A flawed Afpak strategy

Why U.S. policy risks repeating history

Brahma Chellaney  The Hindu  March 3, 2009


In setting out to deal with the Afghanistan-Pakistan predicament, Barack Obama is seeking to repeat some of the very Reagan-era mistakes that created this mess


At a time when the Taliban, with its inner shura (council) ensconced in the Quetta area, is making deeper inroads into Pakistan, U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan (“Afpak” in Washingtonese) raises fundamental questions: Is Washington serious about solving what it helped bring about? And can a solution involve doing more of what caused the problem?

The Obama administration has set out to train and arm local militias in every Afghan province, even as Defence Secretary Robert Gates has triggered alarm bells by declaring in Krakow, Poland, that the U.S. “would be very open” to a Swat Valley-style agreement in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Faced with grim realities on the ground, the new administration is seeking to pursue shortcuts, lest Afpak burn Mr. Obama’s presidency in the same way Iraq consumed George W. Bush’s. Still, it is important to remember the origins of the Afpak problem.

A covert U.S. war against the nine-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan helped instil an Afpak jihad culture and create Frankensteins like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar. It was at a mid-1980s White House ceremony attended by some turbaned and bearded Afpak “holy warriors” that President Ronald Reagan proclaimed “mujahideen” leaders the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers” of America. Now a second military intervention in Afghanistan since 2001 — this time by the U.S., with the aid of NATO and other allied troops — has further destabilised the region.

Yet, in trying to salvage the overt U.S. war in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is ignoring the lessons of the earlier covert war and unwittingly seeking to repeat history. In the same way the U.S. created “mujahideen” by funnelling billions of dollars worth of arms to them in the 1980s, Washington has now embarked on a plan to set up local militias across Afghanistan. And just as the covert war’s imperatives prompted the U.S. in the 1980s to provide multibillion-dollar aid packages to Pakistan while turning a blind eye to its nuclear-smuggling and other illicit trans-border activities, Washington is now unveiling a quantum jump in aid to that country while seeking to neither bring the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence under civilian oversight nor subject the recently-freed A.Q. Khan to international questioning.

While pursuing major changes domestically, Mr. Obama is demonstrating a degree of caution that makes his foreign policy look like a repackaged version of Mr. Bush’s. Besides retaining Mr. Bush’s defence secretary and rendition policy, the once anti-war Mr. Obama is in less of a hurry to exit Iraq, with his full troop withdrawal to be completed in 2011 in accordance with Mr. Bush’s plan. While asking his aides to come up with an Afpak strategy before he goes to Europe for the April 2 NATO summit, Mr. Obama has already made key decisions — from sending more troops to Afghanistan to pushing ahead with new civilian militias. In Pakistan, U.S. cooperation has been stepped up with the military, including new joint CIA-ISI missions in tribal areas, commando training to Frontier Corps and sharing of U.S. intercepts of militant cellular and satellite phone calls.

Under the militia-building plan, designed to complement Mr. Obama’s troop “surge,” lightly trained militias are being set up in the Afghan provinces as part of a supposed game-changing strategy. The first such militia units are almost ready to be rolled out in Wardak province, near Kabul. The costs to the U.S. to train and maintain such provincial militias will depend on how many recruits the programme is able to draw. But the financial costs can only be small compared to the likely costs to regional security.

The plan, initiated quietly without any consultation with allies and partners, flies in the face of the common agreement that the international community must focus on institution-building, demobilisation of existing militias and reconstruction to create a stable, moderate Afghanistan — goals that have prompted India to pour massive $1.2 billion aid into that country and start constructing the new Afghan Parliament building. The decision ignores the danger that such militias could go out of control and threaten international security. That is exactly what happened with the militias Reagan heavily armed in the 1980s, the so-called “mujahideen.”

Before long, the new militias would be terrorising local populations. Today, America is unable to stop the misuse of its large annual military aid by Pakistan or account for the arms it has supplied to Afghan and Iraqi security forces. Controlling non-state actors is even harder. That is the lesson from the rise of the Taliban, fathered by the ISI and endorsed by U.S. policy as a way out of the chaos that engulfed Afghanistan after President Najibullah’s 1992 ouster.

