With the passage of two weeks since the announcement of the so-called “Af-Pak” strategy, we can be reminded of Generalfeldmarschall von Moltke’s (the Elder, 1800-1891) saying: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Faced with a growing realisation that a defeat at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan is inevitable, the American military leadership is falling back on the lessons of Vietnam applied arguably with success, to Iraq. This is bad news, as bad as it can get, for Pakistan.
This is what is reflected in the major revamp of military leadership to boost special operations and unconventional warfare, including propaganda and psychological operations, capacity (sacking of McKiernan, his replacement by Lt. Gen. McChrystal, and appointment of Lt. Gen. Rodriguez). In practical terms, the ground realities have led to the following de facto strategic choices for the Americans:
- Fight Afghanistan, like Iraq: Cobble together a governance structure and then handover to the Taliban (US Gen. Petraeus), versus Let us befriend and then handover to the Taliban, and let governance take care of itself (US President Obama); and
- Fight Pakistan, like Kampuchea: Let us alienate the Pakistan Army, already alienated from the Balochis and the Sindhia, also from the Pushtuns — and the Swat operation has given them a good start – and turn them into a domestic security force, in time to be confined to the Punjab; and either change the regime, or change the map.
Dissident voices, especially of those old enough to remember Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war into Kampuchea, have begun to herald the catstrophe that lies ahead, but whether and when they will be heard remains open to question. A sampling of three liberal views that provide a healthy corrective to the official Bush-Obama rhetoric is given below.
Graham Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul, writes in the Huffington Post of 12 May 2009 that Obama’s Policies [are] Making Situation Worse in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He sees “President Obama … pressing down the same path of failure in Pakistan marked out by George Bush” and calls “for drastic revision of U.S. strategic thinking”.
“The Taliban,” Fuller writes, “represent zealous and largely ignorant mountain Islamists … [who] are also all ethnic Pashtuns, … [although] In the end [they] are probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist.” Fuller believes that the Pushtuns (in other words, the Taliban) must be allowed to govern in Afghanistan.
Drawing the Cambodia-Vietnam analogy (see earlier post, On the Day After), Fuller holds that by taking the war into Pakistan, the Americans have destabilised a stable country. “Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down… As Washington demands that Pakistan redeem failed American policies in Afghanistan, Islamabad can no longer manage its domestic crisis.”
Similarly, on 13 May 2009 William Pfaff (From Phnom Penh to Islamabad) writes of unauthorised US ground attacks in FATA last year, that: “Last September, during the American presidential campaign, I wrote a column declaring that the United States had again invaded Cambodia, only this time ‘Cambodia’ was Pakistan… How long ago it seems – 39 years! And here we are again.”
Of the current situation, he reminds us that: “The United States, despite its plan to deploy nearly 70,000 troops this year in Afghanistan, finds itself and its NATO allies in danger of defeat by the Taliban guerillas… Karzai says, ‘How can you expect a people who keep losing their children to remain friendly?’” (Emphasis added.)
On Pakistan he reminds us that: “… the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari, put under immense pressure by Washington, and frightened by the success of the Taliban in operations outside the Tribal Region, has agreed to the ground offensive now going on, in which Pakistani commanders are accompanied by U.S. liaison officers and air controllers.” (Emphasis added.)
Moreover, William Pfaff asks:
“what is supposed to be accomplished by this war against the Taliban, which threatens to leave Afghanistan in ruins, and to tear Pakistan apart? Do the Taliban threaten the United States? Most of them could not find the United States on a map.
What have they ever done to the United States? What if the United States would just go away and leave the Pakistanis, Afghans, and Pathans to settle this among themselves?
… My own feeling is that President Obama is in over his head; and that American military command, not knowing what else to do, is reverting to Vietnam, which most of its members were too young to experience. (Emphasis added.)
In a much more comprehensive review of The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan, George Friedman of Stratfor posits that there are some tensions between US President Obama and CENTCOM commander Gen. Petraeus. While Friedman counts Defence Secretary Gates in Obama’s camp, he also notes that Gates and Petraeus together crafted the strategy for Iraq that Petraeus advocates today for Afghanistan.
Friedman views Petraeus as a theatre commander who sees his theatre, Afghanistan, as a war that he believes he can “win” (victory, meaning putting together a political framework, as the basis for withdrawal, as in Iraq), while Obama sees it as a battle (in comparison, say, to Pakistan) that he need not stake his presidency on, in which the more limited goal of reaching an agreement with the Taliban to deny Al Qaeda would suffice.
Interestingly, in this view, it would seem that there is no disagreement among all in the US who matter that:
- the United States in losing the war in Afghanistan, and is looking for a fig leaf to cover its withdrawal;
- in Afghanistan, power should be transferred to the Taliban, whether sooner or later, on terms to be determined; while
- in Pakistan, where the Americans have decided to locate Al Qaeda (perhaps to provide that fig leaf), the road ahead is unclear — although regime change is called for, the US may not have the stomach or the resources for an invasion and occupation: “Occupation and regime change in Pakistan are way beyond American abilities.”
For his analysis, Friedman draws on a number of Stratfor reports:
- Geopolitical Diary: U.S. Limitations in Afghanistan
- Military Lessons Learned in Iraq and Strategic Implications
- The ‘Surge Strategy’: Political Arguments and Military Realities
- Geopolitical Diary: The Political Implications of Petraeus’ Report
- Now for the Hard Part: From Iraq to Afghanistan
- Iraq, United States: The Military Status of Iraq
- Geopolitical Diary: U.S. Limitations in Afghanistan
- Afghanistan: A Pakistani Role in the U.S. Strategy for the Taliban
- Geopolitical Diary: Taliban Problem Going Critical in Pakistan
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