Originally Published 2009-12-31 00:00:00 Published on Dec 31, 2009
The inadequacy of Barack Obama's Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy stems from the exigencies of the calendar of the next presidential elections in America,
Obama must win even if America loses
The inadequacy of Barack Obama’s Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy stems from the exigencies of the calendar of the next presidential elections in America 

The striking thing about Barack Obama’s new policy initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan announced on December 1 is how little in it is actually new. It re-states the problem in known terms and the proposed way forward treads old ground. This is surprising, as the president spent an enormous amount of time to examine his options, to the point of being accused of dithering, and knew that the implications of the new course he would choose would matter greatly. Something more assuring, resolute and purposeful should have therefore emerged from the review, not the circumspect, compromising and half-hearted agenda that has surfaced.

The decision to adhere to the broad contours of existing policy — namely, combat the Taliban insurgency and reverse its momentum, deny safe havens to al Qaida in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, strengthen the capacity of the Afghan army and police and progressively transfer security responsibilities to them, induce Pakistan to act against terrorist groups operating from its soil that have now begun to threaten the Pakistani people themselves, and reward it militarily and economically for its cooperation with the United States of America — suggests that the intensive review undertaken by Obama threw up no other practical alternative. This policy has not produced the intended results so far, but the US proposes to persevere with it, nonetheless.

In March 2009, Obama had agreed to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to make up for the relative neglect of the war during the Bush presidency. The overall strategy then announced, with some confidence, was not too different in concept from the one announced now. But it hasn’t worked, with the president himself acknowledging that the situation in Afghanistan has actually deteriorated. Because more American ground presence is needed, General McChrystal had asked for 40,000 additional troops. The president has reduced the figure to 30,000, aware of the growing unpopularity of the war and the reluctance of the US public to sacrifice more American lives in Afghanistan. This obliged him to recall at some length in his speech at West Point the reasons for US involvement in the first place. That he needed to educate the Americans on this after eight years of presence in Afghanistan shows the size of the gap that has developed between the public and the administration on the raison d’être of this war.

The US clearly finds itself in a bind. If it does what it must do in the light of the importance it has itself attached to this “war of necessity”, then it has to make a longer-term political, military and economic commitment to Afghanistan.

The president has categorically rejected this course as “it would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade” and because “it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests”. “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan,” he said, a startling public admission that the Afghan intervention has run aground, with no hope of success.

Obama has thus deliberately lowered his sights in Afghanistan, as well as the stakes involved there for the US, in order to justify an early withdrawal from the country. “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests,” he said — another remarkable acknowledgment of its reduced political, military and economic capacity by the world’s most powerful country, and its inability to shape as it desires even the regional, not to mention the global, order any more.

To believe that even the scaled-down Afghan agenda of Obama can be successfully completed in 18 months is to stretch credulity. It is most doubtful that the Afghan security forces can be trained and suitably armed to allow the planned transfer of responsibility from the US troops and the International Security Assistance Force to them in this short time-frame. If the strategy is to “secure key population centres”, how will the objective of developing, for instance, agriculture “that can make an immediate impact on the lives of the Afghan people” be realized? Will the civilian surge be confined to the major cities too? Yet, Obama has announced that after 18 months — by July, 2011— the US troops will begin to come home. That he should mention this time-line of withdrawal three times in his speech reflects his anxiety to balance the surge with a timetable for beginning the process of exiting from Aghanistan.

The West, and Obama himself, by denigrating President Hamid Karzai politically for his incompetence and launching broadsides against his fraudulent re-election, have further weakened his capacity to govern. He seems no longer central to US plans to create local conditions for the planned withdrawal as support to him will be performance based. “We will support Afghan ministries, governors and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people,” says Obama, signalling an intention to work independently of Karzai and, indeed, set up a parallel authority to the Afghan government to achieve the desired progress on the ground. If the US does not want to be seen as an occupation force, this would hardly be the best way to avoid being castigated as such.

What would be worrying for India is Obama’s declaration that the US will “support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens”. This is really mumbo-jumbo as the Taliban are defending Islam, are wedded to jihad to achieve political ends, and their concept of human rights is based on religious, not constitutional, texts. It is instructive that nowhere in his speech Obama even once refers to “religious extremists” or “religious radicals”. The war against the Taliban cannot be won by obscuring their true nature. Karzai has again expressed his willingness to talk to the vandal, Mullah Omar, the destroyer of the Bamiyan Buddhas, although the tiger the Afghan president wants to ride will first devour him. The willingness of the West to live with the obscurantist religious ideology of the Taliban so long as it is not anti-West shows again its penchant to make unprincipled compromises irrespective of regional consequences.

The US’s partnership with Pakistan, promised again by Obama, has not yielded the results sought for eight years now, despite the showering of massive military and economic largesse on the country by the Americans. Assurances of support for Pakistan’s security and prosperity on a longer-term basis will not make the Pakistanis amenable to fundamentally re-orienting their policies towards Afghanistan and their ambitions there, not to mention those vis-à-vis India. The signal that the US “cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known” suggests a hardening of tone towards Pakistan’s ambiguity in dealing with the Afghan Taliban, but it is doubtful if the US will take unilateral action as that could complicate Obama’s entire strategy of ensuring Pakistani cooperation and exiting from Afghanistan.

The inadequacy of the freshly announced Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy stems not from a flawed understanding of the situation on the ground, but from the exigencies of the calendar of the next US presidential elections. Obama must win even if the US loses in Afghanistan.

The author is former foreign secretary of India [email protected]

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