Asian Valhalla in Afghanistan
19 April, 2009
By Adnan Gill
With a set of old glories neatly arranged in the background, flanked by his Secretaries of State and Defense, President Barack Obama announced a comprehensive strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan (or Af-Pak Strategy). President announced, “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.” Apparently, the strategy was more of an escalation of Bush policy than a policy shift. However, foreign policy experts like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski remain skeptical of the goals set for, what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called, “long slog” war.
Not long before President’s announcement, Secretary Gates was lowering nation’s expectations for winning the war. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he cautioned against setting unrealistic goals, “This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan”. He warned, “If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money”. Considering, no power has ever been able to hold Afghanistan for too long, his warning was right on the money.
Despite bipartisan approval of Obama Af-Pak Strategy, experts believe the policy is fraught with unrealistic optimism, unattainable goals and erroneous calculations. Even worst, it fails to meet the tenets of the Powell Doctrine. Many analysts hail the doctrine to be the Holy Grail of modern warfare. According to the Doctrine, before America takes a military action its tenets would have to be answered affirmatively:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
Coincidently, with the exception of the first tenet, Obama policy falls short of affirming every other tenet. However, before glancing over the negations, a retrospective accounting of genesis of the Af-Pak crisis might assist in understanding the crisis.
Roots of the current mess can be traced back to the political and administrative vacuum left by the CIA, when it suddenly left Afghanistan without even saying bye to its wartime partners, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Mujahideen – who used to frequent White House as state guests. Its premature departure was resented by the abandoned, which gave birth to equally cold-hearted phenomenon of Talibanization. They controlled over 80% of Afghanistan; hence, they became its default government. In exchange for financial support, the cash-strapped Taliban provided safe heavens to terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda.
At least initially, Al Qaeda’s core was made up of the CIA funded and trained Mujahideen; who should been rehabbed after the Soviets withdrawal. Unsupervised and forsaken by Americans and their native countries, these fighters who knew no other trait but guerrilla warfare searched for new causes. When none found, they invented their own.
Similarly, Pakistanis also found themselves deserted and heavily sanctioned by their allies. On its Eastern borders India was still as hostile as ever. Pakistanis decided to defend themselves by creating a buffer through a proxy. Pakistanis diverted thousands of idle guerrilla fighters from Afghanistan to Kashmiri. The buffer kept India engaged in an asymmetrical warfare.
After the 9/11 attacks, instead of seeking assistance of the patrons of Taliban and its time tested partner ISI, America aligned itself with a pro Indo-Iran-Russian mercenaries, the Northern-Alliance (NA). Soon after the American lead invasion, the Taliban dispersed into the civilian population. By placing an ethnic minority NA government (Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks) in Kabul, the allies further alienated the Pushtoon majority.
If things weren’t already complicated enough, Bush team made the worst possible mistake; it allowed a massive Indian influx into Afghanistan. Indians who were itching to settle scores with Pakistan wasted no time in opening at least 11 consulates on the western borders of Pakistan. Pakistanis viewed these consulates as launch pads for the subversive elements tasked to destabilize Pakistan. The Pakistanis felt entrapped by what they interpreted as a hostile Indian encirclement. They countered the move by reassembling the Taliban proxy.
That is when an Afghanistan, which was apparently turning to normalcy, took a turn for the worst. It became the shooting gallery for many; including the NATO, India, Iran, Pakistan, and non-state elements like Al Qaeda, Pakistan Sponsored Taliban (PST) and RAW/CIA Sponsored Taliban (RCST). The RCST were primarily tasked to infiltrate PST and to conduct subversive activities inside Pakistan. Additionally, it was meant to erode public support for the PST and to generate anti-Taliban sentiments among the global community. The risky strategy runs a too realistic danger of destabilizing nuclear armed Pakistan to a point of no return. Pakistan may end up fracturing into multiple unmanageable pieces, each with its own share of extremists. Clearly the strategy violates tenets 2 and 3 of the Powell Doctrine.
