With the recent dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal, it is worth asking how successful the current Afghan strategy has been so far. Bear in mind that General McChrystal's fallout with Obama, apart from the magazine article in Rolling Stone, was based on his belief that U.S. forces should remain in Afghanistan beyond Obama's withdrawal timetable and make a greater effort to "win" the war.
It should be clear that the "surge" in Afghanistan does not seem to be working. The current counter-insurgency strategy rests on the notion that the previous "surge" in Iraq achieved its objectives. The apparent success could still largely be mythical.
The primary reason for the decline in violence in Iraq was the fact that sectarian violence reached its climax just before the start of the surge in 2007 as most mixed Sunni-Shi'a neighborhoods in Baghdad were ethnically cleansed, usually of Sunnis. As a result, Baghdad today is mostly segregated, although these demographic changes may not necessarily be permanent.
Nonetheless, the current Afghan "surge" cannot achieve its goals for two reasons:
First, U.S. policy in the region is based on the assumption that we have, in Obama's words, a relationship of "mutual trust" with Pakistan. This is not an innovation of the Obama administration, but has long been the conventional wisdom of successive U.S. governments.
Pakistan, however, is not an ally at all; it plays a double game with the U.S., supporting Islamist militants in Afghanistan as part of an expansionist policy of "strategic depth," while providing early-warning and escape-route information, during Western security operations, to militants based in Pakistan that do not directly threaten Pakistan's stability. This agenda, rooted in Pakistan's perception of its identity as an Islamic state, has been set by the Pakistani intelligence and military, and is beyond the control of Pakistan's civilian government.
Even if the Taliban and other like-minded militant groups are defeated, therefore, they could always retreat into Pakistan, coddled by the Pakistani military and intelligence, just as they did between 2002 and 2004. They could then resume infiltration into Afghanistan, which is what occurred from 2005 onwards, as their policy of "strategic depth" was resumed, as can be seen in the sudden spike in the number of Western troop-deaths after 2005.
Second, there is a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the parts of the current insurgency in Afghanistan. As Matthew Hoh pointed out in his letter of resignation in protest over the Afghan War, a Pashtun nationalist insurgency has arisen in response to the prolonged presence of U.S. forces, as well as in response to the presence of the Afghan army, which is largely "composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police." These factors feed a perception that there has been a "sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies."
Nevertheless, simply withdrawing forces from Afghanistan will only cause the situation to deteriorate. The Pakistani military and intelligence will be emboldened to resume the policy of "strategic depth" in Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere, thereby increasing destabilization in South Asia, and possibly escalating the threat to the West, given that Pakistan and India both have nuclear arsenals.
The U.S. therefore faces a dilemma: it is engaged in a war it cannot win but which it cannot abandon in the present circumstances for fear of further destabilizing the region. Meanwhile, the continued U.S. military presence, as Hoh notes, "greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency."
Similarly, the backing of Hamid Karzai's corrupt regime, which is chiefly composed of war criminals and drug lords who make a mockery of counter-narcotic efforts, continues to be a disaster. In addition, the widespread voting fraud in the last presidential election distances the Afghan people from their government even farther.
The only viable alternative strategy is what might be called "Pakistanization:" The U.S. must abandon the idea that Pakistan is a true ally, and confront the Pakistani military and intelligence on their double game. This should probably not be done too offensively unless the U.S. wants to alienate the military and intelligence and lose any half-hearted cooperation that already exists.
We might try to persuade the Pakistanis to abandon "strategic depth," and instead assume responsibility for cutting off support for Islamist militant groups such as the Taliban. It might be useful to try to speak in terms of Pakistan's own interests: in Waziristan, for example, Pakistan is now having to confront groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Members of such groups were originally intended to serve Pakistani interests as part of "strategic depth," but have now turned on their former masters.
Such a change in strategy, together with abandoning support for Hamid Karzai's regime, would allow for a safe withdrawal plan, and for any threats to Western security interests coming from that region to be contained entirely.