AfPak's Strategic Blinders

One month after the Obama administration's strategic review of the Afghan war, it's become clear that there's little willingness to change what increasingly looks like a failure in the making.

As the past year came to a close, most commentators were pessimistic in their assessments of security in Afghanistan. A typical take came from Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes security risks for aid organizations: "Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year."

But the analysts who mattered most -- those who were working on the Obama administration's review of the Afghan war -- had a very different view. The final report summary made public on Dec. 16 declared that NATO forces in Afghanistan have been succeeding in their mission and will continue to execute their current plan. Vice President Joseph Biden's sudden visit to Afghanistan this week serves to reinforce that decision.

While acknowledging that the gains were fragile and reversible, the report did not recognize that the plan depends heavily on military and political conditions that are quickly losing all credibility. A successful strategy would begin by acknowledging, rather than ignoring, all the uncertainties at the root of the current mission of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Let's take these one at a time. First, the Obama administration's strategy assumes that NATO is in a position to fundamentally "degrade" enemy Taliban militarily -- to the point that Afghan National Security Forces can be solely responsible for dealing with them. But as long as the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan, the Taliban can choose when they will fight and how many casualties they are willing to sustain. In essence, at this point, it's the Taliban who decides how "degraded" they will let themselves become. The White House report admits that "the denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan." But the government doesn't hint at how the administration will manage in the next four years to finally convince Pakistanis to change their fundamental strategic calculus after nine years of repeatedly failing to do so.

The issue here is the conviction among Pakistani elites that India is their country's long-term existential threat. Pakistan has maintained a long-term relationship with the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network, in a bid to gain strategic leverage in Afghanistan over its rival to the south. Biden's trip to Pakistan this week will simply be the latest in a long series of trips by senior U.S. officials. The renewed U.S. commitment to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government does not provide a reason for Pakistan to change its strategic appreciation or actions.

The administration also overlooks the probability that, even if Pakistan decides to control traffic across its porous and remote border with Afghanistan, it may well lack the capability to do so. Previous attempts by outside powers to close the same frontier have failed. Indeed, the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan fell apart because the United States was able to arm mujahideen fighters in Pakistan, from which they traveled into the border regions. Senior Pakistani officers have complained to me in several venues that Pakistani militants have retreated to sanctuaries in Afghanistan despite Pakistani requests that the United States prevent border crossings from the Afghan side. That may sound like an expedient excuse, but U.S. commanders have admitted similar difficulties with closing the border. The limited willingness of security forces to reach into the country's hinterlands is an even greater problem: Although Pakistan is completing operations in South Waziristan, it has indicated publicly that it is not ready yet to commence operations in North Waziristan -- and has not been willing to discuss the need for operations or even permission to fly drones in the Quetta region, the headquarters for Mullah Omar and his Taliban organization.

The U.S. government also admits that its military goals will have to be advanced by "effective development strategies." But that matter-of-fact description belies the fact that economic development in the primary terrorist sanctuary of North Waziristan can't begin until Pakistan conducts major military operations to secure the region. Lasting economic development is a decades-long process in the best of situations. In the absence of basic security, it is an impossibility.

NATO's plan also depends on Karzai's government in Kabul developing the willingness and capacity to extend effective governance nationwide. That's a remarkably optimistic assumption given both its failure to do so for the last nine years and its current lack of legitimacy and popular support throughout the country. There's little to suggest that Karzai is preparing to improve his government's accountability and competency: He is still actively resisting ISAF efforts to prosecute corrupt officials. Even if NATO continues to bear the brunt of the battle against the Taliban, outside military forces can at best only provide an opportunity for indigenous governance to develop. The idea that Karzai will suddenly change his approach seems to be a very thin reed on which to build a strategy.

Even if Karzai does have a change of heart, it is very unlikely that the Afghan government will have the capacity to extend its reach across the entire country by the end of 2014, the date at which the Obama administration aims to conclude its "path to complete transition." Indeed, the Afghan government has still failed to fill most government jobs in Kandahar, a task that has been one of NATO's highest priorities. If after nine years of mentoring, Kabul still cannot find a couple of hundred officials to fill key positions in a critical province, how can it possibly be ready to govern the entire country in four years?

The administration makes another leap of faith concerning the future capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. The United States has been training the Afghan National Army (ANA) since 2003 and professes great hopes about its future. But one can only wonder how NATO reconciles its positive reports on the ANA's performance with the fact that Afghan forces have been notably absent in recent key operations. In October, NATO kicked off its offensive to clear Panjwai, a vital Taliban stronghold. Despite Panjwai being declared a critical campaign, apparently none of the ISAF-trained Afghan National Security Force units were up to leading this critical offensive. Because the NATO commander thought it important that Afghan forces lead, he turned to Abdul Razziq, a self-appointed "colonel" who raised and trained his own force to control a border crossing near Kandahar. At NATO's request, Razziq brought about 500 men to provide an Afghan lead for the operation. In short, though NATO has contributed six years of mentoring and claims to have trained 235,000 Afghan troops, the ANA still cannot contribute a single battalion to lead the most important military operation in the country. The Obama administration's strategic review gave no indication of how that dreadful record can be turned on its head over the next four years.

When there's a strong possibility that the key assumptions underlying a military strategy are mistaken, it is time to reframe the problem and rethink the strategy. Unfortunately, where the Obama administration's strategic-review panel ought to have challenged the assumptions underlying the current Afghan strategy, it instead offered unquestioned acceptance. Despite a steady stream of pessimistic reports, including the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and countless testimonies from NGOs and independent experts in Afghanistan, the administration has not challenged its basic assumptions about Karzai and Pakistan. The West has hitched its wagons to political leaders in Kabul and Islamabad who don't share its long-term strategy and don't have the capabilities to realize it in any case. That's an oversight likely to doom the war effort. If Washington is wise, it would organize another strategic review to correct the failures of the last.

