Recent reports indicate that the President’s delay in making a final decision on Afghanistan is his insistence on a viable exit strategy. On the surface, it’s a perfectly acceptable standard and a rational point of accountability. However, the deeper questions argue that an acceptable exit strategy may be nothing more than chimera.
Asymmetric warfare in and of itself makes traditional definitions of military viability difficult, especially to the inexperienced or the reluctant. Add to that consideration that warfare in Afghanistan is a domestic insurgency with foreign support and the problems become more daunting.
One must consider the actual nature of the insurgency. The insurgency is being fought in the context of two critical factors. The first, religious based fervor and the motivation associated with that fervor. The power of that motivation is well established as experienced by the British and the Russians. Secondly, the reality of tribal politics and local power struggles add to the degree of difficulty. It is difficult to see how, exactly, a viable exit strategy would be defined, short of reducing the insurgency to the political and military equivalent of pulp. If indeed the President is insisting on a politically acceptable exit strategy the delayed decision making process is easy to understand, but will be exceptionally hard to resolve.
Geopolitical motivations factor into the equation as well. What are the actual Pakistani commitments in the FATA? Can the U.S. convince the Pakistanis that India will behave in the event that troops are shifted, east to west? Will the ISI continue behind the scenes support for the Taliban? Will the rise in the level of domestic violence in Pakistan motivate a renewed commitment to snuff out Islamist terror operations and support infrastructure? Will the bombing of ISI headquarters today motivate the ISI to question their role with the Taliban and come to the conclusion that fire burns all fingers? Will the ISI move to “clean up” the radical Islamist influences within their organization in the aftermath of burning their finger in the Islamist flame?
The enemy, knowing well, American reluctance to pull for the long haul and being fully aware of domestic American political pressures, will apply their well documented patience to the situation and choose not to cooperate with an American exit strategy. What they will do is focus on creating casualties as the Achilles Heel of American foreign policy. Half measures will be welcomed by the insurgency as will any strategy that calls for anything short of a full out American effort to eliminate them as a threat.
Recent reports of an American offer to the Taliban to essentially “give” them specific provincial areas where they would essentially be left to their own devices was, reportedly, soundly rejected by the Taliban. To assume that this is anything short of an all or nothing game for the Taliban would be naïve in the extreme; the religious motivations in play will not, cannot, tolerate a Western presence in an Islamic country.
In point of fact, the definition of an exit strategy may simply serve to define for the Taliban the parameters within which they must engage the Americans and to what extent. The leaking of the exit strategy conundrum taking place in the White House will, no doubt, be a source of hope for the insurgency.
A public exit strategy will create a clear definition of the time lines for engagement and the necessary threshold for enemy patience.