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US can win Al-Qaeda war by just $50 million

By Zahid Malik (President and Editor-in-Chief Pakistan Observer)

The United States is caught in a Catch-22 situation vis-à-vis war on terror and is looking for some face saving mechanism to get out of the mess which has mind-boggling costs not only for the US but also for its allies. Defence analysts in Washington now openly say that the US war against Al-Qaeda, following 9/11 attacks on Twin Towers, has reached at a stage where Pentagon finds itself caught in a quagmire.

According to dependable estimates by some of the US think-tanks, the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached $ 1.05 trillion. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s four times more than America spent on fighting World War I, and more than 10 times the cost of 1991’s Gulf War (90 per cent of which was paid by the US allies), the war on terror looks set to surpass the cost incurred on the Korean and Vietnam wars combined, to be topped only by World War II’s price tag of $3.5 trillion.

The cost of sending a single soldier to fight for a year in Afghanistan or Iraq is about $775,000 – three times more than in other recent wars, says a new Report from the private but authoritative Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments of the United States.

This is a staggering cost for American tax-payers and that is why there is a growing opposition to this unconventional and directionless war especially when people of the United States are being told that their marines are after less than one hundred Al-Qaeda operatives.

About 1140 American troops have lost their lives since 2001 in the Afghan war just to kill a few dozen Al-Qaeda cadres including Osama bin Laden. This was admitted by CIA Director, Leon Panetta, in an interview with ABC TV on 27 June saying that the US was looking at 50 to 100 or maybe less Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and bordering FATA belt. Mr. Panetta said, “why to spend billions of dollars to terminate a band of just 50 Al-Qaeda cadres. My this Monday message is that these 50, or so, Al-Qaeda diehards can be tackled by spending just 50 million US dollars.”

President Obama wanted a new strategy to break the stalemate in Afghanistan and after taking over, fired his top General there. It was the first time in 60 years that an American wartime commander was sacked from his post. The President appointed a successor and then two weeks back fired him too, after an embarrassing magazine profile that made General Stanley McChrystal sound contemptuous of the Commander-in-Chief. There could be other reasons than just the derogatory remarks in the interview and one of them was that the strategy was not working and Gen McCyristal was feeling himself cornered by those at the State Department. After nine years of war, polls suggest Americans want Obama to meet the deadline of starting pulling out from July 2011 irrespective of what a handful of warmongers are advocating. Obama has two goals that will be difficult to reconcile: victory and pull-back.

I think, had the United States sensibly handled the situation after 9/11, it could have won the war against Al-Qaeda by nabbing or killing Osama bin Laden and his associates at a minimum price. It is a known fact that not only the CIA or the US military, but even Israel which is considered as an extension and 53rd State of the United States, has astounding expertise to hit targets and achieve the given objectives.

I would give a few examples of such notorious operations when the US and Israel though violating all international norms attained their objectives:

Israel launched a fascinating lightning operation at Entebbe Airport in Uganda through a group of its commandos and rescued hostages from Palestinian hijackers in 1976. Back in June 1981, in a surprise move, Israeli F-15s and F-16s destroyed the Iraqi under-construction nuclear reactor in Osirak in a meticulously planned James Bond 007 style operation.

In the recent times, an Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri was abducted by the CIA to extract information about Iranian nuclear programme. Then an 11-member Israeli assassination squad, while traveling on fake European passports, flew to Dubai and killed Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on 16 February 2010. The spy-thriller assassination of the senior Hamas official was carried out with high precision. They disguised themselves in such a way and were so sure that they booked a room in front of that of Mr. Mabhouh’s at the swank Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. Four of them broke into his room while he was out at meetings. When Mabhouh returned they killed him. The team departed from the Emirate shortly thereafter in and out of the country in just 24 hours.

There were many such operations launched by the US as well as by Israel. But the above few instances would give enough food for thought to the readers of Pakistan Observer and observers that the US, and Israel too, have the capacity and means to achieve their objectives anywhere in the world whenever they so wanted. They carry out both overt and covert operations. Then the question arises why the US has deployed over one hundred thousand troops and is spending so much resources in fighting a war the objectives of which could have easily been achieved through similar precise operations. I think this is just because of the superpower psyche of flexing the muscles and showing military might as a policy of brow-beating and keeping others under check.

