Friday, December 25, 2009

Blogging from Pakistan: Obama's blind spot in his Afghan-Pakistan strategy

It is quite clear that the world's fault-line these days runs through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is also clear that the US long-term interests are in the stability of this part of the world - and this was underscored by Obama's long deliberation and his decision to increase US troops and for a long-term non-military investments in the region. Furthermore, it is quite obvious that any long-term solution will have to include India as well. Thus, it is a bit disappointing that Obama's plan (at least what has been publicized), when dealing with strategy, pretty much treats Afghanistan-Pakistan in isolation. Here is an article that brings back candidate Obama's words on Kashmir and highlight what is missing from his current plan. From Afghanistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Kashmir:

In October 2008, a month before he was elected, Barack Obama correctly identified Kashmir as the rusty nail in South Asia’s body politic. Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, he told Joe Klein of Time magazine that “working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way” were “critical tasks for the next administration.” Obama spoke of devoting

serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border? I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

Yet this promise appears to have been forgotten. The most common American complaint one now hears about Pakistan’s security establishment—expressed yet again by Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing on Thursday—is that it is “obsessed” with India. Her exasperated tone makes this obsession seem purely irrational, an unnecessary diversion from the urgent task of combating anti-American extremists in the region. But Pakistan is growing ever more fearful of an economically stronger India and its new intimacy with the United States. Convinced that America will turn away from Islamabad just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan’s military leaders will be increasingly reluctant to fall in line with Obama’s announced objectives. They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants, but they are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some of them to remain in reserve in order to unleash them, at a later date, upon India-ruled Kashmir. As always, the road to stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan runs through the valley of Kashmir, and Obama’s failure to even mention a likely solution to the subcontinent’s primary conflict will doom his new strategy just as surely as his other decision to continue assassinating suspected militants with drone missiles.

And here is another article that argues that Obama' administration is reading Pakistan's strategic interests incorrectly and that may end up undermining the recent efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From Pakistan continues to be Obama's reluctant bride:

The key character in the US president Barack Obama’s Afghanistan fairy tale is Pakistan – the erstwhile protector and enabler of the evil Taliban, but only out of ignorance, despair and an exaggerated fear of India. If only, goes the story, Pakistan could see that the Taliban is plotting to destroy it and recognise that its true interests lie with the noble purposes of the United States, it would ignore India, turn on the Taliban and flush out the insurgents to be crushed by US firepower. And so, a steady stream of US officials has traipsed through Islamabad this year, bearing carrots and brandishing sticks, trying to get Pakistan to see the light

But the Pakistan of Washington’s imagination is a little like the Iraq of Bush Administration’s pre-war imagination – the one that was going to greet its invaders with sweets and flowers. But the US is choosing to ignore the writing on the wall. Just last week, back to back visits by two of the most senior commanders in the US military, General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, failed to convince their Pakistani counterparts to go after the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks. Instead, Pakistan’s own counterinsurgency effort will be confined to the Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the local extremist group challenging the Pakistani state.

American officials like to console themselves that this is simply a case of Pakistani fear of abandonment by the US, to which they respond by professing long-term commitment to Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s generals have a good enough sense of what’s going on the ground, with Nato’s supply lines, and with the US economy, to know that Obama’s surge can’t be sustained.

Moreover, while the US objective is to prop up the government in Kabul, Pakistan’s military leaders see that government as a Tajik-dominated regime that serves as a cat’s paw for India. The Afghan Taliban insurgency is viewed as a Pashtun backlash against a government from which the country’s largest ethnic group is alienated – a government that Pakistan has little interest in propping up. While not favouring a rerun of the 1996 Taliban march on Kabul, Pakistani military chiefs are said to favour a negotiated outcome in which many Afghan Taliban elements, and especially Haqqani and Hekmatyar, agree to a power sharing formula that strengthens Pashtun representation – and Pakistani influence – in Kabul, and devolves power to the regions, which, would put its allies in charge of the south and east. Far from going after the insurgent groups against whom the US is demanding action, such a scenario requires that Pakistan position itself to broker terms with them that would allow for a US withdrawal.

