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Kerry Backs Counterinsurgency Strategy in Afghanistan

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/10/kerrypic-480x348.jpgSen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) (WDCpix)

Fresh from a trip last week to Afghanistan, where he scored a diplomatic coup by securing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s acquiescence to a runoff election, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) urged President Obama to endorse a counterinsurgency campaign targeted at the Pashtun areas of south and eastern Afghanistan, provided that the United States could also boost civilian governance and development projects to consolidated military success.


Image by: Matt Mahurin


Officials from U.S. civilian agencies like the State Department and USAID “must be ready to follow swiftly with the development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population,” said Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a speech to an overflow room of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Deploying additional troops won’t result in sustainable gains if the Afghan security, civilian and governance capacity isn’t there. And right now, as our generals will tell you, in many places, too many places, it isn’t.”

Kerry’s formal entrance into the Afghanistan strategy debate came as Obama and top advisers concluded their sixth meeting exploring a strategy reboot. One of the two leading alternatives up for discussion in the review — which Kerry praised as wise — are to accelerate and deepen a focus on counterinsurgency, as preferred by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, along with an affiliated request for tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops. The other, favored by Vice President Biden, urges a narrowed focus on hunting and killing members of al-Qaeda and affiliated extremists, primarily based in the Pakistan tribal areas.

But Kerry rejected both approaches, although he leaned far closer to McChrystal than to Biden. Kerry dismissed a “narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban” as flirting with the risk of “civil war,” and doubted that such a counterterrorism mission could accomplish its objectives without a robust military presence to collect intelligence in support of counterterrorism operations. “For now, we need the boots on the ground to get the information and protect our interests,” he said.

Bolstered by his credibility in delivering the biggest tangible diplomatic success for the Obama administration on Afghanistan to date, Kerry endorsed a counterinsurgency strategy in the Pashtun areas of “the southern and eastern theaters of Afghanistan,” and limited to “major population centers,” saying “we cannot and should not undertake a manpower intensive counterinsurgency operation on a national scale.” He praised McChrystal as “understand[ing] the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area,” but said McChrystal’s current plan “reaches too far, too fast.”

Mark Moyar, a scholar at the Marine Corps University who focuses on counterinsurgency, said narrowing U.S. focus on south and east Afghanistan “makes a certain amount of sense,” as the Taliban-centered insurgency is based in that region. But it runs the risk of allowing insurgents to disperse and set up shop unchallenged elsewhere in the country. “There is a danger, as there has been in a number of other counterinsurgencies, to focus on area, make it a high priority, but [insurgents] eventually figure it out and go somewhere else,” said Moyar, author of a new book about counterinsurgency, “A Question of Command.” “Already, [the insurgency is] starting to get stronger in the north and west” of Afghanistan.

Kerry urged the Obama administration to strengthen “governance and development capacity, the other two legs of counterinsurgency,” so a “narrowly focused” counterinsurgency campaign in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan does not produce the bifurcation of the country that he derided a counterterrorism mission for potentially yielding. He said it was not necessary to focus on large-scale development projects when Afghan elders he spoke to in Helmand province had far more basic and immediate concerns. “One of the leaders got up after a couple other people talked and he said, ‘We have no drinking water in my family compound, no wells, no canals and no infrastructure,’” Kerry said, advising the Obama administration to “work with the tribes more sensitively and directly,” using development aid and other support to “bolster effective tribal leaders.”

But the ability of the Afghan government to provide basic services is in doubt. Kerry provided a robust defense of Karzai, a third of whose ballots in the August 20 election were invalidated because of fraud concerns, as a “patriot.” But he said the test of whether the U.S. commitment to the Afghan government will be tested by “the decisions made and actions taken in the weeks and months ahead,” as they will be “what really gives meaning” to what Kerry called the “opening” provided by the runoff election. “We must insist that [Afghan] leaders embrace lasting reforms,” including corruption “at every level of government” and “redefin[ing] the Afghan government beyond Kabul” by urging “a more decentralized approach” to governance, a favorite approach of both Karzai rival Abdullah Abdullah and many in international aid circles.

The U.S. commitment “has to evolve away from a U.S.-military dominated effort to support for Afghan institutions and Afghan answers,” Kerry said. “And it only makes sense to continue moving forward if our commitment is reciprocated by Afghans themselves in the form of improved governance and increased Afghan capacity, civilian and military, something President Karzai and his cabinet and I discussed at great length.” Kerry said that his discussions in Kabul gave him hope that it was possible to move to “a new relationship” with the Afghan government on those terms.

As a result, Kerry conditionalized the terms under which he would support a U.S. troop increase. The critical considerations underlying the viability of the U.S. mission, he said, were the ability of Afghan troops; local tribal leaders and U.S. civilian officials to build on the security gains won by U.S. combat forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan. If those are in place, he said, “then I would support the president, should he decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative.” Accordingly, Kerry urged the Obama administration to create a “valid assessment” those conditions will be in place “before we consider sending more soldiers and Marines to clear new areas.”

It is unclear how prepared Obama may be to affirm such conditions, particularly as regard to the U.S. civilian deployment to Afghanistan. While the State Department has the goal of coordinating the deployment of a so-called “civilian surge” to over 970 U.S. civilian advisers in Afghanistan by the end of the year, the State Department’s so-called Civilian Response Corps, a Bush-era initiative with bipartisan support, remains small, with fewer than 100 active members from across eight agencies. As a result, senior Obama administration officials have been forced to take an ad hoc approach to recruiting civilian advisers from traditionally domestic agencies like Justice and Agriculture to deploy to Afghanistan. In a briefing today, the deputy secretary of state, Jack Lew, said that “we’re going to have, when we’re fully deployed, 388 civilians outside of Kabul,” up from 157 presently.

But Beth Cole, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace who researches U.S. civilian capacity for reconstruction and conflict stabilization operations, said it might be possible to get a sufficient core of 500 civilian officials for “key spots” in south and east Afghanistan. “The CRC is not going to be able to fulfill all the slots at this time,” she said, but if “we’re up against the wall, and we have to turn the situation around, I would call CRC to see what it could deliver.” Alongside an added corps of contractors and civilians from the Defense Department to make up the gap, Cole said she thinks it remains possible to “fulfill a lot of the core function” in Afghanistan.

Kerry said that one advantage the U.S. did have was the widespread unpopularity of the Taliban. While he did not devote much emphasis to so-called “reconciliation” plans to either divide the Taliban from al-Qaeda or fracture its coalition, he embraced proposals from the Afghan government — backed by McChrystal — to lure insurgent foot soldiers away from their commanders with economic aid. “Many can be lured away by the right combination of money, diplomacy, reintegration into society, and smart outreach to Pashtun tribal leaders,” he said, “including those who currently back the Taliban.

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