The US not only wanted to dislodge the Taliban Government and kill or arrest OBL and his associates but also wanted a permanent stay in strategically important region in the neighbourhood of China, Central Asian States, Iran and the Gulf. After attack on Afghanistan, Washington was able to remove Mullah Omer from the leadership and disperse the Al-Qaeda network. The historians would definitely one day question “at what cost”?

Intelligence experts with whom I shared my views before writing this piece agreed that the United States could achieve its objective i.e. getting rid of the remaining 50 or so Al-Qaeda members at a nominal cost of $ 50 million i.e. one million per Al-Qaeda member.

An effort that was undertaken to kill bin Laden failed in August 1998, two weeks after Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The cruise-missile assault on a camp in Afghanistan came up empty as bin Laden and others had escaped before the bombs hit. The US could not achieve the objective because of intelligence failure.

Had the US spent a few millions of dollars and the CIA agents had been deployed in Afghanistan who would have hired the services of the required number of warlords who had gone in hiding after the Taliban takeover and were desperate to earn their livelihood, it would have been much easier to locate the hideouts of OBL. Even after Taliban left the Government in Kabul, Osama was believed to be hiding in Tora Bora caves in Nangarhar Province. Afghan warlords in the area could have handed over Osama bin Laden and his cohorts to it.

The 100,000 US forces that have been tasked to dismantle the 100 or so Al-Qaeda members, a ratio of 1000:1, is complicated by the fact that the US is also engaged in operations by going after the Taliban leadership. Mullah Omer and his followers never conspired against any foreign country and concentrated on ensuring law and order in their own country. Panetta, the CIA Director, in his interview as mentioned earlier admitted that Taliban insurgency “is engaged in greater violence right now” than when Obama took office.

Fareed Zakaria in his CNN programme on Sunday, 4 July 2010 criticized the Afghanistan war in unusually harsh terms saying that “the whole enterprise in Afghanistan feels disproportionate, a very expensive solution to what is turning out to be a small but real problem.”

Zakaria noted that the war was costing the US a (mis-)fortune in both blood and treasure. “Last month alone there were more than 100 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan”. That’s more than one allied death for each living Al-Qaeda member in the country in just one month. The latest estimates are that the war in Afghanistan will cost more than $100 billion in 2010 alone. To critics who suggest that we need to continue fighting the war against the Taliban because they are allied with Al-Qaeda, would be like fighting Italy in World War II after Hitler’s regime had collapsed and Berlin was in flames just because Italy had been allied with Germany. Why the US is spending so much time, energy, and effort when Al Qaeda is so weak? Is there a more cost-effective way to keep Al-Qaeda on the ropes than fight a major land and air war in Afghanistan?

The fall-out of the ongoing war on terror has very dangerous consequences for Pakistan and that is what which I am more concerned with. The unending incidents of terrorism, including the one at Data Darbar, Friday killings of the innocent in Peshawar and target killings in Karachi make one shiver while thinking about the future. Some persons at the helm of affairs are paying no attention to this situation and in fact they are further pushing Pakistan to a stage where there may be a civil war. Statements are being churned out deliberately blaming “Punjabi Taliban” for the suicide attacks and claiming that they have entrenched in South Punjab. That is why many critics have started describing these high-ups as part of the problem. They are goofs of the first order. But I have full faith in the collective wisdom of the Armed Forces of Pakistan. They are fully aware when, where and what to do.

I think time has come that saner elements in the United States and in Pakistan too, should raise their voice and question Obama’s insane war strategy which will not deliver and ultimately the US would be forced to withdraw from Afghanistan as it had to do in Vietnam. What I am more concerned about is that Pakistan should please, or if I may say, for God’s sake, should give a second thought to its myopic policy of war on terror.

Courtesy: Pakistan Observer

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