Obama’s Second Af-Pak policy:
A Fallacy In Composition
By Ramtanu Maitra
11 December, 2009
On Dec.1 at West Point Academy, US President Barack Obama presented his latest Afghanistan-Pakistan policy - the result of an extensive review and a policy that would lead to the “end of Afghanistan war,” he promised. Although not as dramatic as President Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, to speak on Afghanistan policy with a banner behind him declaring “Mission Accomplished,” Pres. Obama chose West Point for obvious effect. But what he delivered as his new policy was wrought with misrepresentations and could not but have made the grim-faced cadets even grimmer.
Obama said the United States will add another 30,000 troops shortly (that number may be exceeded, new reports indicate), and a drawdown of US troops will begin in the summer of 2011. The next day, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates moved partially away from that commitment in response to a question by committee member Sen. John McCain, pointing out that a further evaluation of the situation would be made in December 2010 before the drawdown date is fixed. Gates emphasized that the president has the authority to change his plans.
In his Dec. 1 speech, Pres. Obama said: “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future. To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future. We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months.”
Citing the economic burden that the Afghan war has become, Pres. Obama said: “We must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
Compare this speech to the one Pres. Obama delivered on March 27, the first iteration of his Af-Pak policy, and also to his speech on Aug. 17 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. On March 17, Obama said: “We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists. So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”
To achieve those goals, Obama recommended “a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy,” adding that “to focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support.”
On Aug.17, Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
The president’s Dec.1 speech was devoid of the “we will defeat you” statement and similarly emphatic rhetoric such as “this is not a war of choice; this is a war of necessity.” One may wonder what accounts for the change in tone. One thing is certain: the situation on the ground in Afghanistan - or in Pakistan, for that matter - has not changed for the better. On the contrary. The insurgents, though hit again and again, appear to be resilient enough and determined enough to weaken the foreign troops in Afghanistan; and Islamabad’s ability to subdue the home-grown insurgents within its own borders has grown more doubtful.
And one can reasonably conclude from the goings-on in Washington before and after the speech that the United States has realized that the Afghan war cannot be won. If Washington chooses to stay in Afghanistan with the motto we will defeat you, American troops will remain there for decades, if not forever.
Bravado aside, it has perhaps also been understood that Pakistan cannot be stabilized just because Washington would like it to be stable. What needs to be done in Pakistan to halt the trend toward increasing non-governability, is beyond Washington’s ability or means. Therefore, some strong-arming of the pro-US faction of the Pakistani military, pumping in more money to ease Pakistan’s collapsed economy and sweet-talking Islamabad to stay “on course” are the only options Washington has at this time as a policy toward Pakistan.
In fact, the real worry in Washington is neither the Taliban, nor al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan; it is the prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the “nasty” elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence, and thereby finding their way into the hands of the Saudi-funded, viciously anti-US, opponent of sovereign nation-states - al-Qaeda.
Fudging the Facts
But while Pres. Obama’s Dec. 1 policy speech was, to a certain extent, an acknowledgment of reality, it nevertheless misrepresented that reality. This is not simply the president’s doing; to be fair, the way Afghan war was conceived and fought was all wrong from the outset. Here are some of the salient points:
- When the US went into Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 to unseat the Taliban, a Pashtun-led organization, and capture the al-Qaeda leaders, it was with the help of the Tajik-Uzbek-dominated Afghan political grouping known as the Northern Alliance. Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun and therefore representative of the majority community in Afghanistan, was set up in Kabul; but no effort was made to organize the non-Taliban or anti-Taliban Pashtuns in support of Kabul. For the sake of exigency, the top Uzbek warlord, Abdur Rashid Dostum, and many top Tajik warlords, of whom Mohammad Fahim stands out as the most powerful, were attached to President Karzai. Dostum and most, if not all, of the Tajik warlords were beneficiaries of huge drug trafficking operations begun in a big way after the Red Army left in 1989. Under the circumstances, Karzai’s complete dependence on the Uzbek and Tajik drug warlords made the Kabul government by necessity - not by choice - a corrupt administration. Some Pashtun warlords, particularly in eastern and south-eastern Afghanistan, who continue to support Karzai, had to be given access to drug and other illicit money, further widening the corruption ring.
- By the time the US Special Forces had begun their operation in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban was a spent force. Less than 5 percent of Pashtuns and none of the minority communities (the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazaras, among others) had anything to do with the Wahabi-influenced Taliban. This weakened state of the Afghan Taliban was the reason why the US Special Forces and the Northern Alliance, despite having to also battle Pakistani army personnel and the ISI, won a quick victory. Acting like the proverbial blind men of Hindustan, however, Washington refused to acknowledge that while all Afghan Taliban were Pashtuns, all Pashtuns were not Afghan Taliban. Of course, many Afghan Taliban hid among the non-Taliban Pashtuns; but instead of pursuing a policy that could build a Pashtun majority unsympathetic to the Afghan Taliban, the US chose to depend on air strikes on Pashtun villages to eliminate the insurgents. The result was to turn the Pashtuns against the United States en masse and push them into active assistance to the Afghan Taliban - a known devil. The process also further weakened President Karzai. Pashtuns saw him as an “American stooge” who could not defend the innocents of his own community.
