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Approaching Afghan endgame?

By Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

Of late, the news of engaging the Taliban leadership in talks with the
consent of the US has surfaced. There are now credible reports that the
US is busy talking to the much feared Haqqani network based in North
Waziristan. This demonstrates a clear departure from the earlier policy of
dictating terms of engagement with the Taliban premised on the
assumption that the surge of the US troops would break the back of
Taliban thereby forcing them ‘to beg for peace’.

The thrust of ‘surge and exist strategy’ announced by the Obama


administration in December 2009 was on using the military muscle to
flatten the terrorists before moving ahead with the negotiation process.
Obama’s policy on how to approach the endgame in Afghanistan sought to
reconcile tangible refits within his administration. The surge option was
advocated by the US military commanders, while the anti-surge camp led
by Vice President Joe Biden emphasized the need for limited
counterinsurgency operations based on the use of CIA-operated drones
and Special Operation Forces.

In an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and reflect stance of both side


in a consensus policy on Afghanistan, President Obama fixed the July
2011 for the withdrawal of the US combat mission adding a caveat that the
fighting capacity and number of the Afghan army would be enhanced to
enable it to replace the US forces besides urging the Karazi administration
to bring about reforms in the governmental structure.

It is often said that plans and strategies worked out in war rooms often do
not get implemented on the battlefield. Situation on the ground shapes its
own dynamics and sets the agenda for the warring parties to respond to.
Since the day one when the US president launched his policy on
Afghanistan, it was said to be a failure waiting in the wings to mark the US
war effort. The policy only reflected lack of direction characterized by
contradictions and intense policy rifts between the military commanders
and the civilian leadership. It was said to be a non-starter and has proven
to be so in the first place.

A Guardian’s editorial of October 7 describes the situation thus, “There is a


clear and pressing need to end the monumental folly of prosecuting a war
in Afghanistan. It is spreading in intensity into the tribal areas of Pakistan
and could yet rattle a weak civilian government in Islamabad to bits.”

The increase in the number of drone attacks in the North Waziristan and
subsequent Pakistani response of halting the NATO supplies through
Turkham border has exposed the myth of deepening strategic relationship
between Washington and Islamabad. To all intents and purposes, it largely
remains a tactical and need-based relationship bereft of any deeper
understanding on mutual issues.

Though the Pakistani government has ordered the reopening of the border
for transportation of the NATO supplies after both NATO and the US
government tendered public apologies over the helicopter incursions into
the Pakistan territory, which resulted in the deaths of three Pakistani
soldiers, the relationship between the so-called war allies remains fraught
with tensions and policy rifts. These apologies might have served to cool
down the raging anger for a while; however, there is a clear clash of
interests between Pakistan and the US. The short-term tactical objectives
of the US are at odds with the long-term strategic objectives of Pakistan in
Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s security establishment is rightly worried over the situation in


Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US. Given the huge economic
constraints further exacerbated by the history’s worst floods, Pakistan ill-
affords to face two hot fronts, one in the East and other in the West.

The increase in the number of drone strikes over the border areas of
Pakistan and shifting of war theatre from Afghanistan to North Waziristan
may be necessitated by the urgent need to show results to the war-weary
American public that the surge strategy is bearing fruit. It may also be an
effort on the part of US and ISAF commander, General David Patraeus, to
thwart Obama’s plan to start withdrawing the US forces from July 2011 by
constructing a false notion of ‘victory’.

There have also been contradictory statements on and the differing


interpretations of what the US President meant by July 2011. Did he mean
to start the actual withdrawal of the US combat mission by this date, come
what may, or was he referring to it tentatively by way of spurring efforts to
wind up the US engagement in Afghanistan? The upcoming mid-term
elections in November might also have catalysed the recent surge in
strikes over Pakistan’s borderland in an attempt to deflate the impression
built by Obama’s Republican political adversaries that he was not a war
president.
The Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy is a stark failure and does not
stand any chance of success. Instead of containing terrorism, it has further
fuelled its intensity. The White House assessment sent to the US
Congress coupled with disclosure of Wikileaks some time ago raises
serious doubts about the loyality and intensions of Pakistan in prosecuting
war against the Taliban. Despite tall claims by both sides, there is no
institutional arrangement capable of harmonizing their differing viewpoints
into an integrated policy.

The US is adamant on continuing with its present Af-Pak policy and shuns
any notion of engaging with the Taliban publicly. This is the impression one
gets from the President Obama’s statement wherein he said, “We are
continuing to implement the policy as described in December and do not
believe further adjustments are required at this time.”

However, internally there is now a gradual change of heart in Washington


with increasing realization of negotiated settlement of what has been
termed as the most intractable oversees engagement of the US. The
Obama administration can make much needed mid-course correction in
the upcoming policy review in December by aligning discordant elements
into a cohesive line of action in the light of the lessons learnt over the year.
The success or failure of the policy review depends on a large part to
addressing the Pakistani concerns and apprehensions. It remains to be
seen whether Obama possesses the ability to walk the talk.