Obama’s AfPak Dilemma

If Pakistan is able to properly handle its current military operations and economic issues, it is likely to come out stronger from the current crises.

By Khalid Aziz, Dawn Wednesday, 04 Nov, 2009

When President Barack Obama took office he commissioned an inter-agency review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recommendations emerging from this review were issued in a white paper.

The paper reflected opinions held by disparate groups in the highly saturated think-tank world of Washington, yet it lacked consistency and proposed contradictory policies, thus leading to more confusion rather than bringing clarity to the policy debate. After the publication of the white paper, US policy in the region is in disarray.

Despite several high-visibility visits by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to the region and his discussions with the leadership both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, no major improvement has occurred in the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban have become more aggressive and are in far better shape now than in March when the white paper was issued. Pakistan, on the other hand, has begun aggressive counter-terrorism operations.

The deterioration in Afghanistan has also been noted by the US commander in Afghanistan Gen Stanley McChrystal, who in August gave his views to the Washington Post, which in many ways critiqued his government’s policies. According to his analysis an additional 40,000 troops are needed in Afghanistan immediately to stop the Taliban resurgence. His report is now under consideration by Mr Obama.

The issue of Afghanistan has been confounded due to the existence of contradictory policy prescriptions. Thus to clear the mess the first step that President Obama must take is to simplify the argument and ask himself what the core goal of the US is in Afghanistan. Is it nation-building or is it to win the war against Al Qaeda to prevent a threat to the US mainland?

Both options call for a different approach and their mixing in the short term adds to the confusion and makes building a successful strategy impossible. Thus President Obama must find answers to some basic questions before a clear path can emerge in the policy quagmire of Afghanistan.

Mr Obama’s problems began with the publication of the white paper because it advocated contradictory prescriptions as objectives. For instance, its first recommendation was to disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This meant undertaking counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban. However in the context of Afghanistan, where the state and the army are weak, the US has so far relied on indigenous strongmen or warlords.

Such a policy, instead of being part of the solution, is in fact the problem. The warlords’ power flows from the narcotics trade and their interests can thus never be aligned with those of the state. If the warlords are assisting the state then the link of these men with the state will be that of a lord with his vassals. Such a situation at the community level weakens the state by corrupting its processes and informing villagers that their problems can be solved if they kept the warlord rather than the official satisfied.

For instance, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, is the warlord in Kandahar. He is the strongman in southern Afghanistan on whom the US relies heavily for controlling the region and ensuring the transit of fuel and supplies to its troops. Similarly, in the Tajik and Uzbek areas the US and Afghan governments rely on Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Karim Khalili and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who are said to be involved in the narcotics trade.

If the US has to rely on such shady characters for its counter-terrorism effort, how could it ever hope to achieve the second objective of the white paper, which is ‘promoting a more capable, acceptable and effective government in Afghanistan….’ It can’t be done! Simply stated, no country can be made cohesive and strong if it is built on the mercies of criminals and corrupt warlords.

It is thus no wonder that the goal of creating a strong Afghan state seems impossible. It becomes even clearer to comprehend when one notes that the Afghan National Army is recruited mostly from amongst the followers of the warlords. A similar situation prevails with the recruitment of the Afghan police.

Yet one of the core requirements of a successful counter-insurgency strategy calls for establishing the credibility and legitimacy of government operations. If the government’s security forces are the vassals of drug barons how can they compete successfully against the Taliban, who base their appeal on the rectitude of their leaders?

It appears that winning the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan is out of the question. If nation-building in Afghanistan is not possible then the only option left for the US would be to undertake a counter-terrorism strategy till other options become available. Such a decision will entail the deployment of US forces at strategic points like Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west, Kunduz in the north and Jalalabad and Kunar in the east.

Under this option, the countryside will be policed by the military on land and by the drones in the air. Unfortunately, the main power players on the ground with whom the US will be forced to cooperate will be the warlords.

Afghanistan, because of the lack of indigenous means of wealth creation, has historically remained a loosely administered state dependent upon rentier incomes derived from abroad and where the central government’s influence was dependent upon the distribution of money amongst regional strongmen. Thus the Bonn Accord advocating the creation of a strong central authority ruling the provinces from Kabul was against this basic premise of Afghan history.

Therefore Gen McChrystal’s proposal of using more troops to stabilise Afghanistan is flawed and the escalation of war that will clearly follow such a prescription will increase US losses and escalate the ongoing insurgency. Secondly, the pressure of additional US troops may push the Afghan war into Balochistan and further inside Pakistan.

At a minimum, the Pakistani military will be forced to launch more operations in Fata and the NWFP as well as new operations in Balochistan. Thus the McChrystal recommendation threatens the security of Pakistan.

Mr Obama must also be looking at the Afghan war from the perspective of his re-election in 2012. If he gets bogged down in an escalating Afghan conflict with rising casualties, he will surely lose. No politician can favour such an unpalatable outcome. Clearly, the pointers are for a reduced US role in Afghanistan in the future and concomitantly a larger policing role for Pakistan.

