Sunday, March 29, 2009
Obama's Afghan Exit Strategy
A picture of US exit strategy from Afghanistan is beginning to emerge as the details of President Barack Obama's new regional strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are scrutinized.
The first, most significant clue to the exit strategy is the narrowing of the focus to al Qaeda, leaving out any explicit mention of the Taliban. Here is how Mr. Obama put it: "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just."
Again, in another part of the speech addressed to Pakistanis, Mr. Obama limited his target to Al Qaeda and those closely allied with it, leaving out any direct reference to the Taliban: "The terrorists within Pakistan’s borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan – they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other violent extremists have killed several thousand Pakistanis since 9/11. They have killed many Pakistani soldiers and police. They assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They have blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment, and threatened the stability of the state. Make no mistake: al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."
Explicitly talking to CBS 60 Minutes about exit a week before unveiling his strategy, Mr. Obama said, "So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."
To justify additional aid to Pakistan, Mr. Obama further added: "It is important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda. This is no simple task. The tribal regions are vast, rugged, and often ungoverned. That is why we must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken – one way or another – when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets."
Clearly, Pakistani and US interests are not in conflict in Afghanistan as both governments are eager to prevent the use of the region to launch attacks on Western targets.
This narrowing of the Obama focus to al Qaeda is a return to the earlier US-Pakistan strategy in former President George W. Bush's first term, when President Bush and President Musharraf both agreed to distinguish between Taliban and Al Qaida, seeing the former having local roots and no global jihadi agenda versus latter, who are foreigners and global jihadists. That was the right approach and it significantly reduced violence until the US reversed this policy and goaded Pakistan into attacking the Taliban in FATA. The ostensible reason was Bush's desire to establish Western style democracy in Afghanistan, a goal that Obama has decided against pursuing in favor of reconciliation with the vast majority of the Taliban.
I think the Obama policy offers an opening to fundamentally change the conflict for Pakistan to facilitate the US exit from the region and preserve Pakistan's strategic interests, if the Pakistani leadership plays its cards right by addressing a couple of critical differences between the US and Pakistan.
The first of these differences that must be bridged between the US and Pakistan is the US insistence that Pakistan's intelligence agencies cut all ties with the "extremists", again without any direct reference to the Taliban. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to cut contacts with extremists in Afghanistan who were “an existential threat” to Pakistan. The ISI has had links with extremists “for a long time, as a hedge against what might happen in Afghanistan if we were to walk away,” Gates said on “Fox News Sunday” today. “What we need to do is try and help the Pakistanis understand these groups are now an existential threat to them and we will be there as a steadfast ally for Pakistan,” Gates said. “They can count on us and they don’t need that hedge.” I see some flexibility here in terms of who is defined as "extremists" with whom Pakistan must cut ties.
The second area of significant disagreement is the continuing US drone attacks inside Pakistan. I think Pakistan can persuade the US to stop such attacks by refocusing its efforts on al Qaeda and away from the rank-and-file Taliban. Given the significantly depleted strength of al Qaeda in the region, I believe such a goal is achievable, and it will go a long way in reducing what Pakistan's foreign minister Qureshi describes as "trust deficit" between the two nations.
It's clear that the US presence in the region has become a lightning rod. It's encouraging Islamists to attack the US forces and target Pakistanis who are seen as serving the US interests. Notwithstanding additional US aid to Pakistan, any unilateral and impractical demands on Pakistanis by the Obama administration while continuing Predator strikes and dismissing the strategic interests of Pakistan in its neighborhood, will be an obstacle to US success on the ground in Afghanistan. The US must demonstrate its sincerity by listening to Pakistanis. In return, Pakistan must seize the opportunity to facilitate early US exit from the region by sincerely helping to reduce violence in the region. Just the expectation of US exit will help calm the insurgency in Pakistan as well.
Obama's Interview with CBS 60 Minutes
Obama's New Regional Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan
US Escalating Covert War in Pakistan?
Can India "Do a Lebanon in Pakistan?
20th Anniversary of Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan
Taming the ISI: Implications for Pakistan’s Stability and the War on Terrorism
Growing Insurgency in Swat
Afghan War and Collapse of the Soviet Union
US, NATO Fighting to Stalemate in Afghanistan?
FATA Faceoff Fears
FATA Raid Charades