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.

Related Links:

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


Anwar said...

It is always amusing to read about the exit strategies... how can such a strategy work if there is no desire for exit?

Riaz Haq said...

Anwar: "how can such a strategy work if there is no desire for exit?"

I think Obama recognizes that US must abandon, or at least put on hold, any imperial ambitions for a while. The reality of sustainability of such an empire on borrowed money is staring him in the face. I think the current financial crisis is causing a lot of rethinking in Washington.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from a report about Gen McChrystal's latest admission that "No one is winning in Afghanistan":

"The US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who was boasting of military progress only three months ago, confessed last week that "nobody is winning". His only claim now is that the Taliban have lost momentum compared with last year."

"Pentagon officials increasingly agree with the Afghan villagers that the Marjah operation failed to end Taliban control and put the Afghan government in charge. This puts in doubt General McChrystal's whole strategy which also governs the way in which 10,000 British troops are deployed. He is being held to account for earlier optimism such as his claim at the height of Marjah offensive that "we've got a government in a box ready to roll in". Three months later, people in Marjah say they have yet to see much sign of the Afghan government."

"The one development over the past year which has hit the Taliban hardest happened not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. Prodded by the US, the Pakistan army has been taking over the federally administered tribal areas along the border where the Afghan Taliban once had safe havens. Soon the army may assault North Waziristan, one of the last Afghan insurgent enclaves and one which is already under repeated attack by US Predator drones. These find their targets because Pakistani military intelligence provides detailed information.

But loss of these safe havens in Pakistan may not be such a blow to the Afghan Taliban as it would have been three years ago when they controlled less of Afghanistan. It is impossible to seal the 2,600km frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, supposing the Pakistan army wants to do so.

The semi-official Pakistani view is that the US, Britain and Nato forces have become entangled in a civil war in Afghanistan between the Pashtun community, represented by the Taliban, and their Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara opponents who dominate the Kabul government. They expect the Pashtun to go on fighting until they get a real share in power. One Pashtun, a former colonel in the Pakistani army, said: "It will be difficult for the Americans and British to win the hearts and minds of the people in southern Afghanistan since at the centre of Pashtun culture is a hatred of all foreigners."

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Bloomberg Op Ed titled "No More Bullying Pakistan" written by former State Dept official Vali Nasr:

It took eight months, but the U.S. has finally apologized for killing 24 Pakistani soldiers in a firefight on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

With that, the U.S. military is again able to use routes through Pakistan to supply its forces in Afghanistan without paying exorbitant fees. Plus the threat that Pakistan will bar U.S. drone strikes is for now moot.
However, the main implication of the apology, a triumph of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over both the White House and the Pentagon, is that it ends the experiment of the U.S. trying to bully Pakistan into submission.

The clash in November between U.S. and Pakistani forces was a mess, with miscommunication on both sides but fatalities on only one. Pakistan, still seething over the U.S. breach of its sovereignty in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, closed U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan when the U.S. initially refused to apologize. The U.S., in turn, froze $700 million in military assistance and shut down all engagement on economic and development issues. In a further deterioration of ties, the Pakistani Parliament voted to ban all U.S. drone attacks from or on Pakistani territory.
No Sympathy

The Pakistanis held firm in their insistence on an apology. Officials at the Pentagon thought the case didn’t merit one. Many had no sympathy for the Pakistanis, whom they regarded as double-dealers for stoking the insurgency in Afghanistan and providing haven to the notorious extremists of the Haqqani Network. The White House feared that an apology would invite Republican criticism. Throughout the crisis, Clinton and her senior staff argued that the U.S. should apologize. She supported re-engaging with Pakistan to protect a critical relationship while also holding Pakistan accountable for fighting the Taliban and other extremists, a point she has raised in each of her conversations with Pakistani leaders.

Clinton’s recommendations were contrary to the policy the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency put in place in early 2011. Relations had soured when the Pakistanis held CIA operative Raymond Davis after he shot two Pakistanis. Frustrated with Pakistan’s foot-dragging on counterterrorism, the two agencies successfully lobbied for a strategy to reduce high-level contacts with Pakistan, shame Pakistan in the news media, and threaten more military and intelligence operations on Pakistani soil like the bin Laden assassination. It was a policy of direct confrontation on all fronts, aimed at bending Pakistan’s will.

It failed. Pakistan stood its ground. Far from changing course, Pakistan reduced cooperation with the U.S. and began to apply its own pressure by threatening to end the drone program, one of the Obama administration’s proudest achievements.
The conclusion: Open conflict with Pakistan was not an option. It was time to roll back the pressure.

The apology is just a first step in repairing ties deeply bruised by the past year’s confrontations. The U.S. should adopt a long-term strategy that would balance U.S. security requirements with Pakistan’s development needs. Managing relations with Pakistan requires a deft policy -- neither the blind coddling of the George W. Bush era nor the blunt pressure of the past year, but a careful balance between pressure and positive engagement. This was Clinton’s strategy from 2009 to 2011, when U.S. security demands were paired with a strategic dialogue that Pakistan coveted. That is still the best strategy for dealing with this prickly ally.