| A US soldier and a bomb-sniffing dog patrol in the desert in Helmand province [Reuters]
The White House has sought to put a positive spin on Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday, dispatching two senior administration officials late on Thursday to host a background conference call with reporters.
They emphasised a few positive developments - new reforms that will likely reduce (though hardly eliminate) electoral fraud, the Afghan army's lead role in providing security - and called the vote another positive milestone for US president Barack Obama's new strategy.
Asked to provide concrete metrics in support of that view, though, they resorted to body counts: One official praised the "increased operational tempo" of a "campaign to target Taliban mid-grade leaders".
It was hardly a reassuring argument, given that General Stanley McChrystal, the previous US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, said enemy body counts "distract from the real objectives and [aren’t] necessary to communicate what we're trying to achieve." (He stopped releasing them.)
Obama’s Afghan strategy, unveiled last winter after a lengthy strategy review, has always sat uneasily with many observers. Some doubted his decision to escalate the war at all; others questioned his focus on southern Afghanistan, his lofty goals for training the Afghan army and police, his confidence in the Afghan government's ability to deliver basic services. There was little consensus that Obama's strategy was the right one.
Today that consensus has all but collapsed. Nato promised a major push to secure Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but seven months after the "battle of Marja" - the sparsely-populated hamlet in Helmand that somehow became a centerpiece of Obama’s new strategy - the security situation in the south remains grave: Insurgent attacks in Kandahar and Helmand have increased by 40 per cent and 219 per cent, respectively.
Security has also worsened significantly across the east, and in six provinces in northern Afghanistan; and efforts to improve governance have proceeded in fits and starts, hindered both by insecurity and by an often corrupt and predatory central government.
Against that backdrop, then, it is little surprise that calls for an alternate strategy are gaining attention in Washington, even if many of the loudest voices struggle to articulate exactly what that strategy might look like.
A vague 'Plan B'
The highest-profile effort is a report released earlier this month by the 46-member "Afghanistan Study Group (ASG)," composed mostly of academics and think tank analysts, many of them longtime critics of Obama’s strategy.
The sluggish progress in Helmand has delayed a planned military offensive in Kandahar [Reuters]
The report, "A New Way Forward," proposes a five-point policy: It recommends a "fast-tracked" reconciliation process with insurgent groups; a greatly reduced US military force; a stronger emphasis on economic development, and on "engaging regional and global stakeholders"; and a "renewed focus" on al-Qaeda.
"We've moved away from confidence in the current plan and we haven't moved towards anything," said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and one of the report's authors. "The big thing is have this report to serve as a vehicle and as a holding place for constructive, credible, alternative thinking about current policy."
But reaction to the report has been mixed, even from those who disagree sharply with current policy in Afghanistan.
Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project - and a frequent critic of Obama's strategy - said the ASG report "fails to deliver" an alternative. Joshua Foust, a military analyst who writes extensively on Afghanistan, called it "an exercise in determined ignorance".
Why such a critical response? One reason is that the report often seems to restate current policy. Obama's first Afghanistan strategy review, concluded 18 months ago, echoed the ASG's call for economic development: It called for a renewed focus on helping Afghanistan "develop an economy dominated by illicit drugs". And the president's second review, which wrapped up in December, urged a "more effective partnership with Pakistan," much like the ASG report does.
The goals are uncontroversial, in other words; the challenge is execution.
"For almost twenty years now, the UN has tried to gather precisely these countries to develop a common regional interest in ending the conflict inside Afghanistan," Foust wrote, referring to regional stakeholders like India, Pakistan and Iran. "It's come to naught."
In an interview, Clemons pushed back against the idea that the report simply restates current policy. He argued that the US should be doing more: setting higher barriers to capital flight in Afghanistan, for example, to prevent tens of millions of dollars from leaving the country for Dubai; or working harder to ratchet down regional tensions between India and Pakistan.
"We’re not doing the kinds of things that would be enormously significant," Clemons said. "For instance, the notion of what you could do for a billion dollars in trust-building between India and Pakistan with the Indus River valley, flood relief, a lot of these other issues... we’re just doing reactive stuff."
There are some other notable analytical omissions and logical contradictions in the ASG report. Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation, noted that "the report is silent on the question of training the Afghan security forces", a key goal if the US wants to create any kind of lasting security in Afghanistan.
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The report calls for focusing on economic development, but it says little about how to provide the security that is generally a prerequisite for growth.
Clemons argued that the size of the US military presence does not necessarily correlate with stability: As the US occupation has increased over the last nine years, stability has decreased. But the reverse is not necessarily true, and security-conscious NGOs and companies might be even more reluctant to work in Afghanistan following a major pullout.
"I support the notion of stronger economic development, but how do you do both, development and a drawdown?" asked Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Similarly, the report argues that the US occupation of Afghanistan is a major driver of radicalisation in the region. It "lends credence to jihadi propaganda about America’s alleged hostility to Islam", the authors note.
But Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May, told investigators he was angry about the US drones bombing targets in northwest Pakistan - exactly the sort of "light-footprint" approach advocated by the ASG report’s authors.
A 'ballooning' war
Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and one of the contributors to the report, acknowledged that the ASG does not present a comprehensive strategy. But he argued that the Pentagon and the White House, not the report's authors, should be responsible for detailed planning.
"I find much of the analysis to be reasonable, if somewhat lacking in depth," Zaidi said. "It's important to remember that this is not a policy analysis exercise; it is an exercise in trying to stimulate debate around alternatives."
And for all the criticism directed at the ASG report, there is indeed a growing debate about alternatives. Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Obama’s strategy counterproductive and earlier this month urged an immediate dialogue with the Taliban.
And the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a respected British think tank, said in a recent report that Nato’s counterinsurgency strategy has "ballooned" out of proportion to the original goal of the war: preventing al-Qaeda from launching attacks from Afghanistan.
IISS warned that the ever-escalating war will leave "Western states... pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan", an outcome not "in the service of their wider political and security interests". John Chipman, the director of IISS, urged the US and Nato to abandon their counterinsurgency effort and focus on a narrow containment strategy.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst and one of the ASG report’s contributors, echoed that point at a panel discussion in Washington earlier this month, reminding the audience that al-Qaeda has been largely driven from Afghanistan.
"Much of the discourse has lost sight of what's at stake in Afghanistan," Pillar said.