On 1st December 2009, US president Barak Obama announced much awaited new policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan “The New Way Forward” at Eisenhower Hall Theatre United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The focus is on eliminating Al-Qaeda and hardcore Taliban leadership, capacity building of Afghan security forces and civilian institutes in Pakistan, strengthening democracy in both countries.
The new policy is continuation of Af-Pak doctrine announced on 27th March 2009 by President Obama except one major change this time and that is a time frame of 18 months for US military withdrawal from Afghanistan after handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
According to president Obama, US security is directly tied up with US and NATO’s victory in Afghanistan. To achieve this goal 30,000 more US troops will join 68,000 US forces already on ground in Afghanistan. This move was much anticipated one as US has failed to control Taliban insurgency in some parts of Afghanistan and US president also acknowledged this fact.
It is the second time the US has announced troops surge in Afghanistan after Barak Obama took over as president in 2008. The last troop surge of 17,000 men was announced in March earlier this year.
Many analysts believe that stimulated time frame for US withdrawal from Afghanistan is too ambitious to attain and far from veracity keeping progress in Afghanistan during last eight years in mind. Eighteen months time span is too narrow to achieve an environment which US planners deemed in Afghanistan development and security.
President Obama has announced too many tasks for US and NATO allies in this short time span of 18 months and it is feared that most of these targets will not be met by the end of 2011. Training more than 180,000 Afghan army and police force, searching and destroying Al-Qaeda leadership along with Pakistan Afghanistan border, eliminating corruption from Afghan government, handing over certain areas in Afghanistan to newly trained Afghan forces, making Taliban so weak through use of force that they accept Afghan government’s writ and at the same time negotiating with some of Taliban groups are some of the tasks which president Obama set to meet in his AfPak policy in March earlier this year and reiterated these once again in his speech at West point Academy.
New way forward in Afghanistan consists of three major components despite skepticism by many, a quick review of each one of these can help in gauging chances of US/NATO success in Afghanistan.
A) – Military use to create a conducive environment for change in Afghanistan.
B) – Civilian aid to strengthen positive developments
C) – A broader relationship with Pakistan
It is hard to tell with certainty about the outcome of fresh troop surge in Afghanistan but looking at the fate of earlier troop surge it is feared that recent move will also fail as there is no clearly defined enemy and on the top of that most of these troops will be deployed along the Durand line. In recent months, after allied forces launched a major offensive in Helmand province near Pakistani border, Taliban have strengthen their control towards North due to less US /NATO presence in those provinces.
Until and unless US/NATO change their deployment plan for newly appointed soldiers across Afghanistan it would be not possible to keep Taliban movements under check. Hit and run tactics of Taliban gorilla fighters are successful till this date due to concentration of their targets in one area and concentration of their safe places in other areas.
Common man in Afghanistan widely believes that US and NATO have occupied their country. To overthrow this feeling of masses allied forces will need to make some fundamental changes in their tactics against Taliban in urban areas. Over the years hundreds of innocent civilian have been killed in aerial attacks on the basis of wrong intelligence.
The execution of second step would only be possible if the first step pays any substantial dividend in reducing Taliban fighting capability.
Third step in the strategy is linked to Pakistan, though there is no change in policy towards Pakistan which was announced in AfPak but it was for the first time president Obama acknowledged that relation with Pakistan was not maintained by US on a broader cooperation and mutual trust and respect. There was a clear deficit of trust between Pak-US officials during recent visit of US foreign secretary of state Hillary Clinton when role of US/CIA in Afghanistan and its impact on Pakistan’s security came under severe criticism in her interaction with Pakistani media and intelligentsia. Next, reaction of Pakistani security establishment and masses over Kerry-Lugar bill also put a second thought in US administration about Pakistan and its interests.
Security situation in Pakistan has depreciated seriously since 2001 when Pakistan decided to join hand with US and allied forces in Afghanistan. As this decision was not taken by a politically elected government so opinion of the masses remained against the idea of supporting US military in Afghanistan until very recently when Swat district in Northern Pakistan fell to Taliban and Pakistan army had to launch a massive offensive to uproot terrorists from there.
Thanks to public support and political will Pakistan army managed not only to regain lost territory but also eliminated almost all top leadership of Swat menace and now army is busy in fighting Taliban in South Waziristan agency in FATA area. These efforts have been recognized by Obama as he vowed to start a new strategic level partnership with Pakistan to overcome afore mentioned mistrust.
As Obama administration is ready to start a new phase of relationship between two countries still there are unsolved issues like difference between Pentagon and GHQ, Rawalpindi on threat perception in war on terror. Major difference stemmed from battle grounds on both sides of Durand line where both armies are fighting two separate enemies i.e. Pakistan fighting with TTP which has support from Afghanistan and US is fighting against Afghan Taliban who has support base in Pakistani side of border.
This deadlock between Pakistan and US can jeopardise the whole campaign against terrorism and must be solved as soon as possible. Pakistani officials believe that terrorism in Pakistan has origin in Afghanistan and US is not doing enough to stop this on the other hand US administration believes that Pakistan must do more in order to eliminate Al-Qaeda safe havens on Pakistani side of border.
Only workable “New Way Forward” can be a comprehensive solution based on mutual trust and respect of each other’s interests. US has interests in the region as it is critical for safety of its citizens but at the same time it must understand that safety of US citizens must not come at the cost of Pakistanis.
The toughest challenge for Obama administration at the moment is to gain support of local public in Afghanistan and Pakistan against Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Unless US wins the hearts and minds of common public, the wider support for new American policy in the region and its success would remain a mere dream.
Farzana Shah is a Pakistani journalist based in Peshawar. She writes for Opinion Maker and English Dailies.