By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
The Republicans under George W Bush had taken the credit of stabilizing Iraq and gradually handing over provinces in Iraq to Iraqi forces. Gen David Petraeus and Gen Stanley McChrystal were pronounced as heroes. Claims made and acclaims received were far from truth since Iraq is still as volatile as it was in earlier years of its occupation. Obama riding over the crest of popular votes also thought of pinning a feather in his cap by repeating the so-called success story of Iraq in Afghanistan. He spelt out his mission to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. For the accomplishment of his stated mission he not only shifted the heroes of Iraq from Iraqi theater of war to Afghanistan but also shifted 30,000 troops from Iraq.
Since it was assumed that roots of terrorism in Afghanistan lay in neighboring FATA and without plucking out the roots, no worthwhile results could be achieved, Pakistan was tagged with Afghanistan. It was planned to render Durand Line redundant and to enforce strategy of anvil and hammer by co-opting Pak forces. US-NATO forces were to launch the hammer in Helmand Province contiguous to Balochistan and carryout hot pursuit operations, raids and aerial attacks inside Balochistan/FATA if the situation so demanded while Pak troops were to provide the anvil.
In other words, southern and eastern Afghanistan-FATA-Pashtun belt of Balochistan were to be converted into a single battle zone, with overall command and control resting with Gen McChrystal. Holbrooke was appointed as the coordinator of the Af-Pak policy to push the civil leadership of the two countries and also oversee work done on creating cleavage between Al-Qaeda and Taliban and dividing Taliban. But for Gen Kayani’s defiance, this Pakistan specific policy would have been enforced as in the case of drones.
Pentagon led by Robert Gates in close consultation with CJCSC Adm. Mike Mullen, Centcom Commander Gen Petraeus and ISAF commander Gen McChrystal were the architects of Af-Pak strategy. The intelligence brief provided by CIA, FBI, MI-6, Mossad, RAW and RAAM was dovetailed in the presentation made to Obama by Gates. Hawks within Obama’s administration were taken on board and policy of troop surge and extending the battle into southern Afghanistan and later to eastern Afghanistan was approved. Policy makers also decided to step up pressure on Pakistan to demolish all sanctuaries of militants in FATA and to prevent cross border terrorism. Pakistan, which had been playing a key role in the war, was kept out of it.
The same team played a leading role in December 2009 Review in which post mortem of the year was carried out. 2009 had proved to be the deadliest year since ISAF suffered 521 fatalities. Helmand operation had miserably failed and another military debacle had taken place in Nuristan province. Military debacles together with high casualties had flabbergasted McChrystal and not only he had ordered speedy withdrawal of forward troops from southern and eastern Afghanistan to major towns and cities in depth but had also posted a distress signal in white heat requesting for immediate reinforcement of 40,000 troops to save the situation. He even brought back border check posts thereby destroying the policy of anvil and hammer. When Pak troops moved in South Waziristan in October 2009, they were deprived of the facility of an anvil across the border.
Fast deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan coupled with global recession which gravely impacted US economy propelled Obama to consider winding up the expensive war as early as possible and finding a political solution to Afghan problem. However, the military and civilian hawks prevailed upon him and forced him to sanction troop surge. Taking into account gentle protests of the anti-war doves as well as public pressure who also wanted the soldiers to return home, Obama slashed the demand to 30,000 and also announced pull out of troops starting July 2011 and kept the completion date vague.
This decision has been under severe criticism of Pentagon, US senior field commanders in Afghanistan and Republicans. One of the reasons cited by McChrystal for failing to deliver despite provision of 30,000 US troops and 8000 NATO troops in early 2010 taking the total to 152000 was the conflicting and self-defeating decision of troop surge and pullout. In his view, it encouraged the militants and discouraged coalition troops, ANA and Afghan regime. Notwithstanding his bellyaching, his much hyped second offensive in Helmand in February 2010 failed again which made him more edgy and short tempered.
Although McChrystal was shown the door, however, efforts to get the pullout date revised continued. Pentagon’s sustained pressure together with false reporting of progress forced Obama to reconsider his decision of pullout date. Robert Gates was the first to break the news that July 2011 date is flexible and will be extended to 2014. Karzai regime egged on by India, Petraeus and CIA advocated extended stay of coalition troops at least till 2014, arguing that by then ANA and Afghan Police would be in a position to take over security duties independently. However, Petraeus plan to launch a decisive offensive in Kandahar remained confined to rhetoric only.
