COMMENT: US Afghan war review —Dr Mohammad Taqi - Thursday, December 16, 2010

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The word victory has never featured in Mr Obama’s speeches in the Afghan context and is unlikely to pop up now. We will hear a lot from him about the build-hold-clear-stabilise-handover process and the long term US ‘commitment’, but there will be hardly any reference to nation-building or even sustained counterinsurgency

US president Barack Obama will announce his annual review of the Afghan war today (December 16, 2010). A successful legal challenge to Mr Obama’s healthcare plan and hectic congressional activity to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts had pushed this review off the US media radar, but the death of the Special Representative Richard Holbrooke has managed to put it back in the news-cycle, at least for the time being. What was expected to be a low key affair will still remain a whimper but more questions are being asked about the shape of the things to come as a larger-than-life member of Mr Obama’s Pak-Afghan team made his exit from the diplomatic and world stage.

The Washington Post has reported that Mr Holbrooke’s last words, spoken to his surgeon, were: “You have got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” Incidentally, Mr Holbrooke’s surgeon happened to be a King Edward Medical College-educated Pakistani. Of course, neither the surgeon nor the common Pakistanis have much to do with the war in Afghanistan but given the Pakistani establishment’s massive involvement in favour of the Taliban, Mr Holbrooke’s last words seem almost surreal.

Mr Holbrooke, however, was not the only one calling for ending the war in Afghanistan. On the eve of the Afghan war review, a 25-member group of experts on Afghanistan, which includes respected names like Ahmed Rashid and Professor Antonio Giustozzi, has published an open letter to Mr Obama, calling on him to authorise a formal negotiation with the Afghan Taliban and seek a political settlement. However, buried in the text of the 1,030-word long plea to talk to the Taliban is the key sentence: “With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution.”

Mr Obama is very likely to claim progress in his statement (no speech is expected) and declare that the strategy he announced a year ago at the West Point Military Academy is working. However, he has very little to show in terms of tangible progress, especially in dealing with the continuous Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan. He may reiterate what he had told the US troops on his recent visit to Afghanistan: “We said we were going to break the Taliban’s momentum. That’s what you’re doing.” The idea being that the use of military force to change the political landscape of Afghanistan will continue as planned. The only addition anticipated is a prominent mention of the year 2014 as the withdrawal date for the NATO troops and security handover to the Afghan national forces. But the start of the troops’ drawdown in July 2011 will still remain as one of the objectives, albeit more as a rest stop rather than a milestone.

However, it is erroneous to make a claim about breaking the Taliban momentum during the winter months, which is literally the ‘down time’ of the war. During the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s one could tell by the drop in price of a Kalashnikov in Peshawar that the winter lull in fighting was about to start. But then again nobody claimed Mr Obama to be an expert on Afghanistan.

In fact Mr Holbrooke, along with his boss Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, had vociferously criticised the president when the latter was putting together his Afghan strategy, commenting: “It cannot work.” However, all of them and General David Petraeus did sign on to Mr Obama’s flawed plan. At the time I had noted in an article ‘The Alsatia of FATA’ written for the Aryana Institute that “the American and NATO planners need a paradigm shift in their approach to handling the mess in FATA. Without setting up metrics for specifically measuring the Pakistan Army’s efforts in dismantling its jihadist assets, the US will be setting itself up for failure.”

The White House is saying that Mr Obama will talk about the al Qaeda’s senior leadership, Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more specifically, about increasing cooperation with the Pakistani government. How Mr Obama fleshes up this last agenda item is what would determine the future shape of things in Afghanistan — and Pakistan. I agree with Ahmed Rashid and Professor Giustozzi et al that with Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, a military solution is not possible. However, I maintain that without the US confronting the Pakistani establishment on its continued support for the Taliban, a political solution to the Afghan imbroglio will remain elusive as well. Mr Holbrooke had told Bob Woodward that he saw a 1 in 10 chance of a good outcome in Afghanistan. I would say that it is a safe bet to make it a 1 in 1,000 chance.

The word victory has never featured in Mr Obama’s speeches in the Afghan context and is unlikely to pop up now. We will hear a lot from him about the build-hold-clear-stabilise-handover process and the long term US ‘commitment’, but there will be hardly any reference to nation-building or even sustained counterinsurgency. At the risk of eating crow tomorrow, I submit that there would not be any reference, even in fine print, to setting up any benchmarks for measuring the Pakistani establishment’s cooperation in helping evolve a political solution to the Afghan morass.

With Mr Holbrooke’s demise, General Petraeus will be lugging many aspects of coordination with the civilians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the short term. He, along with Robert Gates, has a much more realistic view of the ground realities than their commander-in-chief. In fact, the Lisbon agreement on the 2014 withdrawal timetable was very much a result of their efforts. They are also cognisant of the fact that while al Qaeda has been neutralised in Afghanistan for now, even a semblance of a jihadist victory will effectively revive the Islamists’ fortunes not only there but in Pakistan as well. In fact a US debacle in Afghanistan will give the turban, jeans or khaki-clad Pakistani jihadists a morale boost that will dwarf the post-Soviet withdrawal euphoria.

Like the 25 experts on Afghanistan, Mr Obama’s Afghan war review is likely to miss the potential logarithmic growth of jihadism in Pakistan that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban will entail. This will leave Pakistan’s moderate voices and the centre-left political forces out in the cold. While Petraeus et al will provide a cushion of time to the Pakistani political forces, counting on the US would be a mistake that the latter will regret at their peril. What they need is a Pak-Afghan policy review of their own.

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