President Obama’s announcement of promised drawdown of forces from Afghanistan has evoked a flashback of ‘Gorbachev in Vladivostok’, who wanted nothing more than an honourable exit from a disastrous war. During his address to the Soviet Politburo in November, 1986, President Gorbachev said that even after six years of military effort, ‘no end was in sight’.
By Air Commodore (Retd) Khalid Iqbal
President Obama’s announcement of promised drawdown of forces from Afghanistan has evoked a flashback of ‘Gorbachev in Vladivostok’, who wanted nothing more than an honourable exit from a disastrous war. During his address to the Soviet Politburo in November, 1986, President Gorbachev said that even after six years of military effort, ‘no end was in sight’. “In general, we haven’t found the key to resolving this problem.” Gorbachev’s retreat was an admission of defeat. For the United States, the picture is not so bleak. Despite a substantial cost in blood and treasure, the US does not face an imminent disaster; though a deferred one it cannot escape.
Luckily, Obama understands that embracing of graceful failure is a better option than a strategic meltdown. He has asserted his leadership well in time and said: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home”. Nevertheless, announcement of drawdown without achieving the stated objectives and without any reference to “conditions on the ground” is a tacit admission of America’s eroding staying power. Moreover, window of opportunity for a face saving exit is narrowing down on a fast pace.
Even though United States may be able to carry on military operations at the current pace for quite some time, American national will to stay the course viz.a.viz use of military as a tool of first choice is eroding at a pretty fast pace. The US House of Representatives matched the national mood by flatly rejecting a bill to authorize American military operations in Libya. The resolution failed 295 to 123, with 70 Democrats bluntly crossing over to the Republican side to oppose the bill. Administration is of the view that operations in Libya do not qualify to be called a war, however, Congress thinks otherwise; same corollary is applicable to drone attacks in Pakistan.
Pentagon has termed the drawdown as too speedy and Taliban have termed it as ‘only a symbolic step’. However, what seemed to be a modest withdrawal plan has begun to have serious rippling effects. Taking the US plan to extricate its 33,000 troops from Afghanistan synonymous to throwing down the towel, the NATO states seem to be in a tailspin of panic. Most of NATO states which were enthusiastic to stay much beyond 2014 during their rhetoric at Lisbon NATO summit, a couple of months ago, are now eager to pullout their troops fast. Germany and France have promptly announced that they would look at scaling down their own presence in Afghanistan. France has indicated that it would carry out a progressive pullback of France’s 4000 forces with a timetable similar to the one announced by the United States. Germany has voiced concern on the safety of its troops especially when Taliban militias are emboldened and motivated to hit back following what they conceive as the US defeat in Afghanistan. Germany has also decided to pullout its 4,900 troops deployed in Northern Afghanistan which have been facing the brunt of combat operations for quite some time. Other NATO allies including Canada and Italy have already set the timelines for their troop withdrawal. ISAF component is already in a state of despair. This coalition of the unwilling does not have the stomach to continue its presence in Afghanistan for even a day more.
America will cut down 10,000 troops by the end of this year. Another 23,000 troops will leave next summer. If Obama loses re-election, he would hand back Afghan war to a Republican president at the resource level at which he inherited it. There would still be over 60,000 troops left, out of which 25,000 may be stationed indefinitely in Afghanistan under an arrangement being thrusted upon President Karzai.
The permanent US military presence in Afghanistan could be mischievously linked to imaginary threat from Pakistan. The New York Times’ David Sanger suggest that Islamabad’s angry reaction to operation Geronimo, “makes it more urgent than ever that the United States maintain sites outside the country to launch drone and commando raids against the militant networks that remain in Pakistan and to make sure that Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear arsenal never falls into the wrong hands”. Bruce Reidel, a retired CIA spy with pathological anti Pakistan bias is of the opinion the US needs a base to strike targets in Pakistan. “The geography is simple: You need to do that from Afghanistan.”
The delusional scenario that Obama built for his people is that America is drawing down from a position of strength, though he was not in denial of the fact that many important dimensions of the Afghan nation-building had gone astray. He hoped that Afghans would be able to build an alternative to the war economy. Peace, he said, is achievable, but it has to be led by the Afghan government, with those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan, and break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. Here Hillary and Obama are on different planes. Hillary during her Asia Society speech in February had postponed these preconditions as end objectives. The Soviets, too, had thought they could arrange a face-saving political solution. They were proven wrong when the country soon got in to the quicksand of a civil war.
Soon after Obama’s draw-down discourse, Hillary Clinton described the US-Pakistan relationship as frustrating. However, she said that “We cannot walk away from this relationship… we cannot repeat the mistakes of 1989.” But “When it comes to our military aid, we are not prepared to continue providing that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see some steps taken.” Likewise, just before leaving the office it dawned upon Secretary Gates that Afghan war could be won without Pakistan. US$ 500 million tranche of Coalition Support Fund has been held back which was “firmly committed” for release by 30th June. Further aid is likely to be cut down drastically. Pakistan has asked Americans to vacate Pakistani base Shamsi which has been under American usage for surveillance and drone attacks. The so called bilateral ‘Strategic Dialogue’ is now in abeyance, sine die.
It is amply clear that America has decided to abandon Afghanistan and dump Pakistan. Partnership with the US has never been easy yet recent spate of doubts and uncertainty has reinforced strains and fault lines. The war that is being abandoned in Afghanistan rather abruptly has the potential of reversing the frontiers and find its way into Pakistan as indeed other countries bordering Afghanistan. Presently all American options towards Pakistan are primed towards a single objective of putting extra pressure on Pakistan, on one pretext or the other. Gorbachev and Obama are the same side of the coin as far as post war dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan needs to understand this quickly and adjust to fast changing realities. Recent initiative by Iran to hold a trilateral summit with Afghanistan and Pakistan on the issue of terrorism needs to be expanded to include all countries bordering Afghanistan.