Doomed to fail

The march of folly: Obama’s four-word Afpak strategy

In its first foreign-policy test, the new Indian government will have to contend with pressing U.S. proposals that India assist Obama’s politically expedient “Afpak” strategy, which actually threatens to bring Indian security under added pressure

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, May 20, 2009

Now that the national election is over, Indian diplomacy will face demands to aid US President Barack Obama’s strategy on Afghanistan-Pakistan (“Afpak”). To win greater Pakistani military cooperation on the Afghan frontier, Obama is seeking New Delhi’s assistance on at least two fronts — border-troop reductions and a resumption of “peace” talks with Islamabad.


India can assist to the extent that its own interests are safe. India has no offensively-configured troop formations along the Pakistan border, and any cut in border deployments must not provide the Pakistani military an opening to infiltrate more armed terrorists into India. New Delhi has no quarrel with Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, but a renewed bilateral dialogue can be meaningful only if Islamabad goes beyond cosmetic measures against its military-nurtured, India-directed Punjabi terror groups, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad.


The Obama team also had sought an easing of Pakistani concerns that India is seeking to encircle Pakistan through its role in Afghanistan. But Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, has rubbished Pakistani claims of Indian intelligence operations there, saying that contrary to the alleged presence of “hundreds” of Indian operatives in Kandahar, his inquiry revealed that the Indian consulate there has merely “six or eight people”. India has a major stake in the future of Afghanistan and will stay an important player there. This is exemplified by the constructive role it is currently playing to help rebuild that landlocked country through a $1.2 billion aid programme.


The real issue is Obama’s Afpak approach. For a president elected on the slogan of change, his Afpak strategy hardly represents consequential change. In fact, Obama doesn’t have one integrated, comprehensive strategy but distinctly separate plans on Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Take his Pakistan strategy. It can be summed up in just four words: More of the same. Actually, it is more of what hasn’t worked in the past. Unsuccessful US policies have helped generate a terrifying mess in Pakistan, which today resembles a Molotov cocktail waiting for a match.


Yet Obama is seeking to copy that failed approach on a much-bigger scale, as illustrated by his plan to make Pakistan the largest recipient of US aid in the world without setting clear benchmarks for judging progress. In fact, his administration currently is seeking to dissuade Congress from imposing any rigid benchmark on the unparalleled aid for Pakistan.


Throwing more money at Islamabad, pampering the wielder of real power — the military — and undercutting Pakistan’s civilian leaders are examples of why Obama is offering more of the same in US policy. To persuade the Pakistani military establishment against providing terrorist succour and sanctuary along the Afghan border (but not the India frontier), Washington willingly is paying billions of dollars in ransom money, with no assurance that such payouts will make any difference.


What’s the Obama strategy on Afghanistan? Again, it can be summed up in four words: Surge, bribe and run. Obama actually has lifted this strategy lock, stock and barrel from his predecessor, but from a different theatre (Iraq), and without giving George W. Bush any credit.


Obama has set out to replicate in Afghanistan his predecessor’s experiment in Iraq. As happened in Iraq from early 2007, Obama intends to employ a military surge more as a show of force to pursue largely political objectives, especially to explore truces and alliances with tribal chieftains and insurgent leaders. Just as many Sunni tribal leaders were bought off in Iraq, the Obama plan is to cut deals with the Taliban leaders and field commanders.


For such deal-making to be successful, Obama intends to squeeze the Taliban first, including by putting 21,000 more American troops on the battlefield and taking yet another page from Bush’s Iraq experiment to establish US-funded local civil militias in every Afghan district. The first such militia unit, compromising 240 Afghans, was armed and deployed in Wardak province last month after receiving just three weeks of training.


In a country already teaming with militiamen, more militias are being set up. But just as the existing Afghan militias took to terrorism after being armed during the Ronald Reagan presidency to fight Soviet forces, the new militias will begin terrorizing local populations before long. Yet such is the rush to establish new militias that in an unusual decision to remove a wartime commander, the Obama administration last week fired the top American general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, because he was overly cautious in creating such militias.


It is unlikely that the dubious Iraq experiment can work in Afghanistan, whose mountainous terrain, myriad tribes, militants operating from across national frontiers, patterns of shifting tribal and ethnic loyalties, low level of literacy, lack of natural resources, special status as the global hub of poppy trade and a history of internecine civil conflict set it apart from any other Muslim country. Also, unlike the internally confined Iraq conflict, the Afpak belt already is the springboard of international terrorism.

Still, Obama’s Afghanistan plan borrows so heavily from Bush’s Iraq ideas that the military general who implemented the surge-and-bribe experiment in Iraq has been pressed into service to replicate that in Afghanistan. David Petraeus, the former commander of American forces in Iraq who now heads the US Central Command, is the inspiration and leading light of the “surge, then negotiate” plan for Afghanistan. “Obama for Change” also has retained Bush’s defence secretary and rendition policy, revived Guantánamo military tribunals, flip-flopped on releasing detainee-abuse photos, and set the same year as his predecessor — 2011 — for a military exit from Iraq.

The blunt truth is that Obama doesn’t want the Afpak problem to burn his presidency the way Iraq consumed Bush’s. As a result, his aides are panning the internationally agreed goal of institution-building in Afghanistan as nation-building — a business in which the US shouldn’t get into.

Before he comes up for re-election, Obama wants to earn acclaim for ending his predecessor’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That objective is necessitating both a redefinition of “success” and the taking of shortcuts, as exemplified by his Afghan militia-building plan.

To compound matters, Obama has made the mistake — however inadvertently — of undercutting the legitimacy of the Afpak elected leaders. No sooner had he assumed office than his aides began calling Afghan President Hamid Karzai corrupt, incompetent and a millstone for US policy. Such talk died down when the Obama team realized there was no credible substitute to Karzai, now set to be re-elected. More surprising was Obama’s act, at the news conference marking his 100th day in office, in excoriating President Asif Ali Zardari’s government as “very fragile,” ineffectual and unable “to gain the support and loyalty” of the Pakistani people. Undermining civilian leaders is no recipe for success of a cut-and-run strategy.

Obama’s strategy essentially fails to recognize the structural character of the Afpak problem and attempts to deal with only the symptoms. Today, counterinsurgency (or “COIN” in US military jargon) has replaced institution-building and the “war on terror” in American policy. Accordingly, the Afpak strategy aims not to defeat terrorism, but to regionally contain terrorism — an approach that is set to bring Indian security under greater pressure.

While Obama cannot be faulted for wanting to exit Afghanistan, why did he have to advertise his intent? He publicly declared, “There’s got to be an exit strategy”. Now, the Taliban and their sponsors, the Pakistani military, just need to wait out the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.

Rather than merely respond to US demands, strategic-partner India needs to be up-front on Obama’s unworkable Afpak strategy. That strategy is doomed to fail, with serious security consequences for India and the rest of the free world.

(c) Asian Age, 2009.

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