And here are some of the issues that may end up limiting any substantial success in Afghanistan-Pakistan area - and if you add the above-mentioned Kashmir into the equation, we may end up in a status-quo at best:

The US will keep pressing, of course, because even though its military leaders know some form of political settlement is inevitable with a movement rooted in a significant section of the population, they also know that there’s no incentive for the Taliban to offer a compromise acceptable to the Americans as long as it is winning on the battlefield.

Still, Pakistan will likely find ways of deflecting this pressure, as it has since the US first invaded. And the US will therefore be tempted to expand its “drone war”, that allows it to assassinate enemy commanders using missiles fired from remote-controlled aircraft. There have been conflicting reports in the US media in the past week of just how far Mr Obama wants to extend the drone strikes. Going after Haqqani in North Waziristan could rupture relations with Pakistan’s military; going after Mullah Omar and his cohort in the Baluchistan city of Quetta could spark an outrage in Pakistan that forces the military to push back.
These two excellent articles are quite sensible and point to some important blind spots in Obama's strategy. Read Afghanistan: The forgotten conflict in Kashmir and Pakistan continues to be Obama's reluctant bride.


Dr. Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"It is also clear that the US long-term interests are in the stability of this part of the world "

What exactly would USA gain from stability in this region, could you kindly elaborate?

emre said...

There are gas and oil pipelines that run through several Central Asian countries. They don't want their operation to be disrupted.

Dr. Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Obama exactly knows what he is doing, so did his predecessor Bush.
The destruction and instability in the world were they were up to and this is what they have successfully and precisely achieved.
I will call you a fool if you are convinced about some hypothetical blind spots in the whole US strategy...there are none.

M Hussain said...

That is my exact point.
The US will always look forward for a blood-shed and mass destruction to justify its presence near the life lines of world economy, even if it costs millions of human lives.

Salman Hameed said...

Well...many of the problems we are currently seeing are the direct result of the reckless abandonment of the region by the US after the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, this is one of the key points that Pakistanis bring up about not trusting the US regarding this. The resources argument was dead-on regarding Iraq, but is playing such a prominent role here.

But there are other reasons why US would want this region to be stable: A large swath of land in chaos can and does breed terrorism threats for the US itself. But this region in particular is tricky, as violence in Afghanistan has spilled over to Pakistan and can destabilize Pakistan. An unstable Pakistan, with a population of 170 million, will wreak havoc in the region, almost certainly destabilizing northern India but also certain areas of China. The problem is that this area contains about one-third the world's population - and also linked to US economy itself. The US would be the biggest loser in a chaotic world.

There are of course other reasons at play here as well. US wants to counter Chinese influence here and is also tweaking Iran from south-western Pakistan. But the US would rather exert its influence when its hands are not tied in Afghanistan in this manner.

As far as Obama knowing exactly what he his doing, please check out the first of the two articles I posted. He says that candidate Obama did press on the right issues. But the decision to remove India from Holbrooke's portfolio is a key mistake for a long-term solution of the region. This is the point I was trying to make.

Also, I'm just addressing here why US would have interest in the stability of the region [the means to achieve it are another matter. I think drone attacks are ethically and politically wrong, but I agree with the decision to send more US troops in Afghanistan]. I think Pakistan should think for its own benefit. Here is a particular case where Pakistan's interest should match with the US. But not in all instances - and this is where the US needs to understand Pakistan's perspective. On the other hand, for Pakistan it is all too easy to blame everything on the US - it has to confront its owns demons in the face of various varieties of Taliban.

Anonymous said...

Influence can be defined as the power exerted over the minds and behavior of others. A power that can affect, persuade and cause changes to someone or something. In order to influence people, you first need to discover what is already influencing them. What makes them tick? What do they care about? We need some leverage to work with when we’re trying to change how people think and behave.

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