Prodded by the intense lobbying of Unocol, a U.S. firm that was seeking to build energy pipelines from Turkmenistan, the Clinton administration called the Taliban’s 1996 ascension to power “an opportunity for a process of national reconciliation to begin.” Some 13 years later, as if no lesson has been learned from the Taliban’s rampages, Secretary Gates has used the same term “reconciliation” to suggest compromise with that rabidly Islamist militia.

To be sure, building civilian and military institutions to recreate a unified, stable Afghanistan out of the ashes of three decades of war is not easy. But the shortcuts Mr. Obama is seeking are likely to impose enduring costs. Just because Afghan security forces are not yet sufficiently large or adequately groomed to take over the fight cannot justify the setting up of more militias in a country already swarming with armed militiamen. When the United Nations-sponsored programme to disarm and demobilise existing militias is in limbo, the move to create new militia units in the name of an “Afghan Public Protection Force” risks seriously undermining the secular Afghan national army and triggering more ethnic and sectarian bloodletting.

The real threat today is from the disparate militias that have been at loggerheads in the past but now oppose foreign intervention. The insurgency is made up of the ragtag Taliban — oiled by drug money and petrodollars — and a number of private armies, including Jalaluddin Haqqani’s militia force, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. To create more armed militiamen is to play with fire.

Just as the Pakistani army and the ISI served as America’s most critical eyes and ears in the 1980s’ covert war, U.S. logistics and intelligence dependence on them in the current overt war is being reinforced by several factors — a troop surge to steady a faltering military campaign; the desire to cut a deal with the Taliban; and the recent Kyrgyz decision to shut down the American air base at Manas, a major hub for troops and cargo to Afghanistan. Despite the Manas loss, Mr. Obama, at this stage, is unlikely to seriously explore the only possible alternative he has to greater U.S. reliance on Pakistan: Do a deal with Tehran to gain access to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar and the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links up to the ring road to Kandahar and Kabul.

If Richard Holbrooke’s appointment as special representative is not merely intended to sell decisions already made in Washington, such as to set up militias and increase troop levels, genuine prior consultations with partners and friends are essential, or else Mr. Obama would be following Mr. Bush’s much-criticised footsteps. Yet Mr. Obama made his first presidential telephone call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to merely convey an Afghanistan-related decision he had already made — to send 17,000 more U.S. troops.

In fact, while pampering the Pakistani military establishment that is working to undermine the civilians in power, the U.S. is undercutting the present civilian government in Kabul by directly reaching out to provincial governors and seeking their help, among other things, to establish militias. While Mr. Gates scoffs at a cohesive, stable, democratic Afghanistan as “some sort of Central Asian Valhalla,” Mr. Obama is itching to dump Mr. Karzai. Mr. Obama’s scaled-back objective is not to rout the Taliban but, as he told a joint session of Congress, “to defeat al-Qaeda.”

The Afpak problem won’t go away without a clear break from failed U.S. policies and unceasing investments in institution-building. Continuing more of what hasn’t worked in the past, such as throwing more money at Pakistan and pouring more foreign troops into Afghanistan without a sustained commitment to uproot terrorism, is like feeding the beast. A U.S. deal with the Taliban will not only repeat history, but also reinforce Afpak’s position as a global narco-terrorist beachhead.

Building institutions and defeating transnational terrorism, of course, are long-drawn-out missions. But Mr. Obama wants to demonstrate change in keeping with his election-campaign slogan. That means giving priority to what is politically expedient than to long-term interests — the very mistake that gave rise to the phenomenon of jihadist transnational terror. It also means redefining success and taking shortcuts, including using the troop surge as a show of force to cut grotty deals and rear new armed thugs. “Surge, bribe and run” sums up Mr. Obama’s unfolding strategy. Little surprise Pakistani generals are smiling. 

(c) The Hindu, 2009.

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