Obama’s AfPak dilemma on Wednesday, 04 Nov, 2009

WHEN President Barack Obama took office he commissioned an inter-agency review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recommendations emerging from this review were issued in a white paper.

The paper reflected opinions held by disparate groups in the highly saturated think-tank world of Washington, yet it lacked consistency and proposed contradictory policies, thus leading to more confusion rather than bringing clarity to the policy debate. After the publication of the white paper, US policy in the region is in disarray.

Despite several high-visibility visits by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to the region and his discussions with the leadership both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, no major improvement has occurred in the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban have become more aggressive and are in far better shape now than in March when the white paper was issued. Pakistan, on the other hand, has begun aggressive counter-terrorism operations.

The deterioration in Afghanistan has also been noted by the US commander in Afghanistan Gen Stanley McChrystal, who in August gave his views to the Washington Post, which in many ways critiqued his government’s policies. According to his analysis an additional 40,000 troops are needed in Afghanistan immediately to stop the Taliban resurgence. His report is now under consideration by Mr Obama.

The issue of Afghanistan has been confounded due to the existence of contradictory policy prescriptions. Thus to clear the mess the first step that President Obama must take is to simplify the argument and ask himself what the core goal of the US is in Afghanistan. Is it nation-building or is it to win the war against Al Qaeda to prevent a threat to the US mainland?

Both options call for a different approach and their mixing in the short term adds to the confusion and makes building a successful strategy impossible. Thus President Obama must find answers to some basic questions before a clear path can emerge in the policy quagmire of Afghanistan.

Mr Obama’s problems began with the publication of the white paper because it advocated contradictory prescriptions as objectives. For instance, its first recommendation was to disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This meant undertaking counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban. However in the context of Afghanistan, where the state and the army are weak, the US has so far relied on indigenous strongmen or warlords.

Such a policy, instead of being part of the solution, is in fact the problem. The warlords power flows from the narcotics trade and their interests can thus never be aligned with those of the state. If the warlords are assisting the state then the link of these men with the state will be that of a lord with his vassals. Such a situation at the community level weakens the state by corrupting its processes and informing villagers that their problems can be solved if they kept the warlord rather than the official satisfied.

For instance, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, is the warlord in Kandahar. He is the strongman in southern Afghanistan on whom the US relies heavily for controlling the region and ensuring the transit of fuel and supplies to its troops. Similarly, in the Tajik and Uzbek areas the US and Afghan governments rely on Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Karim Khalili and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who are said to be involved in the narcotics trade.

If the US has to rely on such shady characters for its counter-terrorism effort, how could it ever hope to achieve the second objective of the white paper, which is promoting a more capable, acceptable and effective government in Afghanistan. It can’t be done! Simply stated, no country can be made cohesive and strong if it is built on the mercies of criminals and corrupt warlords.

It is thus no wonder that the goal of creating a strong Afghan state seems impossible. It becomes even clearer to comprehend when one notes that the Afghan National Army is recruited mostly from amongst the followers of the warlords. A similar situation prevails with the recruitment of the Afghan police.

Yet one of the core requirements of a successful counter-insurgency strategy calls for establishing the credibility and legitimacy of government operations. If the government’s security forces are the vassals of drug barons how can they compete successfully against the Taliban, who base their appeal on the rectitude of their leaders?

It appears that winning the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan is out of the question. If nation-building in Afghanistan is not possible then the only option left for the US would be to undertake a counter-terrorism strategy till other options become available. Such a decision will entail the deployment of US forces at strategic points like Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west, Kunduz in the north and Jalalabad and Kunar in the east.

Under this option, the countryside will be policed by the military on land and by the drones in the air. Unfortunately, the main power players on the ground with whom the US will be forced to cooperate will be the warlords.

Afghanistan, because of the lack of indigenous means of wealth creation, has historically remained a loosely administered state dependent upon rentier incomes derived from abroad and where the central government’s influence was dependent upon the distribution of money amongst regional strongmen. Thus the Bonn Accord advocating the creation of a strong central authority ruling the provinces from Kabul was against this basic premise of Afghan history.

Therefore Gen McChrystal’s proposal of using more troops to stabilise Afghanistan is flawed and the escalation of war that will clearly follow such a prescription will increase US losses and escalate the ongoing insurgency. Secondly, the pressure of additional US troops may push the Afghan war into Balochistan and further inside Pakistan.

At a minimum, the Pakistani military will be forced to launch more operations in Fata and the NWFP as well as new operations in Balochistan. Thus the McChrystal recommendation threatens the security of Pakistan.

Mr Obama must also be looking at the Afghan war from the perspective of his re-election in 2012. If he gets bogged down in an escalating Afghan conflict with rising casualties, he will surely lose. No politician can favour such an unpalatable outcome. Clearly, the pointers are for a reduced US role in Afghanistan in the future and concomitantly a larger policing role for Pakistan.

If Pakistan is able to properly handle its current military operations and economic issues, it is likely to come out stronger from the current crises. However, before that happens it will need to effectively neuter the various militant organisations that are challenging the state as it begins to reassert itself. 

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