In search of a political track - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Source :

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

The overwhelming focus in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was on pressing domestic issues – economic recovery and making America more competitive in a world transformed by rising powers.

Riding a political momentum driven by higher poll ratings Obama made the theme of “winning the future” the main emphasis of his speech. His stirring pronouncements on domestic issues were not however matched by any bold departures in foreign policy. International affairs received relatively little attention and the few references suggested no change in course.

Obama all but declared victory in Iraq. On Afghanistan he repeated the conclusions of the strategy review announced by his administration last December. Progress was being made, the insurgency was being weakened and al Qaeda’s leadership was “under more pressure than at any point since 2001” with the network’s safe havens shrinking.

The president did not repeat what he had said at the time of the war review that gains in Afghanistan were “fragile and reversible”, preferring instead to convey a more upbeat assessment to congress. But he warned of “tough fighting” ahead and put Kabul on notice to “deliver better governance”. He also reiterated the pledge to begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan authorities and start bringing US troops home this July.

“This year”, he said, “We will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead”. He did not explain how this “Afghan lead” would be attained or addressed the question if this was feasible without a negotiated settlement to end the war. He also did not refer to the 2014 deadline – set by last year’s Nato summit – when the transition is to be completed and combat missions ended.

If there was any expectation that President Obama would use the annual congressional address as an opportunity to signal his administration would also support a political track – even as fighting raged – aimed to eventually bring the conflict to a close that did not materialise. The speech did not recap the formulation contained in the summary of the December review that present US “civilian and military efforts must support a durable and favourable political resolution of the conflict” including the Afghan-led reconciliation initiative.

Emphasising a narrative of progress, while notifying that more fighting lay ahead, reflected an effort to convince an increasingly wary American public that the war was worth fighting. It also laid bare Washington’s dilemma: of acknowledging there is no military solution but being unable to make the switch to a strategy designed to secure a negotiated solution. This left unresolved tension at the heart of the present US strategy – of wanting to gradually pull out from Afghanistan, but without putting in place the conditions for a managed withdrawal. The missing link is a political solution to bring nine years of war to closure.

This lack of clarity in US policy is a consequence of an administration still at odds with itself over the course to follow in Afghanistan. Little has changed since Bob Woodward’s portrayal of intense in house differences in his book, ‘Obama’s Wars’ published last year. This showed the president’s civilian advisers, Vice President Joe Biden and Obama himself unsure whether the war could be won but unable to challenge military commanders and the Pentagon on their recommendation for a substantial troop surge and intensification of the war effort.

Since last year the surge-enabled military escalation has continued apace under the direction of US/NATO commander, General David Petraeus. This has involved a scorch earth campaign of obliterating entire villages suspected of being Taliban hideouts (detailed in recent revelations in The Times) among other aggressive tactics. Assertions that these actions have given coalition forces “the edge” – as a three-page letter to troops from General Petraeus recently claimed – have to be squared with the popular resentment caused by such controversial tactics.

Moreover few independent observers support these claims of military gains or that they can endure them given the record of the past nine years.

The military campaign underway, with the presidential forecast of more to come, indicates the persisting belief that Nato forces can fight their way into forcing the Taliban into eventual dialogue. But few beyond the US military believe that the application of military might can be a game changer. Most of America’s coalition partners as well as Pakistan would like to see a de-escalation in fighting to open the diplomatic space for talks urged by President Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation plan and his establishment of a High Peace Council.

For now General Petraeus is, in the words of an American columnist, “looking for something closer to a surrender than a negotiation from the Taliban” and this remains “the default position in the Obama Administration”. With the strategy still in ‘re-integration’ mode, aimed at splitting not talking to the Taliban, no serious US effort has been forthcoming to help start a political track for negotiations.

In recent months, American officials have sought to explore rather than initiate moves towards such a process. During his recent visit to Pakistan, Vice President Joe Biden spent much time in meetings with top political and especially military officials asking how such a process could unfold and what results it could achieve.

While signalling that Washington had not yet taken the decision to shift from a military to a political strategy, he gave little indication of how the US envisioned the process. He is said to have probed his Pakistani interlocutors about their core interests and notion of what an Afghan ‘end state’ could look like, without however spelling out his administration’s thoughts on this.

The first indication of how US thinking on this is evolving may come in Washington’s response to the non-paper handed over last October by the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. This sets out, among other things, how Pakistan envisages an Afghan-led peace process and emphasises the need to align the constraints of time and resources with the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. The American response is said to be a work in progress and expected to be conveyed ahead of the next round of the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue due in March.

While this waiting game continues, Pakistani and Afghan officials have been consulting more closely about how to take President Karzai’s reconciliation plan forward. Visits to Islamabad by the Peace Council led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and to Kabul by foreign secretary Salman Bashir have been part of the opening moves in this evolving process, followed by the visit by Afghanistan’s foreign minister.

But unless the US shows readiness to back this process, put military actions on hold, clarify its ‘end objectives’ and engage in efforts to secure a diplomatic solution, the Kabul-Islamabad consultations can only set the stage for talks. The US will be the deciding factor for the terms, timing and modalities of a peace process.

The US-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral meeting later this month in Washington offers an opportunity for further exchanges. But discussions about how to construct a political track will keep going around in circles until Washington takes the strategic decision to pursue a negotiated end to the war.

The Obama Administration may feel that it will be in a stronger political position by late spring to address more squarely what the military strategy has achieved because by then the surge option would have largely run its course. That might give President Obama the confidence – and political cover – to make his views prevail over his military commanders.

In what is expected to be a decisive year for Afghanistan the prospect for peace and stability rests more than ever on how US, Afghanistan and Pakistan align their positions on a reconciliation process that can deliver a political settlement.

No comments:

Post a Comment