Since October 2010, US-NATO commanders are trying to portray that security situation is gradually improving. Kandahar operation activated on a low key in September 2010 is being described as progressing well. Extended stay is being asked for on the basis of this insignificant progress on the military front and on political front in the form of buying the loyalties of moderate Taliban. The lowly shopkeeper from Quetta city who pretended to be number two of Mullah Omar and gave US-Afghan leaders false hopes that the Taliban have in principle agreed to negotiate with Karzai was another reason of optimism among US military leadership.
High hopes were dashed when the identity of shopkeeper came to light. Taliban spokesman dispelled the widely spread impression that secret talks were taking place with Karzai and agreement was round the corner. He said there will be no talks till foreign troops are on Afghan soil. It was a huge embarrassment for CIA and MI-6. This setback together with defeat in mid-term elections in which Republicans improved their position sent Democrats into mode of depression. It has now become obligatory for Obama to show some military gains in Afghanistan to justify commencement of pullback by July 2011 and to retain tenuous hold on White House.
NATO”s summit in Lisbon in November was attended by Obama and Russian President. Despite the war turning into the longest ever military engagement and becoming too expensive to bear, the NATO leadership put up a rosy picture that good progress had been made. Based on the ‘all-good’ assessment, it was decided to keep fighting with renewed vigor and to stay put in Afghanistan till 2014. Such optimistic expressions had become necessary to bolster the sagging morale of coalition forces and ANA and to dispel impressions that the US and NATO leaders were divided, had lost heart and were on the retreat.
They overlooked the fact that the US and Europe’s economies had become hard pressed to sustain the war due to global recession. US expenditure in Afghanistan in 2009/10 was $105 billion and in current year is $117 billion. In the two theatres the US has so far spent $ one trillion and its debt has shot up to $12.9 trillion. Costs in Afghanistan will further escalate due to increase in combat strength, heavy presence of private security agencies, frequent skirmishes with Taliban and incidents of torching of supply vehicles in Pakistan and training of ANA and Police. To top it all, Taliban insurgency is funded by US forces in the shape of protection money for safe passage of their convoys through Taliban infested areas, which touches $150 million.
Had part of this money been spent on the development of Afghanistan and welfare of its people, the US could have won the day. It can ill-afford to remove unpopular and ineffective Karzai from power because of absence of an alternative. Despite the wish of overwhelming majority of Afghans for negotiations with Taliban, the US is still not prepared to recon ciliate with hard-line Taliban and at best agrees for their re-integration and that too under conditions. It is also not prepared to co-opt regional players to chalk out a regional alliance but is keen to make India a key player in Afghanistan.
It was under changed and difficult times that Pakistan’s significance came into prominence and two rounds of Pak-US strategic dialogue took place in 2010. Strategic Review of war on terror took place in Washington in December to re-endorse what was decided in Lisbon Summit. It reconfirmed the date of 2014 and concluded that the US despite its reservations couldn’t afford to alienate Pakistan. However, it is least bothered about Pakistan’s security concerns and reservations and grudgingly keeps it in its loop to make it keep fighting the militants in northwestern tribal belt. US media is still churning out anti-Pakistan stories. Summoning of current and former DG ISIs by US court was in bad taste.
The new dateline has been given under wishful assumptions that by 2014, resurgent power of Taliban will be curbed and ANA will be able to relieve US-NATO and take over security duties duly aided by India. In the intervening period while Pakistan will be pressed to mount a major operation in North Waziristan (NW) and drone attacks would continue, efforts will be made to capture Kandahar. Simultaneously, efforts to win hearts and minds of Afghans are being doubled and expansion and training of ANA and Police expedited. Since the assumptions are self serving and unrealistic, the plans are bound to fail. The US eccentric and dual faced policies will not help in bridging the widening trust deficit.
If the US continues to eye Pakistan with distrust and insists on providing space to India in Afghanistan in spite of Pakistan and Iran’s strong reservations and makes no effort to solve the chronic issue of Kashmir simply because India doesn’t like it, it will leave behind messy Afghanistan and Pakistan which will keep the region destabilized for a long time. Instead of getting transfixed on NW, the Review should have discussed macro issues dispassionately rather than self serving micro issues favoring USA only.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites.