What lies ahead - Zafar Hilaly - Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=44943&Cat=9

Although Barrack Obama, when elected president, had no experience of foreign or military policy-making, he seemed, unlike the insular George W Bush, cosmopolitan in outlook and a keen student of history. For many of us, that was some consolation. It was only later that I read that being a keen student of history is dangerous for aspiring statesmen because like most people who have studied history, all they learn from the mistakes of the past, is how to make new ones.

And sure enough, Obama’s first mistake – a howler – was to entrust the war in Afghanistan to his generals. Another 33,000 men, they told him, would do the trick in Afghanistan, and Obama fell for it. Not only this, he also surrounded himself with generals. His director of national intelligence is a retired air force general; the top intelligence adviser is another army general; the new CIA head will be a four star general and so is the present US ambassador in Afghanistan. Obama defers to his generals although they scoff at him privately (one such public outburst cost Gen McCrystal, Petraeus’ predecessor, his job).

What is it that Obama’s generals tell him? That the Afghan war can be won and must be fought till it is won; that Pakistan’s tribal badlands must be ‘droned’ free of the Taliban and if the Pakistanis cannot do the job, to let the much vaunted US Special Forces do it. And, if the Pakistani nation revolts? Well, to take them on too from the air, of course, and selectively on the ground. And if the situation gets too dangerous, to destroy their nuclear capability with the aid, if need be, of its new strategic partner, India.

From the looks of it, Obama has signed on to such advice because the recent reshuffle of the national security team with CIA chief Panetta and ISAF head General Petraeus swapping jobs only makes sense in light of such a plan. The CIA and the Pentagon are the two most involved institutions in the American war effort in Afghanistan and the reshuffle holds out the prospect of a high degree of coordination between them. In fact, it is now difficult to distinguish between the CIA and the Pentagon. Their relationship has never been as incestuous.

“The Petraeus appointment suggests that Obama places little value on getting the straight scoop on key war-related issues. If he did want the kind of intelligence analysis that could challenge the military, why is he giving the CIA job to a general with a huge incentive to gild the lily regarding the ‘progress’ made under his command,” asks one experienced analyst, and goes on to note that Panetta has “hastened the transformation of the spy agency into a paramilitary organisation, overseeing a sharp escalation of the CIA’s bombing campaign in Pakistan... and an increase in the number of secret bases and covert operatives in ...” war zones.

Another ominous turn in US policies was the appointment of Lt Gen John Allen replacing Petraeus in Afghanistan. With Allen in Afghanistan and Petraeus calling the shots from Langley and conveniently on hand to stifle any feeble resistance that Obama and others may put up to the military’s plans of expanding the war to Pakistan, we will have two ‘heroes’ from the Iraq war directly involved in the Af-Pak theatre. One is a ‘hero’ for his success in the ‘surge’ strategy and the other for his counter insurgency role, especially in the emergence of the ‘Sunni Awakening’ – that is turning the Sunnis against Al Qaeda. No doubt the ‘surge’ worked in some measure due to the ‘Sunni Awakening’. But who does John Allen expect to bring under the anti-Taliban awakening among the Pashtuns? Local Pashtun tribesmen will never support it at the risk of their lives and Pakistan will resist it.

Besides, even if the July date for American withdrawal under Petraeus’ influence is mothballed current American force levels are insufficient to do the job. Nor can it be done with the support of the weak, thinly deployed and notoriously irresponsible Afghan police or the preponderantly Tajik officered and manned Afghan army which is considered as alien a force by the Pashtuns as any foreign force. Petraeus’ plans for Afghanistan are as disastrous as were those of William Westmoreland for Vietnam.

The crux of the problem lies in Washington and specifically in the presidency. Obama is inherently a weak president. Although he is personally popular, his administrative and management skills are woefully poor. And, as Bob Woodward revealed in his account of Obama’s handling of the Afghan war, he shirks from confronting his generals. In any case, Obama will soon be preoccupied by electioneering and dealing with what ails America’s limping economy. Hence, for all practical purposes, control of the war will pass to the cabal of generals led by Petraeus with a Panetta nodding in agreement.

Petraeus whose unflattering assessment of his commander-in-chief is common knowledge is a vain and stubborn man although popular with the American media. Given his political ambitions – it’s no secret that he wants a shot at the presidency in 2016 and possibly earlier if Obama stumbles – he will go to any extent to ensure that his reputation which is inextricably linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are judged to be successes.

Politically savvy, as his eagerness to keep on the right side of the American Jewish lobby has demonstrated, Petraeus can be counted on to take full advantage of Obama’s weakness and distractions. He will play hard ball with Obama on key issues concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan, among which getting tough with Pakistan is among the foremost. Hence, there are good chances that Petraeus will ensure during the four months he has left in Afghanistan and thereafter as the CIA chief, that he and Panetta can perform their duo gig in Af-Pak as they see it.

Hence issues which have led to tensions between the US and Pakistan, such as the use of drones and Special Operations forays, will intensify leading to skirmishes between the two forces, as in fact, happened the other day. If Pakistan continues to resist undertaking the North Waziristan operation the next stage of the US military escalation – forays by ISAF into Pakistan on the pretext of hot pursuit – will kick in.

Perhaps, at some point, Obama and Petraeus may have their ‘Macarthur’ moment, when a president fires an over-assertive, recalcitrant, war mongering general, but by then Pakistan may be in open revolt. Nor is Obama a Harry Truman. While Truman rejected Macarthur’s proposal to cross the Yalu to wage war on China and sacked him, Obama doesn’t seem to have the spunk to resist Petraeus’ suggestion to cross the Durand Line and wage war on Pakistan to help America obtain that elusive success which both crave for their own personal political reasons.

Stormy conditions lie ahead for the US-Pakistan relationship as Obama’s Af-Pak policy gets more tightly tethered to his overbearing generals and Obama’s weaknesses as a president take a heavier toll on his time and energy as he himself becomes increasingly tethered to his re-election bid. The pity is that at a time such as this, we have a government in Pakistan wholly absorbed in a shameful game of political chess at home. And, if truth be told, a military reeling from the psychological blows cast by the circumstances of Osama’s discovery and death and the insults being heaped on it from all quarters.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: charles123it@hotmail.com

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