US, FATA and Afghanistan

After Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential elections many people wonder whether there will be a reduction of tension in the region. The policies of great powers are grounded in these countries’ particular geo-strategic compulsions. Such geo-strategic determinants remain permanent and do not shift. Mr Obama may have won an election, but he will have limited choices as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan are concerned.

This election has not given Mr Obama a big mandate. He obtained 52 percent of the popular vote. The US remains a divided country and it will be difficult for the new president to usher in a radically new policy in Afghanistan.

During the campaign Mr Obama stated that he will focus on Afghanistan. Although he may shift his focus of attention from Iraq to Afghanistan when he assumes office, he would be guided by his country’s approved policies, one of which is the US National Defence Strategy 2008. Unless this is drastically revised–and I don’t see that happening–the policies circumscribe what Mr Obama will be able to do.

Firstly, defence policy clearly states that threats to regional peace and security come from areas which are soft and lightly governed. They permit non-state actors to establish safe havens. It is thus clear that under this definition FATA and other isolated pockets causing a threat to global peace will be the focus of US attention. Secondly, the strategy states that unless violent extremist movements are neutralised the US will remain under threat–an obvious pointer towards Al-Qaeda. Thirdly, it stresses that the US will ensure the free flow of energy so that it is not affected by instability. Among other things, it means that the US military would wish to hold critical points in locating its bases. One expects long-term US presence in Afghanistan because of its strategic location on the path to the Central Asian energy resources. Fourthly, the US strategy speaks of containing an expanding China, which is emerging as a regional hegemon having close links with Pakistan. All these factors of the US strategic vision indicate that Pakistan’s position will remain exceptionally critical because of her being a neighbor of Afghanistan.

Obama has said that the real war is in Afghanistan and wants NATO and other US allies to carry more of the Afghan war burden. This means that he expects Europe to supply more troops and carry a higher proportion of the financial burden of the war. Sadly for Mr Obama, the populations of European countries dislike wars and a large proportion of their voters are in no mood to help. Secondly, Europeans are extremely averse to seeing casualties. Many European nations are already withdrawing troops owing to the global financial crisis.

Therefore, for all practical purposes it will be unlikely for the US to have a sizable force, which is required to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. If the US does not have the numbers to stabilise Afghanistan the Americans obviously lack the strength to launch any large-scale incursion into FATA. So what real options does Mr Obama have in this matter? He may either continue with the present holding strategy in Afghanistan while mounting pressure on Pakistan. However, to continue with an endless holding strategy will be politically suicidal for him. If the US withdraws from Afghanistan it would be like transferring power to the Taliban and that would again be something disastrous for the new president. Or Mr Obama could be forced by circumstances to agree to the Afghan government negotiating a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban for establishing a coalition government based on providing representation to the various ethnic groups. This too is likely to lead to another round of war because the Taliban are an ideological movement and such movements never share power.

All these options will be anathema to those Americans who do not subscribe to Mr Obama’s worldview and did not vote for him. They constituted 48 percent of US voters in the presidential election. This analysis clearly shows that despite what the US defence strategy may state the range of options before the next president are limited. An examination of the situation presents only two probable options that are available to Mr Obama. He continues on the present course of a long-term holding action (a war of attrition) in the hope that the concurrent transformational efforts may produce a more pliable generation of Taliban leadership in the future who are amenable to a settlement. The second imminent probability is that pressure will be mounted on Pakistan to do more. This course of policy begs the question whether Pakistan holds the key to neutralising the Taliban inside Afghanistan. Under the latter assumption Pakistan will come under more pressure. Secondly, we are going to see more and deeper attacks by the UAVs. No one stops to ask what exactly are the UAVs achieving? At best they may succeed in getting rid of some Al-Qaeda leaders. Yet these leaders’ elimination has little impact on the reduction of the overall strength of the Taliban movement inside Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to expand their area of control inside Afghanistan, and Pakistan has nothing to do with that. Therefore, policing by air through the UAVs does not get us near a solution of the problem.

On the other hand, the related collateral deaths as a result of UAV attacks in FATA and Afghanistan increase acrimony against the US. Under these hopeless circumstances, what should Mr Obama do? One can sympathise with his situation and refer him to the US defence strategy itself and to one of its rarely highlighted gems of wisdom, which says that victory against insurgencies does not lie in the use of military force alone. Success would lie in taking other measures of a transformation nature which relate to economic growth and political participation as the means to removal of grievances which are at the heart of insurgencies. Building the capacity of the Afghan national army to do the fighting would also help.

It is thus clear that one should not hope for too much with the arrival of a new leader in the US. The war in Afghanistan will continue to rage while pressure will mount on Pakistan in FATA, although what happens there has only a marginal influence on the fighting inside Afghanistan. The solution to the Afghan war lies in Afghanistan. 

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