Thursday, December 03, 2009

SURGE IS OKAY, BUT WHAT IS THE STRATEGY

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    It is never easy for any politician to commit enormous human and material resources to fight a war that his country is not seen to be winning. His difficulties multiply if his country is going through the worst economic crisis in living memory and the public opinion increasingly veers around to the view that the resources being sunk into a war being fought thousands of miles away could have been used more productively back home. Therefore by persisting with, or should we say expanding, an increasingly unpopular, but necessary, war, US President Barack Obama has undertaken a huge political gamble. If successful, not only will Mr Obama be guaranteed a second term in office but he will also have saved the prestige of the sole-superpower. On the other hand if the gamble fails, and the US is forced to withdraw from Afghanistan without defeating the Taliban, then Afghanistan is likely to once again become 'terror central' from where Islamist terror groups will launch attacks around the world.

Caught between the imperatives of war which demand a surge in the troop levels in Afghanistan, and the compulsions of politics and economics back home, Mr Obama has done a political balancing act in a major policy speech that he delivered at the US military academy in West Point on 2nd December, 2009. He has given in to the pro-war lobby by announcing the deployment of 30,000 extra troops being demanded by his military commanders in Afghanistan, and at the same time placated the anti-war lobby by announcing that the US will start to draw down troops in Afghanistan from July 2011. In essence, this is what the entire speech boils down to. Everything else – an effective partnership with Pakistan, building the capacity of the Afghan government and transferring responsibility to it, ending the days of handing blank cheques to the Afghan government and holding it accountable on issues of governance and corruption etc. – will depends on the outcome of the troop surge and the announcement of the withdrawal date.

The problem that Mr Obama is likely to face in executing the policy he has announced is that by giving a withdrawal date he has effectively ended up scoring out any good that the surge would have done in the security situation. The Islamist insurgents and their supporters have always believed that the Americans are not going to stay the course in Afghanistan. In giving a withdrawal date, Mr Obama has only vindicated this belief of the Islamists, which they have held ever since they were ousted from power in Afghanistan in late 2001. The insurgents and their strategic planners were convinced that their guerrilla tactics will eventually bleed the US-led international force to a point where they would find their stay in Afghanistan militarily and economically unsustainable. Unlike their adversaries, the Islamists, guided as they are by a demonical and millenarian vision, attach little or no meaning to either life or time. Since they were prepared to fight the 'infidels' and 'crusaders' for as long as it took, the 18 month time frame announced by Mr Obama to start pulling out combat troops is like a bonus for the Islamists.

The big question now is whether the Islamists will ease off for the moment and build up their strength to move in when the foreign troops start to pull out or whether they will increase their attacks to hasten the withdrawal of the foreign troops. But it is not only the Islamists who will be deciding their course of action on the basis of the withdrawal time frame given by Mr Obama. Many of the allies of the Americans will now start to hedge their bets, buying insurance with the Islamists who could well be the future rulers of Afghanistan. This will certainly have a major negative impact on the war effort.

What is more, the uncertainty caused by the imminence of the US exit will only fuel corruption because everyone will seek to garner as many resources as possible, which will come in handy when they have to run for cover after the house starts to collapse. An enhanced crisis of confidence in the ability of the Afghan authorities to resist the Taliban once the US starts to draw down its troop levels is quite natural. After all, if the most powerful military force in the world is made to succumb before the Islamist guerrillas then the possibility of a rag-tag Afghan National Army holding off the Taliban is practically non-existent. Despite all the tall talk of building the capacity of the Afghan authorities and army to run their country, the fact remains that if such capacities haven't been built in the last eight years, there's a fat chance of the Afghans getting into a position where they can run their affairs and resist the Islamist onslaught on their own in the next 18 months. And this raises the question as to what course of action the US will follow if the Afghan authorities are not in a position to take over, much less discharge effectively and efficiently, the responsibilities that are handed over to them by the Americans. In the event, will Mr Obama extend the withdrawal date or will he continue to stick to it?

The issue of withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is only one of the major problems with the policy announced at West Point. An equally big problem is that there is really no major change in the overall strategy of fighting the war in Afghanistan. No doubt, some of the tactics would change. For instance, there is a lot of talk of the additional forces securing population centres and concentrating on Afghan provinces like Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan where the Taliban have made major inroads. But the strategic objective now appears limited to snatching the war initiative by pushing back the Taliban and creating conditions that make the Taliban amenable to a negotiated political settlement that can then pave the way for an orderly exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan. The question, however, is whether thirty thousand extra soldiers will be enough for this job? Or is the troop surge going to end up becoming a classic example of reinforcing failure? These questions acquire greater relevance when it is considered as to what these new troops are going to do what the existing troops have not already tried?

If the additional forces are to not end up mounting what could at best be described as a holding operation but actually change the ground situation, then there needs to be a total overhaul of the strategy of war in Afghanistan. The bottom-line is that the Americans could lose the war in Afghanistan for the same reason why the Soviets lost – the inability to stem the flow of recruits and resources to the Taliban from Pakistan. In other words, unless the supply chain and safe havens in Pakistan is destroyed, the war in Afghanistan can never be won. Equally important is the need to build local support networks inside Afghanistan that effectively combat the Taliban. This is way beyond the capacity of the Afghan National Army. The only people who can do this are probably the war-lords, howsoever repugnant they may be to constitutional purists and the human-rights types. Rather than putting too much in store of a central authority that no one listens to, perhaps it makes more sense to invest in war-lords who can establish order in their local areas.

Suffice to say that Afghanistan is a war that America can still win, but not if it persists with the strategy and policy it has followed over the last eight years.

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    <1285 Words>                    4th December, 2009

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