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Obama’s Afghan Dilemma

September 28, 2009

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One thing though should be expressly clear: there is no military victory in Afghanistan. Success will be in leaving behind a stable Afghanistan minus Al Qaeda, but not minus what time has begun to define as the Taliban

Obama’s Afghan policy is in a flux. Having inherited it as work in progress, he ended up owning it by default. Of the two, Iraq and Afghanistan, he was committed to retrenching on Iraq, but had to stay the course on Afghanistan.

The difficulty with the ‘war on terror’ has been that it has always remained too open ended. While Bush’s own war was Iraq, he tended to be only gung-ho as a strategy in Afghanistan, never really defining the exact objectives. As a result, in Washington, it is back to the drawing board.

Is it possible to resurrect a war gone awry? Or was it a war that really had no defined end-state to begin with? Again, will only war deliver such an end-state, or should it be a different set of tools? Do they need to define (or re-define) the end? What entails success in Afghanistan? Should they wait to succeed or seek success in a given time to enable a decent exit out of Afghanistan? Obama and his team of experts will spend the next few weeks knocking around ideas in an attempt to seek that elusive objective for which America launched an armed war in Afghanistan.

In response to questions on Gen McChrystal’s sixty-day review on the on-going state of war in Afghanistan, President Obama struck a few right chords. He opined, “I need to know, why I am there,” before he assented to any request to augment troops in Afghanistan. A tad late, but finally he is there in asking the right question.

Even more instructive: Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate intelligence committee which oversees the functioning of the entire intelligence apparatus of the US, which includes the CIA, had this to say, “I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan. I believe it will remain a tribal entity.” Truer words have not been spoken before. Eight years should at least provide a better perspective.

Worryingly, the early bird reviews of McChrystal’s assessment to his military chiefs and the commander-in-chief is an amalgam of a military man’s hard headedness, part the realist that he is and part what he wishes to see despite the facts stating otherwise. He is driven by the never-say-die spirit but is also intellectually aware of the serious limitations of his mission. It, therefore, ends up being something for everyone as a report. Any surprise then that Obama wants the assessment to be tested against a 46-point matrix before reaching any final conclusions. These are varied: as the recent Presidential elections in Afghanistan and their likely impact on the American mission, and the need for integrated socio-economic support to Afghan society, providing it with necessary resilience against future Talibanisation, etc.

Most telling of his considerations though, from Pakistan’s point of view, relates to Pakistan’s recent successes in operations against militants, leading him to observe: if the US really needs to add troops to the ones already there when a coalition partner, and the only one for the moment I may add, is doing so well and winning the fight! Left unsaid: task the Pakistani military to continue the mission against all inimical forces impeding achievement of the US mission, especially when they perceive the bulk to be situated this side of the Durand Line. And, were it to be so, the US military may just cut its losses in deference to the growing majority opinion in the US, and in due course having successfully handed the baby and the bathtub over to the re-created Afghan forces find it opportune to beat a retreat.

There continues a serious dichotomy overriding American perceptions. Gen McChrystal, driven by the ultimate scarlet thread from his army publication on COIN — winning hearts and minds — quite evidently misses the point when he expresses the need to secure the Afghan people from the ravishes of the Taliban. Securing who from whom? They all happen to be the same kith and kin — the disenfranchised Pashtuns. In Iraq it was different: the divide identified two separate groups, Shias and Sunnis, given to historical animosity when fanned; and fertile to be exploited one against the other; providing security to a group became doable and, importantly, perceivable.

From Helmand and the East to the very North of the troubled region, fifty percent of Afghans, Pashtuns all, are in it en bloc regardless of what the Wardaks and the Karzais and the Ashraf Ghanis may proclaim. How they instead hope to benefit from the continued American presence are the easy pickings of association in terms of the dollars that the elites will enrich themselves with. Maybe it is time to heed Ms Feinstein, and question oneself, why would the graveyard of all empires play out differently this time?

Pakistani successes against the extremists within Pakistani boundaries carry an important differentiation — that of unanimous public support for the mission. In Afghanistan, the US-NATO forces are outsiders. Any surprise then that these forces remain cloistered within their garrisons, saving themselves from harm any time they wish to step out. If long-term presence were going to deliver results, there would have been some in eight years. But if there aren’t any, this baby’s broke. Mending, therefore, should begin in earnest.

President Obama stated in his recent pronouncements: perhaps the only prime objective for a way forward is to eliminate Al Qaeda. This most basic objective of the American effort got lost in Bush’s ‘smoke ‘em out’ philosophy. It got further morphed and magnificently confused when the objective list expanded into creating an oasis of Jeffersonian democracy, a.k.a. the fifty-first state of the USA in Afghanistan. Since then, forces in Afghanistan have only hunkered down waiting for their term to complete.

President Obama is right — eliminate Al Qaeda as your main military mission. Additionally, use available resources to facilitate an environment of stability by neutralising the real bad elements, not by alienating the largest segment of the Afghan population; mainstream the majority Afghan Taliban into a participatory processes of nation-building; permit the presently fragile state structure to expand its support base through a more representative interaction and integration with all ethnic denominations — assimilation must remain the key to this effort while; and finally, when all this is done, hand Afghanistan over back to the Afghans.

If a surge in troop numbers is required to strictly pursue and aid in the aforementioned objectives, so be it; but a time-line, perhaps annotating early 2012 as the cut-off, will need to be appended. That is Obama’s political and electoral compulsion. Enunciation of a time-line may also help bolster sagging public opinion.

One thing though should be expressly clear: there is no military victory in Afghanistan. Success will be in leaving behind a stable Afghanistan minus Al Qaeda, but not minus what time has begun to define as the Taliban. These so called ‘Afghan Taliban’ are but a creation of an environment, who found impetus when clubbed into the same corner as Al Qaeda. Minus Al Qaeda, they would settle down into their alternative options. That shall certainly have a salutary effect on stabilising Pakistan’s troubled regions.

For Pakistan, serious connotations exist. For one, we need to tread with caution, not knowing which way the proverbial camel squats. Afghanistan is the key to our security apprehensions, and till those get assuaged, little can be given away. A neutral Afghanistan is also the key to regional stability, and till that is assured the region may remain on tenterhooks. There must, therefore, be a chapter on regional political environment added to the McChrystal report; it must define a neutral Afghanistan, and lay out a robust political plan to achieve that goal. That might mean making Pakistan and India sit together at the table in someone’s presence and reading them the script on making life good for the people of the region. Till that happens, Pakistan will hedge her bets.

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