A clear-eyed auditing of the West's current mission may well conclude with a sobering reduction of its goals -- perhaps the United States shouldn't be developing nation-building plans for Afghanistan at all, but rather be focusing on how to ensure stability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Certainly, there's a strong argument to be made that regional and global security would be better served that way. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seemed less interested in delivering a candid assessment than in providing justification for continuing its current strategy.



The Great Food Crisis of 2011

It's real, and it's not going away anytime soon.

As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an 18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5, the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high.

But whereas in years past, it's been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it's trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and -- due to climate change -- crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets. These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future.

There's at least a glimmer of good news on the demand side: World population growth, which peaked at 2 percent per year around 1970, dropped below 1.2 percent per year in 2010. But because the world population has nearly doubled since 1970, we are still adding 80 million people each year. Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.

Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.

The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.

The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.

While the annual demand growth for grain was doubling, new constraints were emerging on the supply side, even as longstanding ones such as soil erosion intensified. An estimated one third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming through natural processes -- and thus is losing its inherent productivity. Two huge dust bowls are forming, one across northwest China, western Mongolia, and central Asia; the other in central Africa. Each of these dwarfs the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s.

Satellite images show a steady flow of dust storms leaving these regions, each one typically carrying millions of tons of precious topsoil. In North China, some 24,000 rural villages have been abandoned or partly depopulated as grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing and as croplands have been inundated by migrating sand dunes.

In countries with severe soil erosion, such as Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests are shrinking as erosion lowers yields and eventually leads to cropland abandonment. The result is spreading hunger and growing dependence on imports. Haiti and North Korea, two countries with severely eroded soils, are chronically dependent on food aid from abroad.

Meanwhile aquifer depletion is fast shrinking the amount of irrigated area in many parts of the world; this relatively recent phenomenon is driven by the large-scale use of mechanical pumps to exploit underground water. Today, half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling as overpumping depletes aquifers. Once an aquifer is depleted, pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge unless it is a fossil (nonreplenishable) aquifer, in which case pumping ends altogether. But sooner or later, falling water tables translate into rising food prices.

Irrigated area is shrinking in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, which was totally dependent on a now-depleted fossil aquifer for its wheat self-sufficiency, production is in a freefall. From 2007 to 2010, Saudi wheat production fell by more than two thirds. By 2012, wheat production will likely end entirely, leaving the country totally dependent on imported grain.

The Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where spreading water shortages are shrinking the grain harvest. But the really big water deficits are in India, where the World Bank numbers indicate that 175 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping provides food for some 130 million people. In the United States, the world's other leading grain producer, irrigated area is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas.

The last decade has witnessed the emergence of yet another constraint on growth in global agricultural productivity: the shrinking backlog of untapped technologies. In some agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are using all available technologies to raise yields. In Japan, the first country to see a sustained rise in grain yield per acre, rice yields have been flat now for 14 years. Rice yields in South Korea and China are now approaching those in Japan. Assuming that farmers in these two countries will face the same constraints as those in Japan, more than a third of the world rice harvest will soon be produced in countries with little potential for further raising rice yields.

A similar situation is emerging with wheat yields in Europe. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wheat yields are no longer rising at all. These three countries together account for roughly one-eighth of the world wheat harvest. Another trend slowing the growth in the world grain harvest is the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses. Suburban sprawl, industrial construction, and the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots are claiming cropland in the Central Valley of California, the Nile River basin in Egypt, and in densely populated countries that are rapidly industrializing, such as China and India. In 2011, new car sales in China are projected to reach 20 million -- a record for any country. The U.S. rule of thumb is that for every 5 million cars added to a country's fleet, roughly 1 million acres must be paved to accommodate them. And cropland is often the loser.

Fast-growing cities are also competing with farmers for irrigation water. In areas where all water is being spoken for, such as most countries in the Middle East, northern China, the southwestern United States, and most of India, diverting water to cities means less irrigation water available for food production. California has lost perhaps a million acres of irrigated land in recent years as farmers have sold huge amounts of water to the thirsty millions in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The rising temperature is also making it more difficult to expand the world grain harvest fast enough to keep up with the record pace of demand. Crop ecologists have their own rule of thumb: For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This temperature effect on yields was all too visible in western Russia during the summer of 2010 as the harvest was decimated when temperatures soared far above the norm.

Another emerging trend that threatens food security is the melting of mountain glaciers. This is of particular concern in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau, where the ice melt from glaciers helps sustain not only the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, such as the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, but also the irrigation systems dependent on these rivers. Without this ice melt, the grain harvest would drop precipitously and prices would rise accordingly.

And finally, over the longer term, melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica, combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, threaten to raise the sea level by up to six feet during this century. Even a three-foot rise would inundate half of the riceland in Bangladesh. It would also put under water much of the Mekong Delta that produces half the rice in Vietnam, the world's number two rice exporter. Altogether there are some 19 other rice-growing river deltas in Asia where harvests would be substantially reduced by a rising sea level.

The current surge in world grain and soybean prices, and in food prices more broadly, is not a temporary phenomenon. We can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.

The unrest of these past few weeks is just the beginning. It is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices -- and the political turmoil this would lead to -- that threatens our global future. Unless governments quickly redefine security and shift expenditures from military uses to investing in climate change mitigation, water efficiency, soil conservation, and population stabilization, the world will in all likelihood be facing a future with both more climate instability and food price volatility. If business as usual continues, food prices will only trend upward.