- As a way of getting out of Afghanistan and cutting losses in money and manpower, Washington began building the Afghan National Army. While the idea was not wrong, its implementation has been skewed by Washington’s pervasive misunderstanding of Afghan realities. First, the composition of this army is predominantly non-Pashtun; it is dominated by the Tajiks and some Uzbeks. Out of a total of 92,000 members on a sunny day, more than 80,000 are Tajiks. What has not been comprehended is that while the Tajiks and Uzbeks have their animosity against the Pashtuns historically, they never “worked” for foreign forces to fight the Pashtun majority with whom they have lived forever. That is why Gen. McChrystal could corral no more than 600 Afghan National Army personnel when he sent 4,000 US Marines to Helmand province, which is dominated wholly by the Pashtuns. Even these 600 did not fight; and some of them dropped their guns and told the Pashtuns that they were visiting Helmand.
When Pres. Obama talked on Dec. 1 about training the Afghan National Army in a jiffy (18months) to take over Afghanistan’s security, it not only sounded hollow, it was almost laughable.
- At the time the US came into Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban had brought down opium production from the 2000 high of 4,400 tons to 600 tons. During the eight years since, opium production has soared to 8,200 tons annually. In fact, a total of 44,000 tons of opium, which is then converted into heroin and brown sugar, has been produced under the US and British watch. After years of double-talking by the Bush administration, aided by US think-tank experts, it was finally acknowledged that drugs translate into weapons, and the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, among others, were beneficiaries of this booty. In his Dec.1 speech, President Obama showed that he has no policy to curb the drugs that are flowing out of Afghanistan all over, including inside Russia, helping the insurgents and terrorists all around. Although Pres. Obama repeatedly utters his resolve to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the insurgents, one key element - the production of drugs - is given the proverbial go-by.
- In his Dec.1 speech, as well in his earlier speeches, Pres. Obama failed to acknowledge the fact that US and NATO troops are presently fighting (that is, when NATO troops are forced into a fight by insurgents) not the Afghan Taliban, but the entire Pashtun community, which is now joined by some Tajik and Uzbek commanders as well. This is really not a secret. In fact, it was pointed out by the former Afghan Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a conduit between Taliban supremo Mullah Omar and the Afghan government. Zaeef recently told an Associated Press correspondent that the militant leadership refers to its forces not as Taliban now, but as “mujahideen,” a throwback to the Afghan “holy warriors” who ousted the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. The reason is that only one out of 10 militant fighters is a true “Taliban.” The rest are ordinary Afghans, Zaeef said.
The reality is that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has now emerged as the Pashtun warrior who has fought the foreign troops with a great deal of success. When the foreign troops choose to leave Afghanistan, President Karzai will have to abandon his post to a “better Pashtun,” Mullah Omar that is, who fought for the Pashtun community and kept Afghanistan free of foreign “occupiers.”
There are additional truths that have become clear to students of Afghanistan by now. For instance, it is evident that the Afghan Taliban were never involved in any anti-US activities outside of Afghanistan. Not a single Afghan Taliban was ever found involved in Iraq or in Palestine. Afghans like to stay home - unless they are driven out. Then they seek refuge in Pakistan with the hope and plan to return home some day.
Further, from the findings we have on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, he had brought in his family from Arabia and settled them in Karachi as far back as in 1997, and was using it as his operational base. It should be noted that Karachi is located in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is a foregone conclusion that al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden would not have moved into Afghanistan without being facilitated by either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. It is one of those open “secrets” - like the Pakistani airlifts of Pakistani army personnel, ISI operators and Afghan Taliban commanders from Kunduz in 2002 when they were about to be captured by US troops and Northern Alliance warlords. On that occasion, Pakistani President Musharraf got the deal through with the help of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Finally, it is not clear what President Obama meant when, on Dec. 1 he said: “We’ll have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone. I’ve spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim world - one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.” A similar statement was embedded in his March 27 speech: “But this is not simply an American problem - far from it. It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order…”
Yet, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent Washington a proposal, following his meeting with the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Bangalore last October, suggesting a regional effort would include regional countries – Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian “stan” countries to contain Afghanistan, it was ignored. President Obama talks about a “new beginning between America and the Muslim world, but he seems unaware that the Muslim world”, beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, also contains Iran and the “stan” countries, as well as parts of Russia, India and China