U.S. President Barack Obama presented on March 27 his strategy for dealing with the Afghanistan-Pakistan (known as AfPak) region. He made crystal clear that al-Qaida, Pakistan and Afghanistan are closely intertwined and need to be dealt with simultaneously, albeit differently.
In his presentation, Obama nailed all the aspects of this huge challenge: the military operation against both al-Qaida and the Taliban, the need for additional Afghan security personnel, a corrupt government in Afghanistan, drug trafficking, need for a very large international coalition, civilian financial aid to Pakistan, a civilian surge, and benchmarks for the two countries.
This is easier said than done. To begin, let us take a look at the current state of affairs in Afghanistan from a military perspective.
Obama had announced he was sending 17,000 troops. On top of that he has said he would be sending an additional 4,000 to help train Afghan forces. But this is short of the 30,000 that the military had asked for. Also Obama announced that Afghan security forces - the military plus the police - will number 216,000. That is also way short of the 400,000 that the U.S. military had reportedly advised.
As Obama rightly pointed out, the region is the most dangerous in the world and al-Qaida has been planning attacks against the U.S. homeland from there. Confirming the importance of the region, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently stated that 70 percent of the terrorist plots being investigated in Britain can be traced back to Pakistan.
In fact, the region has become the center of the worldwide jihad. According to Western diplomats, U.S. intelligence services have detected an increase in telephone conversations in "foreign languages" (Arabic, Chechen, English...) in the tribal areas at the Pakistan-Afghan border.
There has been a very significant switch from Iraq to AfPak as the main front for jihad. Since the demise of al-Qaida in Iraq, the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq from the Middle East, Africa and Europe has dried up and they have been rerouted to AfPak. Numerous reports have confirmed the presence of Western European nationals fighting alongside the Taliban, most notably British and French citizens.
For example, French interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, confirmed that French services have indeed established that Frenchmen are traveling nowadays to the Pakistani-Afghan border area to receive education and training.
For many Western governments, the main worry is their return to their home country as hardcore experienced terrorists where they could perpetrate attacks. That is why U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Europe's security was deeply tied to NATO's success in Afghanistan.
Obama clearly asked for help from his European allies; he will see first-hand if his popularity in European capitals will tilt the balance. But at this point, European nations seem little inclined to dramatically increase their commitment to the Afghanistan mission.
An asymmetrical intense war is taking place in Afghanistan between NATO, the largest military alliance in the world, and about 10,000 Taliban fighters. The IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and the suicide attacks account for half of the victims of the Afghan and international forces. The Taliban now only works in small groups, embedded in the population, connected by mobile phones. It has renounced holding ground in order to privilege harassment with a strong psychological impact: commando actions, suicide bombings, kidnappings, remote control triggering of improvised mines on the passage of our convoys.
The Taliban is willing to give $200 to a farmer, just to trigger the explosion of a mine which is hidden in his field. And for that kind of combat, the Taliban has the advantage of experience and the control of time. It is playing the quagmire card, like it did with the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s. And simply put, the insurgents do not need to win; all they have to do is not to lose.
The recent mini-surge of additional troops may indeed make a difference, but the solution is also in Pakistan and in the political realm. (We will look at this next week.) Afghanistan has a weak and corrupt government and presidential elections are coming up this summer. The next few months are going to be crucial for the future of Afghanistan.