28 June, 2011
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
US President Barack Obama’s June 22 speech announcing the first phase of the US troop pullout from Afghanistan had few surprises. But the speech lacked specifics and left key policy questions unanswered as well as a continuing disconnect between political objectives and military strategy.
Of deep concern to Pakistan was the indication in his address that the focus of US counterterrorism efforts would shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Without explicitly saying so, his emphasis on using ‘targeted force’ against threats, without the need to “deploy large armies overseas”, marked a move towards the so-called Biden plan. Associated with Vice President Joseph Biden, this had questioned Obama’s 2009 decision to deploy more troops in Afghanistan for counter insurgency and instead advocated a narrower counterterrorism mission, using drone technology and covert forces.
As widely anticipated, President Obama overruled the advice of his military commanders for a slower more modest force drawdown. Instead he announced a full withdrawal of the ‘surge’ force of 33,000 troops by summer 2012, starting with 10,000 troops by the end of this year. This signalled a winding down of the counterinsurgency effort he announced 18 months ago.
Citing progress on the goals he had set – refocus on Al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan security forces – Obama claimed he was beginning the drawdown from “a position of strength” with the tide of war beginning to turn.
While his senior military chiefs including General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen deemed the speed and scale of the troop reduction to be “risky”, Obama prevailed over the Pentagon because his hand had been greatly strengthened by the killing of Osama bin Laden. This development changed the calculus and provided a compelling rationale for a speedier and more substantial troop reduction.
Obama’s troop withdrawal decision was shaped more by domestic political imperatives and his looming 2012 re-election bid than considerations of strategy. This has left unexplained gaps in US policy including between political goals and the military course of the war in Afghanistan. His political considerations were dictated by war fatigue in both political parties and the growing unpopularity of the military mission among the public. With the Afghan war’s cost running at over $100 billion a year at a time of budget cuts in America, President Obama also justified his decision by what he called the need for nation building at home.
He acknowledged that peace was not possible without a political settlement and thus declared that America will join the reconciliation process, including with the Taliban, launched by the Afghan government. But this affirmation of an embryonic process – amid reports of “preliminary” US efforts to reach out to Taliban leaders – was not accompanied by elaboration of how the US planned to step up diplomacy. In not spelling out the steps the US is prepared to take to create the political conditions to advance the peace process, the speech left a key question unanswered. How will the military effort become subordinate to the political objective of seeking a settlement?
This laid bare the gap between the timeline of 2014 – when all combat troops are to be withdrawn and security responsibilities transferred to Afghan forces – and the expectation that, by then, the reconciliation process, will yield an outcome. Given the slow pace of peace talks and absent other moves that can generate a political momentum the odds to meet this expectation appear slim.
The lack of alignment – thus far – between the 2014 timeline and serious negotiations is thrown into sharp relief by the silence in Obama’s speech on whether the strategy pursued by the remaining military forces in Afghanistan will be recalibrated to allow space for diplomatic efforts. Will US/Nato forces ramp up the military effort or consider ceasing kinetic operations by negotiating local cease-fires to give the reconciliation process a chance? The speech provided no clue.
If the US persists with its fight-and-talk approach this will impede rather than encourage the opening moves towards reconciliation. There is as yet no indication that Washington is prepared to contemplate confidence-building measures with the Taliban that can produce a mutual de-escalation of violence and set the stage for serious talks. The US is still focused on setting ‘tests’ for the Taliban to meet rather than explore the possibility of an agreed stand down or ‘strategic pause’ in fighting.
This approach could further complicate what US officials privately acknowledge to be a challenge: convincing senior Taliban leaders about American seriousness to negotiate. At a time when Washington’s position has shifted to accepting an ‘inclusive’ Afghan reconciliation process and the UN’s terrorist blacklist list has been split between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, clarity is needed about whether the US will redefine the military mission in Afghanistan to support the peace objective, rather than be at odds with it.
President Obama’s speech did not deliberately disclose anything about the ‘strategic partnership’ agreement being negotiated by Washington and Kabul. Drafts of the agreement have been exchanged between the two capitals. This apparently aims to provide bases and facilities for a US military presence beyond 2014, ostensibly comprising training personnel and a counterterrorism force. The latter will also be designed to have the capability to launch cross-border operations.
An agreement providing for an open-ended US military presence in Afghanistan has already evoked concern among regional powers. Iran, Russia and China find this unacceptable while India has reportedly shifted from an ambivalent position to one of opposition. Pakistan too has conveyed its reservations about an arrangement that has security implications including the threat of US-led unilateral strikes into its territory.
Moreover such an agreement could be a deal-breaker at the very start of talks with the Taliban, whose main demand – and reason for fighting – is to ensure the departure of all foreign forces from their country.
Of greatest concern for Islamabad is the suggestion in Obama’s speech of a switch to a counterterror strategy framed to address “terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan” and the implication that the US would not hesitate to act alone if it had to. Although the president credited Pakistan with helping to eliminate “more than half of Al-Qaeda’s leadership”, the tone of his remarks signalled more of a ‘tough love’ approach towards Islamabad.
Any shift to the Biden strategy will likely entail frequent and more extensive drone attacks in Pakistan’s border areas, even clandestine operations like the one that killed Bin Laden. This will heighten Islamabad’s security anxieties and risk inflaming tensions further. Expansion of covert operations will pitch Pakistan-US relations into uncharted terrain when ties have already hit rock bottom and are in a state of disrepair.
With no agreement on drone operations and Islamabad trying to push back on CIA activities in Pakistan, more unilateral actions can propel relations to breaking point. Whether a Biden-type plan will be feasible if relations deteriorate further is open to question.
As Islamabad mulls over the ramifications of Obama’s speech, what is already apparent is that without resetting Pakistan-US ties on the basis of reciprocity the search for a negotiated political solution in Afghanistan can turn out to be even more problematic. It is on such a settlement that an orderly American withdrawal from Afghanistan rests.
The irony is that just when US and Pakistani goals are more convergent on Afghanistan than they have been in a decade they remain separated by mistrust and mutual grievances. The Obama administration’s present approach of piling on pressure and conducting diplomacy through leaks designed to embarrass Islamabad is only fuelling more turbulence in ties. It is also counter productive to the objectives Washington wants to secure in the region.
Only by finding common ground with Pakistan and accommodating its interests rather than targeting it can the US really elicit the cooperation it needs for a ‘dignified’ retreat from Afghanistan and the achievement of its strategic objective: defeat of Al-Qaeda.