June 28, 2011


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In December 2009, when announcing the “surge” of an additional 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan President Obama had simultaneously promised the beginning of the draw down of American forces in July 2011. This artful decision was tailored to satisfy those wanting the US to stay the course in Afghanistan and those demanding an end to this wasteful war during a period of a dreadful recession. Whatever its political dexterity in terms of domestic politics, the decision to induct more troops and announce a reduction in advance must have seemed militarily viable too.

The “surge” was intended to give the US and NATO forces the required means to degrade the Taliban militarily, enough to induce them to negotiate a political solution. This goal does not seem to have been adequately achieved. US political and military representatives had also begun annotating the President’s July 2011 draw down commitment by stating that there was nothing sacrosanct about it, and that any decision would be taken after a careful assessment of the ground situation at the appropriate time. President Obama’s June 22 address on the Af-Pak situation was therefore important in this context.

The questions on the minds of observers would have been the size of the initial draw down, the subsequent troop reductions, the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces to take over security responsibilities, progress in the reconciliation process with the Taliban, and US ability to effectively manage the essential but problematic Pakistan factor, especially after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in a safe-haven in Pakistan and his elimination by US Special Forces.

The state of play with the Taliban has been the subject of considerable interest and speculation, and, in India’s case, concern. On this subject the speech recycles known formulations and reveals little. The US, according to Obama, will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban, with the process being led by the Afghan government and those joining agreeing to break with the Al Qaida, abandon violence and abide by the Afghan Constitution. He says, without elaboration, that there is reason to believe progress can be made.

Some have detected a new openness in these words towards the reconciliation process. But then, as far back as December 1, 2009, Obama had in his Af-Pak address stated that the US “will support efforts by the Afghan government to open doors to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect human rights of their fellow citizens”. Using similar language in his second Af-Pak address on December 16, 2010, he said that the US “fully supports an Afghan political process that includes reconciliation with the Taliban who break ties with the Al Qaida, renounce violence and accept the Afghan Constitution”.

Obama is resorting to familiar formulations, except for expressing this time the belief that progress can be made in the reconciliation process. The basis for this cautious optimism could be actual progress in the contacts with the Taliban, or the intention may be to strengthen President Karzai’s hand as well as encourage “moderate” Taliban leaders to come forward, or it could simply be an expression of hope that the developing circumstances, with bin Laden eliminated, might have improved the chances of reconciliation.

Many observers believe, however, that contacts with the Taliban have been at low level, the military situation is stale-mated, the size and location of US bases in Afghanistan suggest not a military withdrawal but an Afghanization of the conflict, the Taliban’s refusal to open an office in Turkey or elsewhere indicates an unwillingness to bite the bait of negotiation easily and, above all, reconciliation cannot be reconciled with the declared intention to eliminate Haqqani and Mullah Omar.

Obama has been very cautious in his draw down decision, which he was obliged to take for his own credibility. The actual scaling down has been fitted into his re-election strategy, not what may be objectively required. Only 10,000 troops will be withdrawn by the year-end, with as little as 5000 troops by September. Later, when winter arrives and military activity declines, he will withdraw another 5000. To extract the maximum political capital, by next summer, closer to the elections, Obama intends to bring the 30,000 “surge” troops back home. That will still leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan- twice the number there when he became President.

With the “surge” reversed, US troops will be withdrawn at a “steady pace” until 2014 when they will move from combat operations to a supportive role for the Afghan forces. Meanwhile, at the May 2012 Chicago summit, NATO will discuss the next phase of transition in Afghanistan. This forward looking approach, with flexible time-tables and fluid commitments, gives Obama political space in the context of the electoral calendar.

Obama does not, in any case, have a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan in mind. In his December 2010 speech Obama had spoken about forging a new strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan in 2011 that would commit the US to the “long term security and development of the Afghan people”. Indications are that the US intends to acquire a number of permanent bases in Afghanistan, retaining 25,000 troops according to some reports, as part of US’s larger regional strategy.

In the wake of the bin Laden episode, references to Pakistan in Obama’s speech assumed more than usual importance. The President spoke of terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan, of working with Pakistan to root out the cancer of violent extremism and insisting that Pakistan keeps its commitments, and emphasizing that he will not tolerate a safe-haven for those targetting the US. While recognizing Pakistan’s role in decimating the Al Qaida leadership, he pointedly gave the credit for the bin Laden operation only to US intelligence professionals and Special Forces.

Lest anyone views this as a hardening of tone towards Pakistan, it is worth recalling that in December 2009 Obama had spoken of the cancer of extremism having taken root in the border region of Afghanistan, and the need for a strategy to “work on both sides of the border”. He warned then that he would not “tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear”. In his December 2010 address he again warned that the US will “continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe-havens within their borders must be dealt with”. All Obama has done is to repeat his earlier admonitions which, as we know, did not deter Pakistan from sheltering bin Laden. Pakistan is now posturing as the wronged party!

Obama’s June 22 speech was notable for containing nothing new; it carefully treaded known ground. With the end-game in Afghanistan approaching, many may have hoped that his latest discourse would break some new ground, explain more clearly how he intends to deal with the several uncertainties that still dog the situation in Aghanistan, and answer to an extent the many unanswered questions in the minds of non-western observers about some crucial aspects of US policy. In the event, not only the substance of the speech, even the obligatory high sounding rhetoric of US Presidential speeches was a recycled echo of the President’s two earlier addresses.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(sibalkanwal@gmail.com)

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