Dec 14, 2009

The fog of war

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

The announcement by President Barack Obama of his new strategy for Afghanistan has been followed by frenetic efforts of the Obama Administration to explain what this really means and defend it against domestic and international criticism. Because of the tension in a policy designed to convey varied messages to different audiences in order to placate both supporters and critics of an escalating war, the need for clarification became especially necessary.

It was also necessitated by the contradictions inherent in a course correction. Obama inherited a desperate situation in Afghanistan, not of his making, but the consequence of a series of strategic blunders in a punitive war. Trying to rectify this dire state of affairs and reconcile contradictory aims has entailed compromises between different points of view. Confusion has also ensued from a number of fault lines in the new approach. All of this has produced strategic incoherence.

The breathless pronouncements by top American military and political leaders in the media and in testimonies before key congressional committees have, so far, tended to deeper rather than demystify the fog of war. The more officials have clarified, the more questions have been raised and conflicting signals sent.

The key points that have now emerged about the strategy are as follows:

* The timetable for withdrawal in July 2011 is neither a deadline nor a "firm exit plan".

* It is "flexible" and is envisaged as a transition point, when security responsibilities will begin to be transferred to Afghan forces.

* This will in any case be "reviewed" by the end of 2010.

* The mission in Afghanistan has been downsized from defeating the Taliban to "reversing the Taliban momentum" and diminishing the movement.

* Doing this requires dismantling the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

* Degrading the Taliban is aimed at creating time and space for the Afghan state and security forces to be built to enable them to manage a weakened Taliban threat once Western forces start leaving Afghanistan.

* The principal US goal remains to defeat, dismantle and disrupt Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's capture or elimination is deemed essential to the organization's rout according to General Stanley McChrystal.

* Officials have said little publicly about the Pakistan part of the strategy but inspired leaks in the American media indicate that the Administration is readying to ratchet up Drone-launched missile strikes in Pakistan, and mulling over expanding these to Balochistan.

* Leaks also suggest that Obama "signed off" on a plan by the CIA to expand its activities in Pakistan "that calls for more strikes against militants by Drone aircraft (and)….sending additional spies to Pakistan."

It is instructive to review how the Obama plan and the various efforts to explain this have been received in the West. Within hours of its announcement the war strategy came under fire from both liberals and conservatives in America, for obviously different reasons. Democrats saw echoes of Vietnam in the surge, questioned the need for an economically and politically costly military escalation in pursuit of a few hundred Al-Qaeda fighters, and voiced doubts whether the uplift would remedy or worsen the situation.

Republicans expressed deep apprehensions about the deadline for withdrawal, portraying this as the sign of a fatal lack of resolve on the part of a wavering president. They also criticized what they depicted as his diffident and equivocal tone in articulating a new strategy framed more by politics than operational imperatives. Hawkish Republicans led by Senator John McCain flayed the 18 month drawdown date for "sending the wrong message to both friends and enemies".

Others praised Obama for taking a politically courageous decision given the unpopularity of the war in his own party and giving his military commanders substantially what they wanted. This divided response to his strategy reflected the existing polarization in public, political and expert opinion in the US.

The liberal critique was reflected in comment by Thomas Friedman, an avid Obama supporter, who opposed the surge because it was unlikely to succeed, and would be at the expense of more pressing 'nation building' at home. As the strategy depended on what other countries would do Obama had staked his presidency on factors beyond his control, said Freidman. In similar vein Nicholas D Kristof warned that the troop build up "may become the albatross of his Presidency".

Another example of liberal opinion was an article entitled "Down the Wrong Path in Afghanistan" by Eugene Robinson who wrote that "Obama should have taken a different course" than President George Bush because it "never made sense to think of the fight against terrorism as a 'war' because it is not possible to defeat a technique or an idea by the force of arms."

Of greater importance for Pakistan was opinion freely expressed about what the US should do vis-à-vis Islamabad. A provocative view was that expressed in an opinion piece by Seth G Jones, who urged the Administration to take the war into Pakistan and target Taliban leaders in Balochistan by hitting them with drone strikes.

This echoed suggestions in a series of officially-inspired leaks in the American media that Washington had conveyed blunt messages to Islamabad that unless Pakistan acted against the Afghan Taliban, "the US was prepared on its own to expand Predator drone attacks beyond the tribal areas, and if needed to resume raids by US Special Operation forces against leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban."

Although the writers of these stories did not explain how such unilateral action was realistically possible the leaks seemed designed to ratchet up the pressure on Islamabad to "do more".

In a pointed rebuke to the "do more" mantra, Micheal F Scheuer, (former CIA officer and author of "Imperial Hubris") wrote in the National Journal's security blog: "The constant frenzy for Pakistan to do more derives from …. our politicians, generals and individuals who want to pay foreigners to do our dirty work and bleeding for us."

Several news reports described the covert drone programme as effective if controversial, and claimed that these "warheads on foreheads" had not just removed leaders and fighters but also slowed movement and communication while avoiding any significant civilian casualties -- this latter point being at sharp odds with accounts in Pakistan's press and the wide spread view in the country.

The claims about the Drones did not go unchallenged in the American media with several experts questioning if they did not create more enemies than they eliminate and whether these would hurt America's cause more in the end. Military strikes, wrote one commentator, are simply "a continuation of the Bush doctrine of preemptive action within a country we are not at war with."

Another columnist described this as nothing but a policy of "assassinating people and doing so outside any legal framework." Ralph Nader posed the question: "If Congress did not authorize a war in Pakistan, does Obama, like Bush, just decree what the Constitution requires to be authorized by the Legislature?"

However hotly contested the arguments in a debate taking place far from a region in turmoil what concerns Pakistan and Pakistanis, who bear the brunt of these policies, is what the leaks about a threatened escalation portend for the country. If implemented such a course of action will have serious ramifications for national stability and security.

Leaks are not policy. But the pattern of the leaks is much too familiar for Islamabad not to take urgent notice and undertake a careful evaluation of the risks ahead. The immediate danger – even before any planned escalation materializes – is that this coercive diplomacy-by-leaks can reinforce official and popular Pakistani suspicions about US intentions, intensify public alienation from the West, and promote more anti-American rage.

By contributing to such a toxic environment this strategy of leaks can badly backfire making it infinitely harder for the government to cooperate "fully" with the US, as President Obama is asking Islamabad to do. This should give the sources of these leaks much pause for thought.

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