A FRESHLY leaked paper reveals that many elements of what would later become President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan were framed as early as Nov 17, 2008, only weeks after his victory in the election, and months before his swearing in.
The paper was written by John Brennan, whose personal email account was recently hacked by a teenager and the contents given to WikiLeaks, which posted them on its site a few days ago. One of the emails contains a paper written by Brennan who worked on Obama’s campaign in those days, and later would serve as Homeland Security Adviser in the White House, and eventually as Director of the CIA.
The paper begins by noting the total absence of any “comprehensive strategy being implemented in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AF-PK) region”. In the visits made by Brennan and his team as leg work for preparation of the report, they found that American and allied elements in both countries were “working in their own lanes and mission sets, yet nothing ties their efforts together as a whole for an achievable victory”.
The first thing the incoming president needed to do, wrote Brennan, was to introduce a “comprehensive strategy” that would align the efforts – military and civilian – of the US, Afghan government and allies in pursuit of a common goal.
The strategy needed to be “regional in breadth, locally tailored” to be followed by all the elements of the American-led effort in the theatre of conflict.
“We suggest that America’s primary goal is to eliminate the terrorist threat to the United States emanating from terrorist sanctuaries in the region and to replace those sanctuaries with secure environments maintained through stable governance in order to prevent their reversion to terrorist safe havens.”
This was a significant departure from the goal that the Bush administration had been pursuing in Afghanistan since 9/11. President Bush had cast the fight in Afghanistan as “a long ideological struggle” and identified defeating the Taliban as the main goal of the US effort. He bet heavily on increasing the size and capabilities of Afghan security forces of Karzai’s government, adding that “[t]he best way to dry up Taliban recruits is to help Afghanistan’s government create jobs and opportunity”.
“In order to implement the comprehensive regional strategy” Brennan said, “the in-coming President should appoint and actively support a Washington-based Special Coordinator for US government efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.
Brennan’s use of the neologism AfPak predates the use of the term in public discourse, where it began to be widely used in February 2009, and his suggestion to create the post of a special coordinator was implemented only months later, when the position was created and Richard Holbrooke appointed to it in January 2009.
“Coalition forces have won every major battle with the Afghan insurgents,” Brennan pointed out, but added that these tactical successes did not lead to strategic victory in the war “because insurgents are free to retreat and regroup in sanctuaries across the AF-PK border in the Pushtun tribal belt of Pakistan”.
This was the biggest problem to the entire effort, he pointed out, saying “Pakistan’s ambivalence toward, and perhaps outright support for, the Taliban” could be the biggest challenge for Nato forces. But he cautioned against a muscular response, saying America “needs Pakistani cooperation to eliminate the terrorist threat…and cannot afford to lose Pakistani support”, pointing to the importance of the supplies that went through Pakistan, to which “there currently is no viable land alternative”.
“A permanent halt of fuel or other shipments would significantly damage coalition operations in Afghanistan.”
As a result, the United Sates must “dramatically increase our engagement with Pakistan to develop a partnership towards meeting US and Pakistani goals for the region”. The engagement could cover military as well as developmental goals, with the goal of “assisting the Pakistani military in retooling itself for the COIN (counter-insurgency) mission”.
The special coordinator should oversee this engagement, argued Brennan, and in return the United States could “commit to judicious use of unilateral action in the Fata, employing it only when targeting American highest priority threats”.
This strategy, of trading military assistance for the right to the “judicious use of unilateral action” in Fata, would eventually grow into the drone campaign, which at its apogee was far from judicious.
Additionally, an “intensive diplomatic effort to develop solutions to conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan” should be part of the engagement, and “the Special Coordinator should look for ways to alleviate Pakistan’s concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan”.
The Afghan Army, at its present and projected levels, he argued, was “inadequate to secure stability”. These forces were “one of the major components to winning the war” but the total size of Afghan security forces was projected at 200,000, less than half of what Iraq had, whereas Afghanistan is nearly four times the size.
Moreover, the Afghan forces didn’t have to worry about civilian casualties as much as the foreign forces did. “[W]hen US forces go into an area and incur collateral damage, the public outcry and media attention is dramatic and covered widely” he said, pointing out that when Afghan security forces did the same thing, “it is more acceptable and resulting problems often settled quietly”.
“Additionally the ANSF have the ability to pose as insurgents in order to infiltrate enemy areas, as they have started doing, multiplying opportunities for ‘soft’ take-downs.”
Building up the ANSF was “the best long term and cost effective solution for achieving stability in Afghanistan”, he wrote and added that these forces must lead the way in military operations in the country. But preparing them for the task would be a big job.
“This effort will require an increase in US ground forces,” he argued, although initially only to “train and grow a much larger ANA”.
Brennan’s paper presaged the troop surge that President Obama announced in his speech at West Point in December 2009, but by then a larger fighting role had become necessary for the new troops entering the theatre.
This strategy was debated in Obama’s White House throughout 2009, picking up additional baggage along the way. The troop surge, the ramped up partnership with Pakistan and pursuit of “terrorist sanctuaries” mentioned in the paper eventually became central elements of the new strategy.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015