South Asia’s Regional Insurgency

When discussing the Afghanistan War, the conceit among both advocates and opponents to escalation is to treat the Pakistani border areas as safe havens for Afghan insurgents targeting American forces. Developments over the past few years, culminating in the recent ceasefire in Swat, put the lie to that conceit. Here’s what Lt. Gen. David McKiernan lets slip when asked at the very end of this Chicago Tribune interview whether he’s concerned about the Swat truce:

Absolutely. Because the insurgency is a regional insurgency. It’s hardto imagine regional stability without a resolution of these sanctuariesthat militant groups operate from.

More precisely, the regional insurgency McKiernan refers to is a two-way insurgency targeting regaining possession of Afghan sovereignty on one side of the border, and consolidating de facto autonomy in the tribal and Pashtun-dominated areas on the other. So the solution to the problem no longer simply depends on Islamabad’s cooperation with our counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It now depends on Islamabad engaging in its own counterinsurgency campaign in the FATA and NWFP.

According to sound COIN doctrine, here’s what that would entail on both sides of the border:

– A significant increase of troops in Afghanistan above and beyond the 17K recently announced.

– A significant increase in reconstruction and development aid to Afghanistan to accompany securization of the population.

– A significant increase of Pakistani troops to the FATA and Swat, accompanied by American COIN advisors and trainers to help them conduct operations.

– A significant increase in reconstruction and development aid to Pakistan to win hearts and minds in the FATA.

Under even the rosiest of rosy COIN scenarios, all of the above would need to be sustained for three to five years, according to McKiernan, to have even a chance of leaving a lasting impact.

This, though, is where reality rudely intrudes. The government in Kabul that we are shoring up lacks legitimacy. The civilian government in Islamabad that we need as a partner lacks the stability, credibility and political will to maintain the kind of determined effort that’s needed. In the event of a military coup there, which seems increasingly likely, the resulting regime would have its hands full reestablishing law and order in the rest of Pakistan to concentrate on the FATA. Political will in Europe for the strategic objectives in Afghanistan is already flagging (more on that later). Adding Pakistan to the agenda seems like a bridge too far. And while President Obama’s recently announced 17K troop increase has met with popular approval in the U.S., a realistic appraisal of the economic and military resources at our disposal suggests that the political winds could easily shift.

A regional insurgency certainly demands the kind of regional solution that the Obama administration’s strategic reevaluation is designed to formulate. But a regional solution, no matter how satisfying it might be on paper, will not change the stubborn facts on the ground. The sooner we realize that and plan accordingly, the better.

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