Replacing the Current AfPak Strategy with a New One

Posted in Broader Middle East , United States , Afghanistan , Pakistan | 05-Jul-10 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari

In this June 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama, accompanied by Gen. David Petraeus, announces in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday that Petraeus would replace Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan.

With the firing of General Stanley McChrystal, President Barack Obama appears to be writing his own edition of "lessons in disaster," a book of the same title that he so publicly read and supposedly drew lessons from before committing 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. One wonders whether he knows it, but Afghanistan is increasingly looking like a disastrous place for his administration as long as he sticks to the current AfPak strategy.

An important question that comes to mind is whether Obama would have fired General McChrystal for the same interview if the war in Afghanistan was going well for the United States. Under such circumstances, replacing a winning general would have been well nigh impossible. Then, Obama could not have said, as he did after relieving McChrystal of his command, that war is bigger than any one man. He would have still chastised the general for imprudent remarks, but would have moved on by saying that "the war in Afghanistan is too important for me to be swayed by some minor irritants like this interview." While McChrystal was presiding over a failing war, he was a readily dispensable commodity for a highly ambitious American president, whose vision is fixed on winning a second term. And even some semblance of success in Afghanistan toward the end of 2011 becomes an important factor in Obama's reelection.

In the meantime, President Barack Obama is developing an uncanny profound commitment to a strategy in Afghanistan that does not seem to be working. There are several problems with that strategy.

The foremost one is that it is promoting Hamid Karzai's administration, which seriously lacks legitimacy. The doctrine on Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, outlines a number of indicators of legitimacy for a government that U.S. troops are trying to defend in a country. At least three of those indicators are worth-mentioning: the ability to provide security for the populace, selection of leaders in a manner deemed just and fair by a majority of the populace, and a high level of regime acceptance by social institutions. Needless to say, the Karzai government is decidedly 'flunking' on all of these three variables.

The United States can do very little to legitimize the government of Hamid Karzai. In fact, it is stuck with him. That very fact, and the regular news items about the high degree of corruption and the constant parceling out of billions of dollars from Afghanistan to foreign banks and other safe havens are providing convincing evidence that the "rats know the ship is sinking, and they have started the process of abandoning it."

We also hear reports that President Karzai, after becoming convinced that the United States would not stay in Afghanistan for long, has already started negotiating some sort of a deal with Pakistan that would provide stability to his country in the post-American era. As much as Pakistan is maligned by Washington and other Western countries, it might be the only source on which Karzai can count for alleviating the rising power and influence of the Taliban. The United States and other Western troops have an option of leaving Afghanistan; however, Pakistan is "doomed" to stay next door to Afghanistan forever for geographical reasons!

The second significant problem with America's strategy in Afghanistan is that, thus far, American commanders have not found a way to win the war. The campaign in Marja turned out to be a "bleeding ulcer," as it was candidly depicted by the departing Commanding General McChrystal. The Taliban side has been watching closely, and with much glee, the mounting confusion among American commanders about implementing new tactics. As General David Petraeus takes charge of the military campaign, the most significant thing to watch is how different his tactics are going to be about the use of force, destroying the property where the insurgents are allegedly hiding, and the use of air power. These issues - referred to in military jargon as "courageous restraint" - were reportedly causing a lot of grumbling and resentment among the foot soldiers and Marines that their hands were being tied in the name of winning the hearts and minds.

General Petraeus promised, during his confirmation hearing to replace McChrystal, that he would take a closer look at the issue of courageous restraint. At least the Republican Senators will be watching closely to see whether he really means to bring about any change. McChrystal's critics do not care to remember that, in implementing courageous restraint, he was only following what Petraeus' COIN doctrine had advocated. However, Petraeus is also characterized as a "political general." But does the war in Afghanistan need a political general or a general who is willing to stay loyal to tactics purely on the basis of his military judgment? The answer to this question is obvious.

If the chief reason for the alleged success of the Surge Strategy in Iraq was its capacity to exploit the resentment of al-Qaida among the Sunnis of that country, there is no evidence that something akin to that tactic has yet been found in Afghanistan. Ethnic resentment between the Pushtoons and the Tajiks might be just one reason for the acute unpopularity of the Karzai government. Even though he is a Pushtoon, he has surrounded himself with the Tajiks.

The third problem related to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan involves Ambassador Carl Eikenberry and Special Envoy "Bulldozer" Richard Holbrooke. Both of these individuals publicly clashed with Karzai and McChrystal. By getting rid of McChrystal while leaving these individuals in their places, President Obama is demonstrating that he is really limited in his choice of competent personnel. The reports are that both Eikenberry and Holbrooke are on notice to get along with Petraeus. But that artificial restraint might still turn out to be problematic in the sense that it is likely to stifle honest disagreements that should still be debated in order to avoid the pathology of "group think." These officials can still disagree without becoming disagreeable and without attempting to score points by conveniently leaking their disagreements to the press.

What President Obama ought to do is to look for another strategy right now as a fallback option. He ought to look into why Karzai and the Pakistani government are so eager to cut a deal. Perhaps the United States ought to consider becoming a party to it. Another option ought to bring Iran into the negotiating process on Afghanistan as part of the "regional influentials." It would be a mistake to conclude that Iran would destabilize Afghanistan in the post-American era. After all, an unstable Afghanistan would be very detrimental to Iran's interests. The same thing applies to Pakistan. A third option is to put pressure on both India and Pakistan to look for a rapprochement on Afghanistan that involves broader issues of negotiations between those two acute rivals. Fourth, for the development of his next strategy, President Obama ought to stop looking at the Brookings Institution or other think tanks in Washington to hand him over a nicely packaged - but highly flawed - strategy. He might be well advised to let the South Asian nations and Iran play a distinct role in hammering out ways to stabilize Afghanistan. The United States can still play an important role in such a process. With the passage of each week, the current strategy is looking more like a failed one. It badly needs to be replaced by a new one, if the United States wishes to find a winning way of exiting the Afghan quagmire.