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Old Thursday, December 30, 2010
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In pursuit of failure

By Tareq Fatemi

NINE years of occupation, over 2,000 lives lost and billions of dollars wasted, yet the US is still in the process of determining what its strategy in Afghanistan should be.

The Obama administration’s year-end review of its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan was more an exercise in diplomatic obfuscation than an objective assessment of ground realities. Its cautiously reassuring message is belied by a close reading of the public summary which stated that the Taliban insurgency has been slowed, but admitted that this achievement remained “fragile and reversible”. In Pakistan, progress has been “substantial” but not enough to deny either Al Qaeda or the Taliban the havens that shelter them. The president asserted that “we are on track to achieve our goals” but the reality remains grim, with a record number of American casualties and fears of Taliban resurgence.

These fears were confirmed by US intelligence agencies which remain sceptical of the military claims, suspecting them to be politically motivated. The influential International Crisis Group has also dismissed them, pointing out that dozens of new districts have come under Taliban control. The respected Council on Foreign Relations, too, warned recently: “We cannot accept these costs unless strategy begins to show signs of progress.”

What then explains America’s continuing reluctance to seek a negotiated settlement and look for politically acceptable safe-exit options? After all, Obama’s intelligence and political instincts cannot be doubted. Yet acknowledging mistakes and abandoning failed policies is neither easy nor pain-free, particularly for superpowers that are convinced of their “manifest destiny”. It was belief in its invincibility that humiliated the US in Vietnam and destroyed the Johnson administration.

More worryingly, the review confirmed that the president remains torn between the ambition of his generals and the fear of his advisors. For those who may doubt the extent to which individual ambitions and institutional interests are clouding national objectives, one need only read Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars.

It is fascinating on many counts but more importantly for the portrayal of the infighting in Washington’s corridors of power. The jealousies and rivalries he exposes are treacherous.

Obama comes out a lonely and frustrated figure, failing to garner the support of even his defence and state secretaries who, the author hints, see long-term political advantage in supporting a more robust military posture.

Recall what President Eisenhower wrote some 50 years ago. Though America’s most celebrated soldier, he cautioned against the military’s enormous growth, fearing that the economy risked becoming a subsidiary of the military.

In his farewell address, Eisenhower warned that the influence of “the military-industrial complex was economic, political, even spiritual”, and exhorted Americans to break away from their reliance on military might as a guarantor of liberty and “use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment”.

As James Ledbetter points out in his book on Eisenhower, the former president was no pacifist but he deeply feared the consequences of what he called a “garrison state”, in which “policy and rights are defined by the shadowy needs of an all-powerful military elite”. Obama’s failure to get the generals on board with regard to his preferred political strategy in Afghanistan is a painful confirmation of Eisenhower’s fears.

Obama’s generals already appear to have succeeded in moving the goalposts. Their ambition, as well as the appetite of the defence industry, is enormous. This explains why Biden was constrained to warn that America would withdraw by 2014, come “hell or high water”. The president is caught between Scylla (the military) and Charybdis (his supporters), unable to break away from either.

There is little evidence of the president being able to listen to experts who call upon the US to radically change its strategy and negotiate directly with the Taliban “now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year”.

Characterising the 2014 deadline as unrealistic, they have stated that “like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape”. A genuine role for the Taliban in a new political dispensation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly inevitable.

With the Republicans determined to reset the domestic agenda, Obama’s room to manoeuvre even on foreign policy issues is narrowing.

He has to decide soon on a strategy that actually enables him to declare a ‘victory’ to pull out troops, without allowing the Republicans to accuse him of abandoning Afghanistan and being soft on national security issues.

If the American policy is succeeding as the administration claims, then it should have no problem in steadily drawing down its forces. But if the strategy is not working, as critics claim, then it is even more important to abandon the Petraeus-advocated counter-insurgency in favour of a lighter counter-terrorism strategy. In fact, the Petraeus strategy is alienating civilians and intensifying anti-American sentiments while aiding the Taliban in recruiting new fighters.

America has to abandon the false notion that the more intense the operations, the greater their effectiveness. While there are major differences among the stakeholders about the modalities for the peace process, there is no doubt that the US has to give primacy to political strategy that is complemented by military tactics, rather than the other way round.

What Obama decides is not a matter of mere academic interest to Pakistan. The Americans continue to demand that we ‘do more’, while Admiral Mullen speaks of his “strategic impatience” with Pakistan. There is also credible evidence concerning Washington’s growing inclination to expand its operations to Pakistan. This is likely to be far more disastrous than Nixon’s decision to seek salvation for Vietnam in Cambodia and Laos.

Let our leaders beware that any show of pusillanimity at this time will unleash the dogs of civil war deep within Pakistan. We have already paid an enormous price in furtherance of US goals; let us not slide into this quagmire. The Americans have the luxury of walking away from the mess but we will remain stuck in it.


The writer is a former ambassador.
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