Nov 25, 2009

Quitting Afghanistan

By Bassam Javed

The Obama administration in the United States is currently engaged in rethinking a fresh Afghan strategy aimed at securing an exit without losing face. As far as meeting the projected requirement of his top commander's recommendation is concerned, the new strategy may provide for some additional troops in order to create conditions in Afghanistan that would eventually provide for US troops an exit. As of now, the United States is so stuck up in the Afghan morass that an early exit may well turn out to be disastrous. Now that the new US strategy will include wriggling out of the Afghan imbroglio, will it look for a fall guy? The upcoming Afghan strategy will provide the answer. In a related development, The New York Times (Nov 16) has quoted American officials as saying that the centre of gravity in shaping the new strategy will be Pakistan's willingness to broaden the scope of war against Al Qaeda beyond the militants attacking its cities and security forces.

The Pakistani leadership was sounded by Obama's national security adviser, General James Jones, during his last visit to Pakistan when he also handed over a letter to the Mr Zardari from President Obama, urging the former to rally the nation's political and national institutions in a concerted campaign against extremists. The message was tantamount to implying that Pakistan, once declared by the United States as a front-line state in the war against terror, must now relegate itself to a state that must handle the war on its own. It was also conveyed that in case Pakistan agreed, it would be awarded a range of new incentives covering enhanced mutual cooperation, intelligence sharing and military cooperation, and economic assistance.

Whatever decision is made on the number of additional troops for Afghanistan, it certainly will have repercussions for Pakistan. However, as the new strategy gets delayed, strange tactical moves on the part of US and NATO troops have been witnessed on the other side of the border in Afghanistan. When the Pakistan Army went into South Waziristan, it was about the same time that NATO drew down troops deployed along the Afghan border with Pakistan and consolidated some half a dozen of their remote outposts into fewer larger installations.

The favoured military option, said to be emerging from President Obama's on-going review of the Afghan policy, is to fall back on the cities. The tactics of falling back were also the last huffs of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. Surely, both possessed high-tech weapons and fully deployed them in Afghanistan and Vietnam, but both failed to consult history prior to jumping into respective quagmires. The drawing down of troops along the Afghan border did create a space for the terrorists to enter Pakistan for which due concern was conveyed to the Americans. Pakistan had also requested NATO and the US forces to seal the border on the Afghan side since the Pakistan Army had gone into South Waziristan.

Whether it is an increase in the number of American forces or an adoption of the alternative of troop replacement with more drone attacks in Afghanistan, FATA or Balochistan as propagated by US Vice President Joe Biden, the strategic repercussions would be identical. The US Commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, who authored the report asking for more troops to stabilise Afghanistan, while lecturing at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in UK, rejected proposals to switch over to a strategy more reliant on drone missile strikes and special forces' operations against Al Qaeda. Moreover, as the troop level increases in Afghanistan, the supply route from Pakistan will be over-burdened. With focus on an army operation in South Waziristan and an unfriendly neighbour in the east, the Pakistan Army would be overstretched.

With a plethora of difficulties that the new democratic dispensation in Pakistan is already confronting, expanding the area of operations elsewhere would be tantamount to inviting trouble. More so, a perception is already taking root among the political and military leadership that America wants to transfer its war heritage to Pakistan to enable itself to exit gracefully from Afghanistan.

As far as the US administration is concerned, the realisation that stability in Afghanistan can only materialise once they pull out is a good omen. However, a hasty and ill-planned withdrawal will have disastrous effects not only for Pakistan but for the region as well. The sudden vacuum may well cause the re-emergence of terrorist networks. The paramount need for the United States now is to work for the formation of a broad-based government in the interim period between now and the time they schedule for their departure from Afghanistan. While doing so, the United States is bound to face enormous difficulties bringing the various Afghan tribal groups that are poles apart to a power-sharing deal. Like the Iraq war, the Afghan war cannot be won. Both proved to be disasters for the United States. While the respective wars resulted in massive losses of precious lives, they also got their due share in getting their own people killed. Though Iraq has taken a backstage in American misadventures, still the Afghan agony persists. It will only end with the exodus of foreign forces from Afghanistan.

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