American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Robert Wirsing on the Af-Pak Misadventure

Robert Wirsing on the Af-Pak Misadventure

Robert Wirsing, Visiting Professor of International Relations at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, delivered the October CIRS Monthly Dialogue on the topic of “The Af-Pak Misadventure: Where is America’s ‘Long War’ Heading?…And Why?”

Introducing the issues, Wirsing noted that he did not necessarily approve of the designation “Af-Pak” but drew attention to its formal use by the United States government as part of its wider international relations terminology.

The lecture was premised on four main questions related to the current situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan: 1) What is the war in Afghanistan all about? 2) What are the five obstacles confronting the Obama administration in the “Af-Pak” war? 3) What are Obama’s fundamental options in this war? and; 4) What should the Obama administration do to bring this war to a conclusion? 

View the presentation from lecture below:

The Af-Pak Misadventure: Where is America’s ‘Long War’ Heading?…And Why? from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar 

In order to introduce a general background of the current military operations taking place in the region, Wirsing gave some figures related to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which is made-up of United States, NATO, and other allies. “The U.S. currently has approximately 68,000 troops either deployed or on route to Afghanistan” and “NATO has about 38,000 troops” so “there is a total of 106,000 troops of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan.” He noted that it was more difficult to record the exact number of Taliban insurgents, but “back in 2007, the New York Times estimate was 10,000 fighters, but only 3,000 full-time, which is not very much in a country the size of Afghanistan. The government in Kabul more recently, in February 2009, gave a figure of 10-15,000.” Nonetheless, Wirsing noted that “no estimate suggests that this is a vast insurgency.”

Wirsing also stated the costs of fighting the war in Afghanistan by saying that “the United States and NATO together, essentially the Bush administration, from November 2001 to December 2008, had spent overtly 281 billion dollars on the war in Afghanistan. Covert expenditures would enlarge that substantially.”

In order to answer the question “What is the war in Afghanistan all about?” Wirsing noted that he had to clarify what was driving the insurgency as well as U.S. policy in the region. “A very common explanation is Islamic extremism” and Islamic madrassa indoctrinated fanaticism. But Wirsing argued that “religious extremism is not the sole or even most important driver” of the war and would go so far as “to dismiss religion and religious extremism almost entirely.” He argued that “the madrassa issue is a red herring and always has been a distraction from what is really going on in this region.” Other reasons for the war that have been proposed are factional tribal identities, the rise of mercenary insurgents fighting the war for a wage, revenge and hatred of America, and a traditional aversion to occupying forces.

Insofar as the main drivers of American policy are concerned, Wirsing argued that “America has a much broader agenda in Central Asia than chasing Al Qaeda; its agenda has a lot to do with geography.” As such, he introduced into the discussion “the enormous importance of energy security, energy resources, oil, and gas.” These issues, he said, were the primary reasons for American presence in Afghanistan. Wirsing argued that Afghanistan’s strategic position, bordering a number of energy producing countries, means that it is a potentially important conduit between South and Central Asia. These resources could be exploited and transported rather than being contained, as they currently are, between the two giants of China and Russia. Wirsing quoted from U.S. legislation regarding the region, entitled the Silk Road Strategy Act, which details United States significant long-term interests in the region from security to energy and economic development. This Act outlines American policy regarding development of infrastructure in Central Asia, such as pipelines, transportation routes, and export opportunities for otherwise landlocked nations. Wirsing argued that “it is odd that much of the debate that goes on in North America generally, so often omits mention of energy, oil, and gas, which I regard as hugely important.” He pointed out the many tactics in place for “ensuring American and Western access to these tremendous resources, the potential of which could be vast,” possibly up to $15 trillion in petroleum and natural gas resources in the Caspian region alone. Wirsing emphasized that “Afghanistan’s strategic importance goes way beyond containment of a terrorist threat and it also implies a prolonged Western presence.”

In describing the “the five obstacles confronting the Obama administration in the Af-Pak war,” Wirsing listed them as a) Waning public, congressional, and Democratic Party support in America b) Disenchantment with the Afghan government in Kabul magnified by election fraud and its undermined legitimacy c) Pakistan’s less than perfect fit as America’s ally in the “war on terrorism” d) The impracticality of Obama’s promise of greater regional collaboration and finally, e) The need for Obama to avoid the appearance of weakness and indecisiveness. “If Obama chooses to do nothing or chooses to exit or reduce American forces, it might appear as a failure of political will in America’s Af-Pak policy.”

Wirsing outlined the options open to the Obama administration, including the most viable in his opinion which is to escalate by adding more troops. He argued that the only option he believes to be viable is to back a troop surge in Afghanistan and put an end to an already lengthy war.

According to Wirsing, the short-term solutions open to the Obama administration include an immediate troop surge; a shift from offensive to defensive counter-insurgency by withdrawing troops from exposed areas to selected urban centers to provide security for as much of Afghan population as possible; prioritizing a major reduction in civilian casualties by suspending unmanned drone attacks; fully implementing the Congressionally endorsed increase in aid to Pakistan; and, finally, encouraging Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan.

The long-term initiatives that the Obama administration could implement range from pursuing opportunities for talks with the Taliban elements over power-sharing to endorsing the Iran, Pakistan, India (IPI) gas pipeline, and urging consideration of a civilian nuclear agreement with Pakistan akin to that reached with India.

Dr. Wirsing is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service at Qatar. A specialist on South Asian politics and international relations, he has made over forty research trips to the South Asian region since 1965. His publications include:Pakistan’s Security Under Zia, 1977-1988 (St. Martin’s Press, 1991); India, Pakistan, and the Kashmir Dispute (St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Kashmir in the Shadow of War (M. E. Sharpe, 2002); Religious Radicalism & Security in South Asia, co-editor (Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2004); Ethnic Diasporas & Great Power Strategies in Asia, co-editor (India Research Press, 2007); and Baloch Nationalism and the Geopolitics of Energy Resources: The Changing Context of Separatism in Pakistan (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2008). His recent research focuses primarily on the politics and diplomacy of natural resources (water and energy) in South Asia.

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Suzi is CIRS Publications Coordinator.