US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated speech unveiling his strategy for the troubled state of Afghanistan and Pakistan had a sense of déjà vu about it. While the language was very different, it had a familiar ring to the rhetoric of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Thus, while the former president proclaimed a “global war on terror”, President Obama, likewise, called for a long and international “struggle against violent extremism”. Similarly, the famous Bush admonition to reluctant allies (read Pakistan) that they were either “with us or against us” (reinforced by Colin Powell in his visits to Pakistan) was reiterated by Obama, who publicly reminded Pakistan that the US would not tolerate “safe havens for terrorists”. Privately, Obama’s national security adviser Jim Jones travelled to Pakistan to press home the point that being unable or unwilling to join the US cause was not an option for Islamabad. Finally, both Bush and Obama categorically rejected the so-called “nation-building project” in Afghanistan and “narrowly defined” Washington’s goal as “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies”. In short, Obama’s plan would make Bush proud.
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If there was any doubt about the resonance of Obama’s approach among Republicans, it was laid to rest by a New York Times/CBS News opinion poll conducted after his 1 December WestPoint speech. The poll revealed that support for Obama’s so-called Af-Pak policy among Republican voters shot up from 19% in November to 42%. Moreover, while 70% of Republicans approved of the US war in Afghanistan, less than half that number of Democrats felt the same. Similarly, over 60% of Republicans felt that sending more troops would make the US safer from terrorism, whereas only 28% of Democrats agreed. The mood among the Republicans was also endorsed by their leadership, including former speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and former vice-presidential candidate and governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who publicly supported Obama’s strategy. This unlikely support from the more conservative section of the Republican party will, ironically, be welcome news for Obama, who has faced stiff opposition to his plans, both within the administration and the Democratic party.
Despite this unexpected support, the Obama plan, as outlined, faces at least three significant challenges. First, the prospects of Afghan ownership of the struggle against violent extremism is marred by both the lack of adequate consultation between Washington and Kabul and the lack of adequate governance and security capacity of the Afghan state. The latter is largely attributed to the corruption and ineptitude of the Karzai regime—a potentially fatal flaw for the Afghan state.
Second, the status of Pakistan as a questionable ally, given Islamabad’s penchant for making a distinction between operations against the so-called Pakistani Taliban (the existential fight) and Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban (the unnecessary fight), and therefore, its reluctance to wholeheartedly engage with the Afghan mission. In addition, Pakistan’s intrinsic suspicion of India and Indian intentions in Afghanistan has also denied the US a potentially key ally in achieving its objectives.
Finally, although the Obama administration has a clear objective of “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies”, it is, by its own admission, unable to even locate the top Al Qaeda leadership, let alone destroy it. As defence secretary Robert Gates recently admitted, the trail for the top Al Qaeda leadership has gone cold. This is certainly not for a lack of trying—more drone attacks have been launched under Obama than under Bush.
However, without highly accurate intelligence, such attacks are unlikely to get the top Al Qaeda leadership and, perhaps, the biggest challenge to the Obama strategy is that it does not appear to have a plan to get back on to the trail of Osama bin Laden. In fact, the closest that the US came to effectively striking the top Al Qaeda leadership was in December 2001 in the mountains of Tora Bora.
Apart from these inherent drawbacks, the Obama plan, which calls for working closely with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies as well as the United Nations, simply ignores other regional actors. By its inability to effectively regionalize its strategy by including key countries in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan, particularly Iran, India and China, the US denies itself the goodwill and capabilities that these countries can offer to Washington’s mission. Worse, the US also risks the possibility that one or more of these regional actors might chose to play spoiler to derail Washington’s precarious plans.
It should not come as a surprise that, despite the criticism, any plan is better than no plan at all. It should also not come as a surprise that the non-ideological Obama administration has not shied away from borrowing liberally from his predecessor’s plan, which was the last plan that almost achieved US objectives in Afghanistan before the Bush administration was lured away by the temptation of Iraq. It will also not come as a surprise if the pragmatic Obama administration modifies its plan in case the present approach is not seen to be working. It will, however, be very surprising if any plan for Afghanistan succeeds without the buy-in of the key regional countries.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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