Saturday, October 2, 2010

When will the job be done? Faryal Leghari

The inherent differences over the war in Afghanistan within the US administration have often been brought to light. But the extent to which they run, deep within the system, is only now beginning to make its impact felt. On reading the leaked excerpts of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, Obama’s Wars, one can truly marvel at the uncertainty and confusion at the top most decision-making levels.

It seems that the current administration’s policy-making prowess is dictated mainly by considerations such as appeasing their own political backers, the Democrats and securing public support for the next election. President Barack Obama’s desire to withdraw his forces from the war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly genuine enough as was his premature announcement of a withdrawal date set for July 2011. But was it a wise decision to announce the date at a stage when the forecast was bleak and visibility poor? The announcement regarding the withdrawal has literally opened a Pandora’s box from start. Not only has it fanned furious contentions within the US camp it has unwittingly helped the insurgents who are already using this as a crucial morale booster and to win back break away allies.

Contradictory messages coming from US Secretary Defence Robert Gates and military commanders about the feasibility of an early withdrawal and its impact on the war had created a furore. So much so that President Obama has now been forced to clarify the government’s position on the exit from Afghanistan. Speaking to the BBC recently, he said that despite the July 2011 dateline, the US forces would stay till the job is done. 
A reduction in number of troops was in the pipeline for it was anticipated that the Afghan national forces would have attained sufficient numbers and capability to start fending for themselves by then. However, the idea of a complete withdrawal—that translates as desertion for many who are eager to see the Western forces leave—was dispelled 
by the President until attainment 
of the objective for which Afghanistan was invaded.

So what does the United States hope to achieve? If defeating Al Qaeda is the main objective then should not the US discriminate between a global terrorist outfit and a nationalist insurgency? Irrespective of the alliance that was forced upon the Taleban with the invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11, the two remain committed to a different agenda. That is the simple truth of the matter. Furthermore, is the US prepared to extend the ambit of its operations if Al Qaeda disperses its central command to other areas, which it probably has? Has there not been a bungling of sorts in keeping the war aims from intermeshing into each other? Pakistan has long been on the radar for Al Qaeda and key Taleban leaders using its territory for regrouping and seeking safety from the US-led coalition forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

What next? If intelligence was received that bin Laden or Zawahiri among others had slipped into Iran or even India, Bangladesh or any of the Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan, would Washington do the honours of shifting a full scale operation there? Or would it hunt them down with drone strikes? Not likely. Other states are not likely to tolerate such violations of sovereignty, Al Qaeda or no Al Qaeda unlike Pakistan that continues its feeble protests at yet another drone strike. But all is not lost for a ray of hope recently came with the British secret service MI5 chief saying that the threat from Pakistan was now reduced. He warned of danger from a stronger and resurgent Al Qaeda from Yemen and northern Africa.

With President Obama having already authorised the CIA to conduct special ops and drone strikes against targets in Yemen, there are chances that these might only be a preamble for bigger plans in the making. One more failed (hopefully) terror attack aboard a plane or elsewhere linked to some cleric in Yemen or Somalia might just do the trick. 
The question is when will the job be done? At least, in Afghanistan. Despite professions bout negotiation with insurgents, Washington does not seem ready to break bread with at least Mullah Omar or the Haqqanis’.

Maybe not until they publicly renounce ties with Al Qaeda and prove this by handing over a weighty target from the ‘US most wanted list’.

If Washington feels that it is building an alternate political and security system in Afghanistan that will at the same times be democratic, modern and capable of dealing with the insurgents once it begins to reduce its military commitment, it may be envisioning an Utopian dream. If only there was a political setup in Kabul to realise this. Lack of governance, corruption and fraudulent practices seem to be the only effective factors at play. Following the debacle of the controversy-laden presidential election, even the recent parliamentary elections are feared to be fraudulent to an extent that the results could affect a third of the provinces.

As for the US Afghan doctrine, the only thing that makes any sense is the dichotomy. Starting from the Pentagon to the State Department, the lack of consensus between the civilian and military leadership — and within these two arms of the government — is but visibly apparent. How this affects the war efforts is not difficult to guess. While the lack of a clear cohesive strategy has been often trumpeted as the main reason for lack of progress in this seemingly intractable and unwinnable war, there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.

Al Qaeda aside, is it not best to look at a political strategy for the country, one that should include all disparate groups including some hated insurgents? Reliance on military means and deluding one’s self that boosting Afghan security capability and governance resources is ‘the’ solution, is foolhardy. It is time for the US to step away from prioritising national interests for others and to think of solutions beyond the box on its own honourable exit albeit after achieving some semblance of security and stability. Sometimes this entails a few bitter sips but is that not preferable to drinking from a chalice of hemlock?

Faryal Leghari is Assistant Editor of 
Khaleej Times and can be reached at

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