The Instability of the Eastern Border

by Joshua Foust on 6/24/2011 · 6 comments

Yochi Dreazen makes the case for focusing on Eastern Afghanistan:

But the real story is not in the south; it’s in the east. Senior officers increasingly believe that the conflict will be decided in the valleys and mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan, a violent region that abuts some of Pakistan’s most unruly provinces. The Taliban and its allies—especially the Pakistan-based Haqqani network—are waging a campaign of roadside bombings, artillery attacks, and ambushes there; the American death toll has risen sharply. Al-Qaida and the Haqqani network have been unwilling to negotiate with the American or Afghan governments, leading top U.S. commanders to conclude that the war can’t be won without defeating the armed group. “The east is the place that needs to be the next focus of the war, and maybe the last focus of the war,” said Jeffrey Dressler, an expert on the region at the Institute for the Study of War. “It hasn’t gotten remotely enough attention in the past.” While Washington obsesses over southern Afghanistan, it is missing the point.

Bully for all of them, but this is a good four-plus years overdue. From the start of the campaign in the south—especially after General McChrystal said the whole push into Helmand was just a sideshow—longtime Afghanistan watchers have been scratching their heads at the decision to go there. But the story here is deeper than Dreazen and Dressler say: the east has suffered under years of stagnation at the hands of US strategists. That the in-crowd is suddenly realizing they screwed up by obsessing on the backwaters of southern Afghanistan is not a comfort, it is an outrage.

In his analysis (pdf) of the war in the East, Gilles Dorronsoro said something I agree with 100%: “.despite a lack of U.S. interest in these regions, their strategic importance is infinitely greater than that of Helmand or even Kandahar. The importance of the Eastern Triangle is due to its location between the capital and the Pakistani insurgent sanctuaries, and its importance in facilitating the passage of insurgents from Pakistan.”

That is absolutely true, and it didn’t suddenly become true in 2011. It was true in 2007. As has become depressingly typical of what passes for analysis of this war, the insiders are realizing years too late what is really important—a realization made all the more infuriating in light of the condescension and accusations of ignorance to what experts in Afghanistan were saying that accompanied their decision to ignore the east and surge into the south.

That’s not to say a surge into Loya Paktia would have done a thing: as our experience in the south has shown, it would have killed a bunch of people but fundamentally left everything else unresolved. To wit:

The way progress is measured in Afghanistan is very problematic. Look beyond the cliched statements about how many girls are going to school or women are now engaged in the public sphere – good news to an uninformed audience – and you can see a drop off in the number of school and university students, particularly outside the capital, and suspension of significant development projects in all parts of the country.

The escalation in the war not only caused casualties on both sides, but it also resulted in the further militarisation of communities, either through the government’s initiative of arming local militias or via criminal gangs and anti-government forces. This is undoubtedly affecting provision of very basic services such as health, education, agricultural and various socioeconomic development programs…

Today I spoke with Ahmad, a friend from Kunar province. He told me: “The greatest concern for people in this region is the increase in rocket attacks from the Pakistani border side, which continues to take the lives of ordinary villagers over the past months. This is more scary to me than thinking of US military drawdown. We are worried about a direct invasion by Pakistani forces, even as the world is watching.”

There are fundamental problems with the war that just aren’t being dealt with. In the section above you can see how the surge has resulted in a net loss in the social and political factors that will determine long-term success. The highlighted phrases are yet more evidence that the biggest problem facing Afghanistan is most likely not the Taliban, but the continuing escalation of state-on-state combat along the eastern border—the eastern border, mind you, and not the southern border.

Given the current American genius plan to build a 400,000-man Afghan Army, and especially given how many Afghan soldiers say they joined to fight not the Taliban but Pakistan, we should be worrying not whether the Taliban might make a move, but if a fully-transitioned Afghanistan might soon be at war with Pakistan. This is a concern that, again, was around in 2006 when the cross-border fighting had advanced to the stage where Pakistan wanted to fence and mine the Durand Line—the eastern border, mind you, not the southern one.

So let us sit back and contemplate that now, in 2011, as violence spikes once again in eastern Afghanistan, that it is only now that inside-the-Pentagon analysts and their journalists are waking up to the fact that the east is a big mess. And then after we’ve contemplated just how badly they’ve gotten the major questions of this war wrong, why we should trust a single thing they can muster up going forward. And then try not to drink yourself to sleep tonight.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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CE June 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Wow. Reading this reminds me of that scene in Under Siege, where Strannix explains why he’s so pissed off at the USG:

Casey Ryback: What made you flip like this?
William Strannix: I got tired of coming up with last-minute desperate solutions to impossible problems created by other fucking people.
Casey Ryback: All of your ridiculous pitiful antics aren’t gonna change a thing. You and me, we’re puppets in the same sick game. We serve the same master, and he’s a lunatic and he’s ungrateful. But there’s nothing we can do about it. You and me, we’re the same.
William Strannix: Oh, no. No. No. No. There’s a difference, my man. You have faith. I don’t!
[a knife fight erupts between them]


Frank June 24, 2011 at 4:42 pm

What connection is there, if any, between this increase in violence between GiROA and Pakistan and the rumored increased presence of LeT in eastern Afghanistan (if that is true)? Is this a sign that Pakistan is entering more and more directly into the conflict in Afghanistan and how realistic is the possibility of an outright war breaking out between Afghanistan and Pakistan post-2014 or even before then?

Don Bacon June 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm

It seems to me that any Pak-Afghan war would be a proxy Pak-India war. There is too much India influence in Afghanistan to suit Pakistan, and it’s being promoted by the U.S.

AS June 25, 2011 at 4:19 am

Why are you dropping the ball on reporting the Special Election Tribunal results?

Don Bacon June 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm

SecState Clinton, June 23, congressional testimony:
While “working very hard” on its strategic partnership with India, the US faces a problem with Pakistan, which looks at itself through the prism of India, according to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“I think we have to recognise that the overriding strategic framework in which Pakistan thinks of itself is its relationship with India,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday during a hearing on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Every time we make a move toward improving our relationship with India… the Pakistanis find that creates a lot of cognitive dissonance,” Clinton said noting, “So are you our friend or are you their friend? It’s all a zero-sum game to them (Pakistanis).”

Pakistan, she said “wants to be sure that whatever happens in Afghanistan will not affect its strategic interests. So it has in the past invested in a certain amount of instability in Afghanistan” as it also does not want Afghanistan to become a satellite of India.
“India and Afghanistan have a historical affinity. And historically, Afghanistan [sic – India?] has supported elements within Afghanistan, which Pakistan has seen as inimical to its own interests,” she said.

ratee June 27, 2011 at 6:57 am

Afghanistan sees Pakistan as its enemy and is always ready to promote India as its partner while USA is also encourages this. Unfortunately Afghanistan is a land locked country and Pakistan is the only route which is economically viable for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan also does not accept the Durand line which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan which makes for the relationship even more untrustworthy.

The main problem of Afghanistan is to survive without NATO and how can they do this when they have not been resolved with its more important neighbor than India which can only offer it bribes but no trade route or any logistic support.

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