By spelling out his AfPak policy as being to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future”, President Obama has, in the view of most western analysts, abandoned the far more ambitious goals of his predecessor, who was said to have been committed to making Afghanistan a “flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology”.
The truth, however, is that President Bush had the same goal when he began the campaign in Afghanistan: the destruction of the Al Qaeda network and elimination to the extent possible of the Taliban as a potent force in Afghanistan. Promoting democracy, keeping Afghanistan free of poppy, and reconstruction of the devastated economy were not his priorities at all.
Unlike Obama, however, it was an objective that he hoped to achieve on the cheap by resurrecting and making alliances with the warlords who had been responsible for much of the earlier destruction in Afghanistan. To secure their cooperation, American forces winked at the resumption of poppy cultivation, ignored the atrocities committed against the Taliban and non-Taliban Pashtuns in the north, and implicitly or explicitly encouraged the recreation of warlord enclaves all over the country while ensuring that ISAF forces had no role beyond garrisoning Kabul.
It was the Rumsfeld “economy of force” and consequent reliance on warlord allies that led to the debacle at Tora Bora and the escape of the Al Qaeda leadership into the inaccessible badlands of the Pak-Afghan border. It was one of many errors that the Bush administration committed in those early days.
Ranking alongside the Tora Bora disaster was the Bonn Conference and the deliberate exclusion from this conclave of Pashtun tribal leaders who alone could have ensured that “while every Taliban was a Pashtun not every Pashtun was a Taliban or Taliban sympathiser”.
The Bush administration showed no interest in “nation building” or in recognising that even for the achievement of their objectives they had to work with not only the Karzai administration and its collection of unsavoury warlords but with community leaders, particularly in the southern and eastern Pashtun-dominated provinces and districts of Afghanistan.
Minimal attention was paid to the strengthening of Afghan security forces. Even less attention was paid to ensuring proper representation for the indigenous Pashtuns in the Kabul power structure. Per capita aid to Afghanistan, all disbursed through NGOs, was lower than in any other war-ravaged country. Even this limited aid was ill utilised. As the interagency white paper published alongside Obama’s speech says, “A large portion of development assistance ends up being spent on international consultants and overhead.”
No attention was paid to the denial of even basic services to the Afghan people by an inept and corrupt administration that was hamstrung in part by the need for political support from the warlords who brooked no interference in their fiefdoms.
Then, of course, came the diversion of forces and political attention to Iraq which not only deprived Afghanistan of sorely needed resources but gave fresh impetus to the rebirth of the Taliban, to the financing of the movement by sympathisers in the Muslim world, and to the recruitment of volunteers from refugee camps and from neighbouring countries.
President Obama’ team has learnt it seems from the mistakes of the past. He will send 17000 additional troops to Afghanistan and an additional 4000 trainers to ensure that the Afghan National Army’s strength is brought up to 134,000 from the current 80,000 and the strength of the police force is raised to 82,000.
It is recognised that the Afghan economy will not support such an augmented force and the white paper therefore says that “The international community must assume responsibility for funding this significantly enhanced Afghan security force for an extended period. We will also have to provide support for other Afghan security forces such as the Afghan Public Protection Force. Salaries paid to Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police must become more competitive with those paid by the insurgents”.
(Some countries are responding. The Japanese have already committed to paying the salaries of the police force for the next six months.)
Obama will send hundreds of additional civilians to carry out development work. He will lay down benchmarks for the elimination of corruption in Kabul and will ask his officials to work with local leaders as envisaged in the interagency white paper.
The clearest departure from the Bush administration’s policies, however, is Obama’s unequivocal endorsement of efforts to seek reconciliation with the Taliban. In his words: “In a country with extreme poverty that has been at war for decades, there will also be no peace without reconciliation among former enemies…there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.”
Is this enough? Is this the key to success, which Obama concedes will take many years to achieve? I am not sure. First, the troop levels are probably inadequate since they will represent no more than a replacement for the Canadian and Dutch forces that are due to withdraw by 2011. More recent reports suggest that Obama will be prepared to consider sending a further 10,000 troops early next year and will thus meet the full demand of his local commanders. But even this falls far short of the numbers prescribed in the Petraeus-authored “Counter Insurgency Manual”.
It has now become conventional wisdom to suggest that the Taliban insurgency is financed by drug money. Certainly drug money does help but it would be naïve to assume that funding from other sources is not a significant resource for the insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Poverty may be the root cause for the availability of recruits in this region, but financial assistance flows to insurgents because of Muslim discontent with American and Western policies on such issues as Palestine. It is a sad truth that so long as this anger and frustration exists, there will be no diminution in the flow of funds to insurgents.
The focus on sending additional civilians to assist the development process may not be enough. What is needed is an equal focus on “signature” projects that can effect an immediate improvement in the employment situation and provide the energy that would generate economic activity. One had hoped, for instance, that the Kajaki Dam, which could provide electricity to a million and a half people in Kandahar and Helmand, would have been a top priority. I have always felt that this power project along with the rehabilitation of the Kabul-Kandahar road and construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline could transform southern Afghanistan and wean the ordinary Afghan from the Taliban faster than any other reconciliation measure. Perhaps this will be done once the development effort gets underway.
Overall, it is apparent that even if all goes well, achievement of the limited American objective is going to take time. Even if Obama is re-elected for a second term, it is safe to predict that he will not be able to declare victory as he leaves office in 2016. But without some such victory, the Americans will not leave the region. The stakes are seen to be far too high.
The writer is a former foreign secretary
Reproduced by permission of DT