If Pakistan is able to properly handle its current military operations and economic issues, it is likely to come out stronger from the current crises. However, before that happens it will need to effectively neuter the various militant organisations that are challenging the state as it begins to reassert itself.



Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, FATA, Obama, Pakistan, Taliban, War On Terror

14 responses to “Obama’s AfPak Dilemma

  1. rexminor

    mr obama criticised george w as well as clinton machinery and many others simply to win the presidency. he kept the republican defence minister to close the chapter in iraq on george w’ terms, appointed hillary clinton on the advice of strong democrat lobby(?) and after having a visit to european countries (the family wish) , and delivery of eloquent speeches , came back to follow the progress of his adm. efforts on economic revival and health care reforms. he never sad that he will change any thing.he always said “yes we can” meaning you can. he is sorrounded mostly by the clintonians headed by no other than hillary herself. he is giving her enough rope so that she can hang herself.the cchange is that one hears her often the president and i agree on this.And the president is often heard saying michell and i. it is all getting too complicated for him now.the general in afghanistan is asking for more soldiers, and the president is receiving more dead americans.any one in his normal sences would know that the more soldiers are there the more targets are for the afghans ,oh sorry i better use the common name for those who fight against the occupation ie. talabans.ofcourse is to destabilize the whole region to keep mr gates developing white papers fo strategy discussion.let us also include iran in the game to complete the triangle.this president is in real trouble, even the noble prize committee lobyists have put him on the spot by nominating him for a peace award. under his watch americans and others around the world are dying and they want to honour him for his activities?hillary clinton told him about the ? o’clock call but never about the peace prize. may be the noble committee is planning to take back the medal from mr shimon perez and give it to mr obama or may be planning to give the next one to george w, after all on his watch more people were sent for torture and death.mr obama has not yet closed the mills and keeping them on a low key basis.

  2. Ayesha Khan

    First “rexminor” either you were home schooled and looking at your post, your grammar and punctuation sucks BIG time.
    That said, Mr. Obama inherited a mess from Bush. For reasons only the Republicans know they went to Iraq, when they should have centered on Afghanistan. But the Republicans and their friends – the military-war_complex made billions.
    His appointment of Hillary was a great move, unlike the Republicans who hate each other, the Democrats did have a grueling battle, but when the American public decided they put their differences aside and stood behind Mr.Obama.
    Mr. Gates as Sec of Defense and Hillary as Sec of State present a formidable team that with Mr. Obama has grasped the good will of the world that Bush destroyed for EIGHT long years !
    They have a tough job ahead, no one know the perils of Afghanistan but not helping the people is not an option.
    Mr. Obama in a short period that allowed the world to see peace, he was not given Nobel Peace Prize to satisfy morons like you!
    Only a idiot like you would suggest that Bush be given an award, when actually he Chaney, Rumsfeld and others should be tried for war crimes. But Mr. Obama does not want to waste the country future on the mistakes of the past, the ones people like you were responsible.
    So the body bags of our brave soldiers are a direct result of people like you who supported an unjust war in Iraq, I hope you can afford to sleep at night.
    The poor families that have lot a member cannot.

  3. PM

    All signs of NATO withdrawal are there for all to see.The question is how, without losing face. The dependence on Pakistan is obvious and it is going to cost NATO a pretty penny. The KL bill conditions are part of that game of reducing those costs. GOP needs to raise additional security forces for next ten years to control unsettled areas but there is no money to do it. If this money is not forth coming then it needs to make peace agreements with as many groups as possible and muddle along. Wait and see how it develops.

  4. rexminor

    ayesha khan,you are full of great passion, and yet i would consider you a rude person.you are probably not fully integrated in the society.as far your schooling your english grammar is awful.you like many afghans of northern alliance would probably wish obama to follow george w and put in more troops in afghanistan. my home schooling tells me that no one has ever ruled afghanistan without the consent of pushtoon tribes.they do not have to wait for arminius to defeat the invaders.they have been using their home schooled tactics and have already defeated mr gates and his compatriots. one must have a very low iq not to notice that the rats are leaving the sinking ship.

  5. rexminor

    for mr pm,
    it is too late for pa to negotiate.they have played their hand.the pushtoons are known to show no mercy for loosers.for the first time since the departure of brits. the whole pushtoon tribes of the semi-autonomous region have been affected in some form or other.in the future no govt. would be able to stay in power without the consent of pushtoons as has been the case on the other side of the border.pakistan govt. is not even able to negotiate any aid from usa without any strings attached.

