Thursday, August 5, 2010

Afghanistan’s end game needs more than Pakistan

This past weekend, The New York Times published an article that, once again, showed the extent of American confusion in Afghanistan.

The substance was that US forces are moving away from a counter-insurgency strategy, focused on protecting and rebuilding the capacities of the Afghan state, toward a narrower counterterrorism approach focused on targeted killings.

The shift mirrors the policy discussion that took place before the US President Barack Obama announced his Afghanistan plan last year, with the vice president Joe Biden arguing that Washington’s sole stake in the country was combating al Qa’eda. Mr Biden lost that round. However, international forces have since stalled in Marja and Kandahar, where the counterinsurgency scheme was uncovered. Now Mr Biden’s idea doesn’t sound so bad to a president who set next summer as the deadline to begin an American military withdrawal, and who is keen to cut his losses before the 2014 presidential election.

It’s difficult to fault Mr Biden for his scepticism about Afghanistan. The Obama administration, visibly, does not have the desire, stamina, or funds to engage in a state-building enterprise there. An American pullout makes sense.

More worrisome is the nature of this pullout. As things stand, the US seems to be moving toward greater reliance on Pakistan to impose a satisfactory, or satisfactory enough, political solution so that American troops can be brought home. Targeted assassinations serve as the stick in this process.

Last week, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote about the recent WikiLeaks affair, which revealed that Pakistani intelligence was actively undermining American objectives in Afghanistan so as to re-impose Islamabad’s writ there. With Pakistan so central to the success of Mr Obama’s plans, this demoralising reality has evidently forced American officials to reconsider their aims.

Mr Ignatius wrote: “White House officials talk these days about seeking an ‘acceptable end state’ in Afghanistan, rather than victory.” And what will produce this end state? “[A] patchwork process that brings greater security through a stronger Afghan national army and police, plus the tribally based ‘local police’. The crucial driver will be a political process of reconciliation, brokered partly by Pakistan.”

For several reasons, the American turnaround is problematic. It shows a lack of commitment to, and patience for, a counterinsurgency strategy defended with great fanfare by the president only months ago. Making the reversal even more disconcerting is that the man now at the helm in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was regarded as the guru of counterinsurgency in Iraq. It could well be that counterinsurgency has run its course, or never had a chance of succeeding, but in that case the administration merits blame for adopting a strategy it was never sure about in the first place.

If the US transfers more of its attention to counterterrorism, then it will be juggling contrary goals. The state-building ambition in counterinsurgency cannot be reconciled with the more limited, cheaper endeavour to disrupt al Qa’eda. Pakistan will collaborate against al Qa’eda, but it will also continue to hinder the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state, which counterinsurgency is designed to deliver.

A second problem with the American drift toward a Pakistan-sponsored solution is that there are parties, some very powerful, that might oppose this. Mr Ignatius wrote of a solution brokered “partly” by Pakistan. But given the ethnic makeup of the Taliban, Pakistan’s role would be dominant. India, Russia, and China, each with significant interests in Afghanistan, will not sign off on these arrangements without asking serious questions about the outcome. Pakistan can deal with the Pashtun and the Taliban core, but what of the Tajiks and Uzbeks who mistrust Islamabad and would fight a government in Kabul they regard as a tool of Pakistani hegemony?

In other words, if Washington is looking for an opening to leave Afghanistan, it will take much more than Pakistani mediation to bring this about. The US will have to oversee a regional deal, with the defence of Afghan interests as a priority.

But how likely is this solution to work? Pakistan’s paramount intention is to bar India from Afghanistan. Mounting evidence, including the controversial WikiLeaks documents, a report from the London School of Economics and an expose by the Sunday Times (both released this year), as well as statements by the UK prime minister David Cameron and the US defence secretary Robert Gates, all suggest Pakistan is playing a double game in Afghanistan. Islamabad has not taken this major political risk to bog itself down in bargaining with Afghanistan’s neighbours that might yield less than it can get today.

This raises a more general concern about the US approach. If Afghanistan collapses, it will throw the region into turmoil. Not only would that defeat the political purpose underlying the American presence there since 2001; it would also mean the administration leaves behind a potentially devastating vacuum. Mr Obama will want to avoid this.

However, as he moves away from state-building and concentrates on counterterrorism – which means further reliance on Pakistan’s intelligence concerning al Qa’eda and Taliban targets while also helping to mediate a political solution – he will hand Islamabad wide latitude to shape the end game in its favour. No wonder the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has been friendlier with Pakistan. He can read Mr Obama’s dilemma better than most.

Now is the worst time for the president to succumb to strategic fuzziness. A hybrid plan can only aggravate the US position in Afghanistan, bewildering everyone and eliminating all prospects for a consensual resolution there. It may be politically safer for Mr Obama to leave the country sooner rather than later, but this war, he insisted, was the “right” one. That means he has a duty to see it through in a way that doesn’t leave the Afghans dangling on a hook.

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