Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Afghanistan: New tactics, same strategy?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

A US soldier (L) belonging to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) talks with an Afghan man during a patrol outside Bagram airbase, 50 kms north of Kabul on February 28, 2009
Can more US troops help improve life for Afghans?

The new "strategy" under consideration by the Obama administration might end up being a repackaging of elements that have been tried before.

Some old Afghan hands tend to think that the new team is coming in painting as dark a picture as it can in order to show how well they can do.

"The strategy is not going to change in real terms," said one such former Western official. This is the concept of the three-legged stool - security, development and governance. It's called the 'comprehensive' or 'integrated approach' and it has been applied since 2002.

"It's saying that everything needs to work in a synergistic way. That is not going to change, it can't change, everyone knows that, it is classic and fundamental.

The issue is not one of strategy, it is one of implementation
Former Western official

"Nobody has ever said you can defeat the Taleban by military means alone. Richard Holbrooke [the new US envoy to the region] talks as if we have been trying to do that.

"That's not to say it is going well. But the issue is not one of strategy, it is one of implementation. And military force is going to be a big element in the new package anyway, with 17,000 extra US troops being sent, some around Kabul but many to the south where the Taleban is making its main effort."

"Before, the US was undertaking an economy of force operation. In Iraq it did what it had to do. In Afghanistan it did what it could do. It needs more men to implement the four principles of its counter-insurgency strategy - shaping the battlefield, clearing the ground, holding the ground and rebuilding the communities. It has not been able to hold the ground sufficiently."

Way forward

So how are the elements likely to be repackaged?

Soldiers of Afghan National Army looks at the damaged vehicle after an explosion in the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March 15, 2009.
The role of Afghan forces in providing security will be vital

• First, the increase in troops should enable the US and Nato to search more easily for the Taleban on the ground and at the same time maintain a visible presence in the towns, which is regarded as vital in showing the population that the forces can protect them.

• Second, there will be a new emphasis on training the Afghan army and building up the police. Nobody thinks that foreign troops can win this war by themselves.

• Third, what has previously been called reconciliation will be pressed, though in what ways remain unclear. This is an attempt to wean more moderate elements away from the Taleban.

Obama does not mean retreat, he means success - even if at the same time he is downgrading the definition of success

One idea is to pay them, something that reportedly has led to strong disagreements in Washington. This would build on the idea that many of the fighters are there not out ideology but of necessity.

David Kilcullen, the Australian counter-insurgency expert who advised the Bush administration, calls them "accidental guerrillas".

• Fourth, a renewed effort to deal with the Taleban's safe havens in Pakistan. However, this is not a new policy either. Richard Holbrooke has spoken of a comprehensive strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan but if the Pakistani army cannot do the job, then the solution will remain as elusive as ever.

• Fifth, better governance. There is talk of a new prime ministerial figure in the government to counterbalance President Karzai. The Afghan constitution gives considerable power to the centre but that power might also need to be devolved to give local governors more control.

• Sixth, more development. There could be another attempt to co-ordinate the military and civilian sides better (always difficult as foreign aid groups are suspicious of the military).

What is success?

President Obama himself has said that the US needs an "exit" strategy.

By that, he does not mean retreat, he means success - even if at the same time he is downgrading the definition of success.

He refers to the US aim as one of preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan to mount attacks on the US again, a shift away from the Bush aim of developing a workable democracy in Afghanistan.

"It's going to be a long, abrasive effort," said the former official.

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