Runaway general, unravelling strategy

Runaway general, unravelling strategy

If the painfully crafted strategy of the Obama administration on Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) were to unravel, which appears to be increasingly likely, then events of this fortnight would be remembered as the beginning of its end.

Though the unceremonious sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (almost 60 years to the day that another legendary US general—Douglas McArthur—was relieved of his command in an equally confrontational manner) was dramatic enough, it is only the tip of the iceberg. While the disparaging words used by McChrystal in the Rolling Stone’s profile to describe the top civilian leadership might have been enough to ensure his departure, the fact that they exposed a deep division within the US security establishment on Af-Pak sealed his fate. This was the only way for Obama to deal with the “runaway general" and reassert the authority of the civilian leadership.

That righteousness and logic notwithstanding, Obama’s decision has revealed a near fatal fracture between the civilian and military leadership on the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in Af-Pak. The civilian perspective of this strategy, best represented by US vice-president Joe Biden, is premised on a greater emphasis on counterterrorism with the existing number of troops or a limited troop build-up, and a clear exit date of mid-2011. This , burdened by efforts to clean up corruption and win the hearts and minds of the local Afghan population, is like a drive-by intervention. In contrast, the military perspective is based on additional boots on the ground, strict rules of engagement, and a “need to stay the course until the job is done" attitude.

Historically, COIN experience in other parts of the world, including India, reveals that time-bound interventions are apt to fail. The strategy will succeed only if military and civilian components are in sync—this has not been the case in Afghanistan. While Gen. David Petraeus, author of the current US COIN strategy, is more in tune with the political leadership, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to repair fractious relations between military and civilian leaders.

If winning hearts and minds is the priority in Afghanistan, then not losing the hearts and minds of the populace and leadership of Washington’s most truculent ally is the biggest challenge in Pakistan. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center reveals in 2010, only 17% of urban Pakistanis viewed the US favourably, and the number is likely to be higher in rural areas. In addition, only 13% of Pakistanis last year had confidence that Obama would do the right thing in world affairs, and that number has dropped to a mere 8% this year—the lowest in the world. The unrepentant guilty plea of the Pakistan-born failed Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, exemplifies this hatred of the US in the extreme. This despite the fact that the US Congress and the administration passed one of the most generous assistance packages of $1.5 billion per year for Islamabad.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s elite, particularly the military, has been equally taciturn, if not obstructive, in supporting the US COIN efforts, especially against key elements of the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network. Two independent reports by Matt Waldman at the London School of Economics and the RAND report by Seth Jones and Christine Fair have reached the same conclusion: Pakistan’s security establishment continues to maintain links with key extremist networks that pose some of the biggest challenges to the US COIN strategy. Worse, there is a resignation and helplessness in Washington regarding Islamabad’s counter-COIN strategy. The McChrystal fiasco has only exacerbated this situation and weakened Washington’s influence over its alleged ally.

With a bickering US security establishment, a resurgent Taliban and a treacherous ally, Obama’s Af-Pak war strategy is at risk of coming apart. Only concerted effort at the highest levels and a lot of good luck might make this motley choir sing from the same sheet. But this might prove to be an impossible mission even for a totally focused Obama.

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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