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Chorus of grim tidings heralds Afghan strategy review

A year after he announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama takes stock of the situation in the war-torn nation. But several experts are imploring him to abandon the current military strategy.


As US President Barack Obama released his much-awaited review of US strategy in Afghanistan Thursday, a year after his West Point speech announcing a surge of 30,000 additional troops, a chorus of bleak assessments on the situation in Afghanistan hit the airwaves.

Two classified US intelligence assessments, reported Wednesday by the New York Times, suggest there are limited chances of the international military operation in Afghanistan succeeding unless neighbouring Pakistan hunts down insurgents operations on its territory.

On the eve of Obama’s strategy evaluation report release, around 50 leading experts on Afghanistan signed an open letter to the US president warning that the situation in the country continues to deteriorate and that it was imperative to abandon the current military strategy in favour of negotiations with the Taliban.

Two French signatories of this letter, Mariam Abou Zahab, a researcher at the Paris-based SciencesPo, and Gilles Dorronsoro, a researcher at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, detailed their concerns about the situation in the country. Why did you sign the open letter?

Gilles Dorronsoro: Because an overwhelming majority of experts or humanitarian workers who have worked on Afghanistan are distraught by this turn of events, and because we can not make ourselves heard by the US administration.

Mariam Abou Zahab: I signed this letter because the military strategy conducted in the South only fragments the insurgency and radicalizes the population. Aerial bombardments and raids intensified this summer, with an average of 17 bombardments and raids per night between July to November 2010.

It’s time to recognize that the Taliban are part of the Afghan population and represent the feelings of many rural Afghans. Their objectives are nationalist and they are concerned about the future of their country rather than a global jihad. I also signed because I regret the complete absence of debate on Afghanistan in France. You say that the situation on the ground is worse than it was a year ago and that the Taliban are now powerful. On what basis did you arrive at this assessment?

Gilles Dorronsoro and Mariam Abou Zahab: First, as a foreigner or an Afghan official, there are fewer areas of the country you can reach by road. You can still go to [the south-eastern city of] Jalalabad although this is less secure than before, and [the central Afghan town of] Bamian, but it's complicated. If you do not want to play the hero, you can not go to the North. The South is totally out-of-bounds ... the space is shrinking.

Then there is the increasing presence of the Taliban. They manage the population through the judicial system, for example, and have operations throughout the country. At the same time, the Afghan government presence is collapsing. Then there are statistics, the objectives. The coalition was involved in 10,000 armed incidents in 2009 and 18,000 in 2010. The casualty figures have also risen. So do you believe the military strategy has failed?

Gilles Dorronsoro: Nobody has rationally explained how we can defeat the Taliban, even as everyone knows they are supported by the Pakistani military. And everyone also agrees that the Afghan army will never be ready to take over in three years. The only solution is to start negotiations [with the Taliban]. All parties more or less agree that Richard Holbrooke [the late former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who died Monday] was a promoter of that policy.

Mariam Abou Zahab: One of the paradoxes of Afghanistan is that as we send more troops, the more Afghans seem militarily weakened and the more determined they are to fight. To think that once the Taliban is militarily weakened, they will be ready to negotiate with the Americans operating from a position of power is to completely ignore the situation in the country. Is talking to the Taliban a good solution for the Afghan population?

Gilles Dorronsoro: Is this the right solution? No. Is there anything better? I don’t think so. We’ve messed up in this country and the reconstruction strategy is a real scandal. If we persist with this military strategy, we will end up with a Taliban victory. It’s better to negotiate while we still have a bit of credibility and can still exert pressure.

Mariam Abou Zahab: Once again, the Taliban are not extraterrestrials created by Pakistan. They are part of Afghan society and will play a political role in the country after the departure of the United States, like it or not. It’s better to give them this role through a negotiated agreement.


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