With the United States having committed itself to the ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan, one would have thought that Washington would be engaged intensely in this strategic objective.
Current developments appear to indicate otherwise. For a start, the deepening economic crisis and the resultant budgetary squabbles in Congress have left President Obama a much diminished leader. Even if the US has hardly ever permitted its economic constraints to influence its global ambitions, its domestic preoccupations raise inevitable questions as to how this could effect US policy in this region, particularly its ability to ensure a satisfactory outcome to the endgame in Afghanistan.
As a candidate, Obama had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Afghan war, calling it a “war of necessity”, but disillusionment set in early and he was soon asking his generals to agree on “benchmarks” for success in the war. Finally, in his strategy speech on June 22 2011, he claimed that the US had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan, setting in motion a timetable for withdrawal of combat troops, though acknowledging that peace was not possible without a political settlement inclusive of the Taliban, while warning that focus of US counterterrorism efforts would shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
While this decision was shaped primarily by domestic political imperatives rather than by war strategy, recent developments in and around Afghanistan call into question US capacity to execute this strategy. For a start, while the US and its allies appear increasingly eager to wrap up their military engagement in Afghanistan, the Taliban are becoming bolder and more adventurous. Nothing signals this more starkly than the manner in which they bought down an American Chinook helicopter in Wardak province, killing 30 American Special Forces troops. Even if it was a ‘lucky shot’, it will have boosted the Taliban morale.
Within Afghanistan too, Karzai’s home base in Kandahar is gripped by fears over a power vacuum created by assassination of the president’s key allies, including his powerful brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. These deaths have left the president exposed at a time when the US would have looked to him for a meaningful role in negotiations with Taliban.
The recent unexpected deterioration in Pakistan-US relations, especially between their military and intelligence organisations, which may even portend an unravelling of their ties, could become another complicating factor as regards US cooperation with Pakistan, particularly in reaching out to the Taliban. Moreover, the exacerbation of Saudi-Iranian ties and continuing hostility in US relations with Iran will not help either.
And finally, the new cast of ‘principals’ in Washington in critical national security-related assignments lack both the stature and the nuanced world view of their predecessors. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a proven hand, had retained close rapport with his party compatriots, something that his gaffe-prone successor Leon Panetta lacks. The highly respected Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who was also viewed as sympathetic to Pakistan, has been replaced by the comparatively less known General Dempsey. It is, however, the new CIA chief who could prove a huge gamble. Though competent and intelligent, General Petreaus is unabashedly ambitious and visibly contemptuous of those that dare to differ with him. Having failed to make any headway in Afghanistan, Petreaus is a frustrated general, determined to burnish his Afghan legacy. He is not viewed as a friend of Pakistan either and his presence in Langley may inject fresh tensions in relations with the White House, as well as in ties with the ISI.
It is nevertheless essential that the US formulate a comprehensive game plan and undertake a sustained effort to ensure that its exit from Afghanistan does not throw that country back into the throes of another civil war. That would be disastrous for the entire region, but, at the same time, a satisfactory conclusion could strengthen peace, stability and cooperative relations in this long-tormented region.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2011.