  6. Ayesha Khan

    Mr. rexminor thanks for noting my passion, one thinks that is all you can muster at this time. Your stupidity surfaces also when you refer to me as an Afghan from the north, I guess you exhibit this as a result from your family in-breeding?
    That said, your right no one has ruled Afghanistan till now, the people have been jerked by many for there own selfish means. Where are all our Arab brothers in the Gulf region, they are busy trying to make Dubai a cheap…trashy…duplicate of Las Vegas..???
    There is no doubt in my mind you flow with a low…IQ we do not have any tangible results from what will happen once the Obama administration will get involved.
    The rich oil Arabs who dare to call them selves Muslims, should hang their heads in shame as they are never in sight when their Muslim brothers and sisters need help. In fact they are busy shopping in Europe with their harems while their Muslim brothers & sisters suffer, and their religious madrassah’s indoctrinate the feeble minded to hate everyone else.
    There is a lot of corruption in that area, but what is new we Muslims pretend to be holy but we have no problem in keeping the poor and down trodden
    in chains of poverty. We criticize the western way of life but we do honor killing and rape innocent women to justify a thirsty sex drive.
    The USA aid is very generous, if there are no stings attached the aid will land in secret back accounts in Swiss banks.
    The US Senate needs to yank the strings EVEN harder to let Pakistanis know that the party is OVER.
    SHIP UP or SHAPE OUT!!!!

  7. rexminor

    ayesha khan, i did not know that a woman can obtain a title of a khan. this is definitely a great progress.your ideas do not sound that bad except for the language you use and the wrong spellings of words and relating your negative view of the world around you eg., jerked, arab brothers in the gulf region, dubai a cheap trashy like las vegas ,muslims, harem,shopping in europe, swiss banks, ship up or shape out…..such sort of rudeness one can only attribute it to your neglected up-bringing and the lowest level of english knowledge.i would say you have gone crackers!! slow down your pace and try to have peace with yourself and express your intellect without abuse and malice.have a nice day.

  8. PM

    Rexminor, I see the point you make regarding the sacrifice of pushtoons but also remember that pushtoon elite has played a part in current debacle. They had no clear alternate vision and I still don’t see it. Where does NAP stand. GOP is run by corrupt elite and they could fall any time. KL bill is for corrupt supporters of Americans. The power in Pakistan and Afghanistan is up for grab. Let’s see how it plays out.

  9. rexminor

    i do not know of any govt. in the world which is not corrupt. most of the people working for the govt. are in some form or other are corrupt.the business people and the ordinary citizens usually can provide you the inside view of the corrupt sytem which is practiced in each country simply because in most cases they have to pay them.of course any deviation from the accepted procedures draws a lots attention of the media and therefore public. in pakistan and afghanistan too much fuss is made because foreign aid provided for certain projects is diverted towards payments to certain ministers and this becomes a problem.the poorer the country the more fuss is made of so called corruption.is mr brown and his ministers are less corrupt than mr zardari and his assocites?not any more.has anyone driven a car in mexico without paying a cash to the policeman who stops your car or travelled safely on afghanistan roads without paying cash or goods to people sitting at the check points .have you not heard that the pakistan govt. makes regular payments to the tribal chiefs for allowing them to use roads through their territory. have you not heard that several nato countries are making regular payments to so called talaban tribes for safe package, something for reason of ignorance the french failed to pay and lost their lives. at present there is one problem under the slogan of democracy the us govt. is hesitating to pay to the afghan and pakistan govts. for services rendered without some sort of accountability.mr karzai and mr zardari are showing reluctance to accept any pre-conditions for different reasons.mr karzai is a pushtoon and therefore he will not accept any agreement which is not for the benefit of pakistan.mr zardari record of the past is not very encouraging.
    i have no knowledge of your pakistan politics but with regard to pushtoon nation they will sooner or later have the arminious equivalent and this should change the history of both pafghanistan and pakistan.the time span for this occurence may need upto a century.until then the cat and mouse between the civilian and military in pakistan and reconciliation of afghan govts. with local tribes will continue.have a nice day.

  10. PM

    rexminor, I agree with you that income and asset distribution is a major factor in conflict.The corruption is always there. What counts is degree of corruption. Is it less than 5 percent or 25 percent or more. In Pakistan it is about land and finance. In Afghanistan it is about trade and drugs. Then you can add aid related flows. Zardari and Karzai are not important. It is the organized groups who move things and make history. Pushtoons will play a significant part but it is unclear as to the direction.

  11. rexminor

    you said it. you are right!!

  12. rexminor

    with regard to the direction of pushtoons in the future they have no choice left but to come out of their fortresses and spread across the whole of the sub-continent.they are a unique force never owerpowered in history and today have most of the ingredients of a great nation.one cannot forecast a leader, but i am sure as the daylight that a descendent of “malik abdur rashid” and “batan” will emerge to take its future role in history.the protracted role adopted in the past have not given them a peaceful period of even one century. my concervative estimate is that the complete process my take a period of one hunred years.

  13. Vajra


    Ah! Now the light dawns on me!! So that is the grand plan. Foolish, naive, gullible SDRE that I am.

    Some of the readers of these columns have had ancestors who have lived under Pushtoon rule for centuries. Do you have any hints or tips for them on how Pushtoon rule in the forthcoming centuries will be?

  14. Milind Kher

    It is impossible to win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan without any allies at all. However, people like Rashid Dostum may not be the best of choices.

    The best course would be to provide arms and support to Hizbe Wahadat. They would surely be able to give the Taliban a tough fight. They are principled people too.