While analyzing President Obama's European (G20) trip with Charlie Rose, both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski offered their criticism of Af-Pak review. Henry Kissinger warned of an unmanageable mess, if something is not done soon to stabilize deteriorating conditions in Pakistan. He called Af-Pak policy a “fluid military strategy.” Mr. Brzezinski was more specific with his criticism. He asked, “how do we really get Pakistan to help us?” Then he answered, “Pakistanis are convinced they are under threat from India.” But Af-Pak policy does exactly the opposite. It recommends a greater role of India in Afghanistan, which only adds to Pakistan’s fears and goes against the prevailing wisdom of stabilizing Pakistan. A contradiction of the 3rd tenet.
President’s special representative, Richard Holbrooke announced Af-Pak exit strategy, “The exit strategy includes governance, corruption, but above all, and this is the single most difficult aspect of what we are talking about today, it requires dealing with Western Pakistan.” The unattainable and ambiguous exit strategy stood in stark contrast of the 5th tenet of the Powell Doctrine. He explained, “If the current situation in Western Pakistan continued, the instability in Afghanistan will continue.” Meaning, success in Afghanistan is tied to the threats in the ‘Western Pakistan’. An interdependent strategy gives birth to a range of new complexities: either, the US will have to depend on Pakistan’s resolve and capacity to deal with the extremists, or it will have to root them out itself.
America has already voiced its mistrust of Pakistan’s resolve to fight the extremists. If Pakistan cannot be trusted then US will have to do it itself. It will have to: either divert the resources from Afghanistan, or send additional troops to Western Pakistan. But the resources from Afghanistan cannot be diverted, until Afghan National Security Forces are first brought up to a level where they could function independently; an ambitious goal, considering Afghan president still can’t leave his Kabul palace without the protection provided by the US Navy SEALS. The other option is equally impractical, because it will require pumping-in additional American troops – paralleling the numbers deployed during the ‘Gulf War’.
Since American allies are already fatigued from the long drawn Afghan war, they want to leave Afghanistan altogether. Allies, like Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (head of Britain’s armed forces), also expressed their reservations over the practicality of the American strategy. He advised, “Just as in Afghanistan, that kind of insurgency cannot be defeated by conventional military means. It can only be dealt with, in the long term, through politics.” An obvious negation of tenet 8 of Powell Doctrine.
US will have to dip into its own pool to exercise the second option, because no amount of covert/shoot & scoot missions can stem the militancy. No Pakistani government will be able to ignore populous’ demands to fight the invaders. It will be compelled to fight with any or all means at its disposal. Naturally, a Pakistani reaction cannot be calculated, without invoking the forbidden phrase of ‘nuclear exchange’. Much to be desired to affirm the 6th tenet.
Reportedly, even Vice President Joseph Biden argued against the troop surge in Afghanistan. Moreover, American public is not in mood to embark on another never-ending war. Besides, neither the US nor its allies’ economies are hardly in a shape to be able to afford yet another trillion dollar war. Cardinal sins, per 7th and 8th tenets.
Despite thumbs up from the Afghan and Pakistani presidents, the public remains extremely suspicious and resentful of the American policy. Reportedly, between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, 60 UAV hits in Pakistan killed 14 Al Qaeda men, 687 innocent civilians, including women and children. Fairly or unfairly, an ordinary Afghan or a Pakistani believes, West is in there to destroy their faith, their country and the Muslim world altogether. If the war is to be won, then Obama’s team will have to reevaluate and reform its strategy.
The emphasis should be on winning hearts and minds of Afghans and Pakistanis. Before exercising the military option, a really heavy dose of diplomacy, political and financial support will have to be thrown in the mix. Above all, US will have to win back the trust and goodwill of their Pakistani counterparts. Suspension of UAV attacks and phenomenal reduction of Indian presence in Afghanistan would be good starting points in generating goodwill and normalcy in the region.
Secretary Gates was prophetic when he said, “If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla [in Afghanistan], we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money”. Listen to him!