Last week, former Pakistani President appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS. Besides being evasive as usual (especially with regards to the Quetta shura and Pakistan’s continued support of the Afghan Taliban), Musharraf presented an intriguing strategy: what he calls the “Biden-McChrystal” strategy. Vice President Biden is currently in the withdrawal camp while General McChrystal is in the surge camp. Musharraf advocates a half-way approach, arguing for a quick surge and then a speedy withdrawal. At first glance, this sounds like a good, worthwhile plan to consider–until you start thinking about what we’ve been doing for the past 8 years.

The experience of Canada’s troops in Kandahar is instructive here. Since Canada deployed a counterinsurgency force in the region a few years ago, it has seen little gains, despite various “spring offenses.” I recall attending a talk given by Brigadier-General Denis Thompson earlier this year that discussed the problems with the surge strategy. Whenever Canadian troops–in coordination with other ISAF troops–would launch an offensive, the Taliban would disperse and integrate into the local communities. This would limit any chance of actually confronting them head-on, and were NATO/ISAF troops to push into these communities it would further alienate the hearts and minds we tried so hard to win over. The next step was the “clear and hold” strategy, which meant clearing an area and then holding and protecting it from Taliban incursions. Again, Western troops can only do so much and cannot occupy these areas indefinitely. The Taliban would return at some point or another–and the locals knew that cooperating with them (Westerners) extensively meant vengeance from the Taliban. (PBS’s frontline documentary, Obama’s War, shows this phenomenon as well).

In other words, we’ve been trying the surge strategy for a while, and to little avail. I do, however, agree with Musharraf’s belief–and the logic behind the surges in Iraq–that a show of force has currency in that part of the world (apologies for sounding like an Orientalist). But how much can an excessive show of force achieve and what are its consequences? In a counterinsurgency, the enemy is disparate and entrenched with the locals. That’s why it took the French 400,000 troops, 8 years and brutal tactics to try to quell the Algerian War. And even then, they ultimately lost. In today’s cosmic war on terror, to quip Reza Aslan, of which the Afghan war is a crucial part, an extended and brutal occupation will mean inevitably losing the war. Images of dead Afghans flashing across screens in the Muslim world will be fodder for the jihadists.

That’s why I remain convinced that a steady withdrawal, which shifts the onus to the Afghans themselves, is the only–though imperfect–option. We should focus our attention towards an exit strategy and towards engaging politically with Afghans. Islamabad-based Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon offers a good place to start–by engaging with local power structures and building alliances with the Pushtun tribes. Links to what I’ve argued about leaving and an exit strategy.

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