.  And like the Soviets and the British, the United States is not going to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan; to do so would enrage the Afghan people and fuel the insurrection.

Wiser heads also would do well to recall that an earlier American president faced a similar mismatch between his clock and his adversary’s time before. President Nixon tried to duck its implications by selling a slow withdrawal from Viet Nam to a war-weary nation by promising of “peace with honor.”  If the North Vietnamese had responded to his overtures with an unbendable precondition, like that of the Taliban, namely a complete military withdrawal from Viet Nam, negotiations would have been as unthinkable to State Department and Pentagon planners in 1970 as the Taliban’s demand for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is today.  But in the end, it did not matter.  In 1975, we ended our involvement in Viet Nam, with an unconditional withdrawal being imposed on the US for all the world to see.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at