The unfolding cut-and-run strategy

Obama’s five-pillar Afpak plan to add to India’s woes


A shortsighted, dangerous Afpak strategy has prompted Washington to extend technical assistance to India over the Mumbai attacks, but not the much-needed political assistance to bring its planners to justice


Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, March 25, 2009


By sketching out in advance five key pillars of his strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan (“Afpak” in Washingtonese), President Barack Obama has preempted the inter-agency review of US options that he had himself ordered on his most difficult foreign-policy challenge. The review, to be unveiled next Tuesday, will be reduced to a public-relations exercise to market decisions already taken, especially by packaging them in better light and camouflaging their real intent.


The review is set to overlook the central reality on Afghanistan and Pakistan — that the political border between these two artificially-created countries has ceased to exist in practice. The so-called Durand Line, in any event, was a British-colonial invention that left the large Pashtun community divided into two.


Today, that 1893-drawn line exists only in maps. On the ground, it has little political, ethnic and economic relevance. A de facto Pashtunistan, long sought by Pashtuns, now exists on the ruins of an ongoing Islamist militancy but without any political authority in charge.


The momentous disappearance of the Afpak political border seems irreversible. In that light, “Afpak” is a fitting term because by fusing the two countries, it suggests they now need to be tackled as a single geopolitical entity. Yet in the Obama strategy, there is still no meaningful integration in the policy approaches toward the two countries.


In short, Obama is set to cut and run from Afghanistan. As he has told CBS News, “there’s got to be an exit strategy.” He wants to seek re-election on the plank of having ended America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — wars that already have tied up the US military for a period longer than World War II. His timeframe for an Afghanistan exit appears the same as for Iraq — by 2011.

That does not mean that the 190,000 US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined (including the 17,000 additional forces being sent to Afghanistan) would all be home by 2011-end. Once their missions officially end, some of these troops would be reassigned to military bases Washington intends to maintain indefinitely in the two countries.

The five pillars of Obama’s Afpak strategy are:

Shift from the current approach of counter-insurgency and institution-building in Afghanistan to a narrower objective to regionally confine terrorism and deter attacks against US interests from the Afpak belt. Having formally ended the global “war” on terror initiated by his predecessor, Obama has no intent to prosecute a regional war on terror in the Afpak belt.

Although in the election campaign Obama repeatedly said the Iraq invasion had diverted US attention from the war of necessity in Afghanistan, he now realizes that defeating Afpak terrorism and building civilian and military institutions to create a stable Afghanistan are long-drawn-out missions that threaten to consume his presidency the way Iraq seared his predecessor’s reign. So he is lowering the bar and seeking shortcuts. Indeed, his defence secretary has described a cohesive, democratic Afghanistan as an impractical objective to create “some sort of Central Asian Valhalla.”

Pursue a minimalist “surge” of US forces in Afghanistan as a show of force to pursue political rather than military goals. Obama knows that sending more US forces into Afghanistan is a losing strategy. After all, the Soviet Union, with 100,000 troops, couldn’t pacify a country that historically has been “the graveyard of empires.” Last year proved the deadliest for American forces in Afghanistan even though the number of NATO and US troops nearly doubled in the first half of 2008.

Ironically, after having been elected on the slogan of change, Obama has set out to do in Afghanistan what his predecessor did in Iraq, where behind the cover of a surge, local tribal chieftains were bought off. The attempt to replicate the Iraq strategy in Afghanistan overlooks several dissimilarities, including the key fact that Sunni insurgents in Iraq —  unlike Afghan militants — have had no safe havens across the borders.


Pretend the badly weakened and splintered Al Qaeda is the main enemy while quietly seeking a political deal with the Taliban leadership. Al Qaeda remnants operate not on the battlefield but furtively out of mountain caves. Those that openly challenge the US and NATO forces are the Taliban and private armies led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others. Yet, the Obama administration has blessed secret negotiations by Saudi, Pakistani and Afghan agencies and individuals with the Taliban and Hekmatyar (who is aligned with the Taliban).


The “reconcilables” (the good terrorists, or what Obama meretriciously calls the “moderate” Taliban) are to be offered amnesty, payoffs and a stake in power. The “unreconcilables” (the bad terrorists) are to be hunted down with the help of the “reconcilables” and eliminated.


To pressure the top Taliban leaders to negotiate and cut a deal, Washington is threatening military strikes on their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s Quetta area. Taliban chief Mullah Omar and members of his supreme shura (council) have been ensconced for years in Quetta under Pakistani intelligence protection, but the US military has thus far not carried out a single air, missile or drone attack on their known hideouts. Obama indeed is agreeable to bring the Taliban shura into the Afghan political fold.


But the Taliban leaders and their main patron, the Pakistani military, know that the US — with a faltering military campaign — is desperate for a ticket out of Afghanistan. All they have to do is to bide their time.


In the same way the US in the 1980s established the so-called “mujahideen” (the “good” terrorists until they turned on their creators), Washington has unilaterally embarked on a plan to set up local civil militias in every Afghan province. The internationally agreed goal to build institutions is degenerating into militia-building in a country already swarming with heavily armed militiamen.


Long after the US war has ended, the new militias would be terrorizing populations.


Prop up the Pakistani state, including through a quantum jump in US aid. Just as the imperatives of its covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s prompted the US to provide multibillion-dollar aid packages to Pakistan while turning a blind eye to the latter’s rogue activities, the current overt war is prompting Obama to significantly boost the already-generous level of aid and help the tottering Pakistani state stay solvent. As the CIA steps up cooperation with the Pakistani intelligence, history is repeating itself.


The greater US reliance on the terror-rearing Pakistani military establishment explains why America has extended technical assistance to India in the Mumbai probe, but not political assistance. Washington is unwilling to put pressure on Islamabad to even secure FBI access to those arrested by Pakistani authorities. Four months after the unparalleled terrorist strikes, there is distinct possibility its key planners may go scot-free.


Instead of formulating his Afpak strategy in coordination with allies and friends, Obama is presenting them with a fait accompli even while seeking their cooperation to help implement a plan likely to create a more unstable and terrorist-infested Afpak belt.


Not only is institution-building now being disparaged as nation-building, the new administration also is shifting the military goal. Having failed to rout the Taliban, the US, Obama believes, should return to what it traditionally is good at — containing and deterring.


But the consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security. The brunt of escalating terrorism will be borne by next-door India, which already has been described by ex-US official Ashley Tellis as “the sponge that protects us all.”


(c) Asian Age, 2009.


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