June 10, 2009

Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Andrew M. Exum

Eight years into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the situation is as perilous as ever and continuing to worsen. The campaign has been further complicated by a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, where the center of gravity of the insurgency has now shifted. In counterinsurgency campaigns, momentum matters. Over the next 12 months, the United States and its allies must demonstrate they have seized back the initiative from the Taliban and other hostile actors.

This paper makes four operational recommendations – two on each side of the Durand line – which allow the new strategy articulated by the White House a better chance of success. In Afghanistan, we recommend that protecting the population take precedence over all other considerations for the time being. At the same time, however, any “civilian surge” must be used to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the Afghan population. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the U.S. government should place a moratorium on drone strikes on non-al Qaeda targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province until such strikes can be incorporated into a coherent strategy for separating the population of these areas from al Qaeda. And the United States should refocus its train and equip mission in Pakistan to place a greater emphasis on the police – the only Pakistani security service focused entirely on domestic security. Especial emphasis should be placed on the security services in those areas where Pakistani authority is strongest, such as in Punjab and Sindh.

In his speech in March, President Obama promised metrics and benchmarks to track his new strategy. This paper provides what we consider to be useful metrics of gauging U.S. and allied successes and failures. More specifically, this paper recommends focusing on metrics which measure outputs rather than inputs. In Afghanistan, for example, less important than how many troops we commit is how many civilians we manage to protect.

To be sure, the road ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan is long, and we predict violence in both countries to rise over the next 12 months. But with a renewed focus on protecting the population and the strengthening government agencies and security forces, the United States and its allies will be better positioned to seize the opportunities to reverse the deteriorating condition in both countries.

  • Andrew M. Exum