As President Obama prepares to bow out of office, it is time to evaluate his successes and failures in the Afghanistan war and the prospects of peace and stability in that country. The story has its remote origins in the Democratic Party’s primaries debate in 2008 when a question was asked of the candidates how they would respond if they got a 3am call about some grave security crisis. It was aimed at testing the two main candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, on the issue of national security. The assumption was that Obama would be weak in the area.
Here is what weighed on Obama’s mind in answering that question. Two wars were raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. His ultraliberal support base wanted out from both. But he had to own at least one of the wars as a proof of his strong credentials on national security without which he could not win the election. The Iraq war, he had already opposed as a senator. So he was left with only the Afghanistan war to adopt whether he liked it or not — in fact he did not. By speaking in support of the Afghanistan war, he ended up burnishing his credentials in the security area. And the media ran away with the label of Afghanistan as “Obama’s war”. As happens so often, the reality was the opposite.
Essentially, Obama was an anti-war president. He tried to mask that reality in Oslo in 2009 at the Nobel Prize ceremony by speaking both for and against the war. He said that “war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly”. About the Afghanistan war, his words were: “But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace. This is true in Afghanistan.”
For the following seven or eight years, it has been a story of Obama dealing with his deeply conflicted approach to the war. His politics pulled him in opposite directions between his anti-war liberal base that got him elected, and the pro-war army and the conservatives whose support he needed for re-election. Politics prompted him to start giving deadlines for withdrawal that were short enough to placate the anti-war constituency and long enough to give assurance of victory to the supporters of the war. And the policymaking was not without its own conflicts, strife-torn as it was by turf wars, inter-agency rivalries and bureaucratic tensions involving the military high command, the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department. Not only were there systemic issues, but also the fact that it is hard to fix a broken war. Three generals were fired or removed prematurely like General David D McKiernan, Stanley McChrytsal and General David Petraeus. And larger than life Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke was about to be fired before his sudden death.
There was a recurring clash of politics, policy and personality as the White House wanted to be in control, driven by electoral politics more than the imperatives of an elusive strategic success chronicled by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his book Duty and by Vali Nasr in his book Dispensable Nation. To make matters worse, whatever emerged from this fragmented and contested policymaking process got exaggerated by the highly politicised working of Congress. The reality is that Obama had given up on Afghanistan even before he started, in his eagerness to leave behind the legacy of getting America out of two wars. But legacies and strategic interests do not always go well together. One thing gets sacrificed at the altar of other. And that became particularly true of Afghanistan.
Advertising the withdrawal plans in advance for political reasons as well as for legacy enabled the Taliban to wait out until the American departure. The Taliban control more territory now than at any time since their fall from power. The IS reportedly has found a home along the AfPak border. And Afghanistan’s National Unity Government is clearly not working.
After seeing the mess in Iraq with the rise of IS that is being blamed by the president’s critics on his early withdrawal from that country, Obama has been postponing the deadlines for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Around 8,400 troops will now remain through 2017 at least. This will not improve the prospects of war. The move is basically meant to absolve Obama of any criticism if anything goes seriously wrong after he leaves office that might be blamed on his withdrawal decision.
Sadly, Afghanistan has endured one of the most devastating conflicts of our time, while simultaneously struggling with the building of national unity, and political, governance and state institutions. The Taliban and the Haqqani network and their sanctuaries in Pakistan have no doubt contributed to the failure of the Afghanistan war but do not exhaust the causes of the country’s troubles. Despite the fact that the US has contributed a great deal towards creating a new Afghanistan, it still has many issues — ethnicity, tribal rivalries and tensions, religious radicalism, urban and rural divide, the role of regional strongmen and power brokers, the drug mafia, and the corruption, all of which are hindering its stabilisation. Not to mention, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations for which both sides are to blame.
But neither Afghans nor the Americans would admit the reality. The American military has been unhappy about the faltering war and Congress has been up in arms. So Pakistan became a lightening rod for all the criticism of the war. Obama knew well that the denial of aid funds or withholding of funding of F-16s will not change Pakistan’s behaviour, but politically it had become desirable to fix the blame somewhere. It ended up affecting relations with the very country whose support was crucial in stabilising Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2016.
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