Candidate Obama declared his determination to scale up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, apparently in an effort to demonstrate that, despite his opposition to the Iraq war, he possessed the necessary bombs away! martial ardor to serve as America’s Commander in Chief.
President Obama, in one his first acts upon taking office, explicitly authorized a drone attack that killed 18 in Pakistan’s Waziristan (in contrast to the unacknowledged incursions under the Bush administration), in order to show his determination to pursue the fight into Pakistan despite misgivings in Islamabad.
These actions, combined with the extensive publicity giving to the reassessment of Afghanistan strategy conducted under the aegis of CENTCOM commander and Iraq surge mastermind General David Petraeus, aroused concerns that the Obama administration would pursue a ruinous escalation of the conflict that would do a lot to destabilize Pakistan while doing little to improve the situation in Afghanistan, all to provide political cover against Republican critics.
In a piece I wrote in August of last year, America Drinks the COIN Kool-aid, I pointed out Pakistan’s inability to withstand blowback in its heartland engineered by the Pakistani Taliban in response to attacks in the border regions and warned:
American planners originally hoped that Musharraf’s armies would be the anvil upon which Western forces crushed the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistan is more like a rotten melon that will fly apart under the hammer blows of a U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in west Pakistan.
In a Salon op-ed on January 26, Juan Cole criticized the implications of the drone attack authorized by President Obama for America’s Afghanistan policy, warned of the dangers of becoming infatuated with a search for a military solution, and invoked the dreaded “V” (Vietnam) and “Q” (Quagmire) words.
However, based on the statements of Defense Secretary Gates and news coming out of Pakistan, I have hope.
Perhaps not Obama-hope that the magic aura of our president will bring about the yearned for “Grand Bargain”—miraculous progress on Kashmir, the emergence of a forceful and capable civilian Pakistan government from the unlikely chrysalis of the inept and opportunistic Zardari regime, the unprecedented success of a counterinsurgency campaign in the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan after 100 years of futility, climaxed with a convivial dogpile of Afghan, Taliban, Pakistani, and Indian lions and lambs in Kabul…
…but hope that intelligent people will look at a situation intelligently and do something intelligent.
Consider this quote from Secretary Gates in the January 28 New York Times:
“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.”
The title of the article is “Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War”, an unmistakable indication to a cynic like myself that President Obama’s intention is not to elevate the war; just the opposite—he is busy, with the unstinting assistance of the New York Times, trying to lower expectations and downgrade the objectives of the Afghan war while using the rhetoric of a great military effort to obtain political cover.
Meanwhile, the Zardari administration has been lobbying for an end to drone strikes and a fundamental rethink of U.S. policy away from military counterinsurgency toward an accommodation with the Taliban—and a rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy for South Asia that takes Pakistan’s circumstances and priorities into greater account.
Judging from Pakistani media coverage (here, here, and here) of President Zardari’s and Prime Minister Gilani’s remarks in Europe and a publicity given to a negative assessment on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Pakistan hopes that a split within NATO between the United States and Europe on further commitments to Afghanistan will compel the United States to adopt a more accommodating posture vis a vis the Taliban, allow the Pakistan government to deal with its Pashtun problem in a more relaxed, protracted, and political manner, and, on a more fundamental level, focus Washington’s attention on Pakistan as a key regional partner whose quest for security, political stability and economic growth is a worthy object of sympathy and U.S. aid in its own right, and not simply as a footdragging adjunct to the Afghan adventure and an impediment to Washington’s all-important relationship with India.
For an example of the current framing, Pakistan’s GEO media outlet reported on Prime Minister Gilani’s remarks as follows:
PM Updated at: 2103 PST, Wednesday, January 28, 2009
DAVOS: Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has called upon the world leaders to renew their commitment to introduce equitable global rules and ensure participation of developing countries including Pakistan in economic decision-making.
In his message to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, the prime minister said that the US policy in Afghanistan has failed to achieve its objectives. Gilani said Pakistan has sacrificed more than any other country including NATO in war against terrorism.
The prime minister said that narco-money coming from Afghanistan into Pakistan was destabilizing the county. Gilani said Pakistan wants peace in the region and a stable Afghanistan was in the interest of Pakistan.
I speculate that Pakistan is hoping for a new, post-election realism in the Obama administration that draws on several facts:
1) The Mumbai attacks and Islamabad’s shaky response have put Pakistan-India relations in the deep freeze and demonstrated the inability of the Zardari administration to pursue rapprochement with India over the objections of the army;
2) As the estimable Laura Rozen reported, the Indian government deep-sixed the idea of internationalizing (or at least multi-lateralizing) the Kashmir problem by lobbying the Obama administration to remove the issue (and India itself) from newly minted Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke’s brief;
3) The bloom is, therefore, off the “Grand Bargain” rose;
4) Judging from Secretary Gates’ remarks, I speculate that General Petraeus’ assessment indicates that, absent the “Grand Bargain” miracle, equivocal Pakistan support of counterinsurgency operations in Pashtun areas on both sides of the Durand line means that the Taliban will continue to kick behind in Afghanistan;
5) Given the slim likelihood of a spectacular sea change in Western fortunes in Afghanistan, I am hoping that the Obama administration re-examined its assumptions for the region and decided that the immediate risks of destabilizing Pakistan—a huge (population 170 million, GDP $500 billion) Muslim, nuclear-armed country with a vigorous democratic movement, highly developed economy, a military whose leadership is finally trying to remove itself from domestic politics, and enormous urbanized population sick of extremism and violence—outweighed the pie-in-the sky hope of crushing the Taliban and creating a democratic showcase for 33 million impoverished Afghans (GDP $35 billion) riven by tribal loyalties and at the mercy of a determined and effective insurgency.
America’s stated strategic posture under both Bush and the new Obama administration is, of course, unchanged: turning around Afghanistan, cleaning up the tribal areas of western Pakistan/eastern Afghanistan, and tilting toward India.
And, given the welter of conflicting, inconvenient, and politically explosive interests surrounding any major policy change, the temptation will be great to stay the course with the same murderous muddling that has characterized America’s South Asia policy over the last years.
However, I would say that the most practical objective for Mr. Obama would be to keep the Afghan turd swirling aimlessly in the foreign policy commode for the rest of his administration, but chunk enough troops in there to make sure that, in 2012, the Republicans are not running campaign ads showing triumphant Taliban reoccupying the presidential palace in Kabul on his watch…
…while focusing some of America’s attention and energy on protecting and preserving Pakistan’s democratic government and society.
It will be an interesting test of President Obama’s pragmatism, vision, and ability to innovate to see if he decides to complement a political and security hedge on Afghanistan with an effective and far-sighted rethink of America’s Pakistan policy.