x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Week in review: Obama's Afghan strategy

After a three-month policy review, the US President Barack Obama presented a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan based on the hope that escalation will provide the path leading to the way out of the conflict. While the latest version of Washington's approach to the war attempts to distance itself from the goal of nation-building, in its implementation that is what it will entail.

After a three-month policy review, the US president Barack Obama presented a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan based on the hope that escalation will provide the path leading to the way out of the conflict. Reuters interviewed Afghans to find out whether they found the new approach persuasive. "Thirty thousand more US troops for Afghanistan? Esmatullah only shrugged. " 'Even if they bring the whole of America, they won't be able to stabilise Afghanistan,' said the young construction worker out on a Kabul street corner on Wednesday morning. 'Only Afghans understand our traditions, geography and way of life.' "Obama's announcement of a massive new escalation of the eight-year-old war seemed to have impressed nobody in the Afghan capital, where few watched the speech on TV before dawn and fewer seemed to think new troops would help... "For many, the prospect of more troops meant one thing: more civilian deaths. " 'More troops will mean more targets for the Taliban and the troops are bound to fight, and fighting certainly will cause civilian casualties,' Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a former Afghan prime minister, told Reuters. " 'The civilian casualties will be further a blow to the US image and cause more indignation among Afghans.'" In his speech at the West Point military academy, Mr Obama reiterated his previously stated central goal for the war: "disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qa'eda and its extremist allies," yet as Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations noted: "Afghanistan is no longer home to al Qa'eda, [Pakistan is] and al Qa'eda doesn't need Afghan territory to be a threat. Nor is it certain the Taliban would invite al Qa'eda back in if it had the chance. "It is equally debatable whether what happens in Afghanistan will be critical to its far more important neighbour Pakistan. What happens in Pakistan will decide that country's future, and we do not know whether the government there will prove willing and able to tackle the threats that have grown up inside its borders." The Los Angeles Times reported: "Pakistanis do not doubt that President Obama's troop buildup will give US and allied forces more wherewithal to uproot Taliban militants from their strongholds in Afghanistan. "What worries them is that the strategy will push Afghan Taliban over the porous border and bolster the ranks of brethren militants in Pakistan's tribal areas, security experts say. "Pakistanis remain sceptical that Obama's new blueprint for winning the war in Afghanistan will pacify their volatile, unstable neighbour to the west." Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote: "In order for the president's plan - which calls for surging 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan for 18 months - to work, an effective Afghan security structure must be able to take their place once they are subsequently withdrawn. Obama indicated last night that he expected Afghans to assume this role, arguing that the temporary troop increase - of which 5,000 of the troops will be dedicated to providing additional military training to the Afghan army - 'will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces'. "But administration representatives have made clear that they consider the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. Numerous reports also indicate that, despite extensive foreign training programmes and other support, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police have little capacity to defeat the Taliban insurgents without continued direct US assistance. Expanding their size still further will compound the additional problem that the Afghan government lacks the budget to sustain such a large security apparatus. The Afghan forces' persistent weaknesses are one of the main reasons why the Obama administration has felt compelled to send more than 50,000 American troops to Afghanistan since it assumed office less than a year ago. "In addition to relying on what would amount to an almost miraculously rapid improvement in the quality of the Afghan government and its security forces, the administration also hopes to induce Pakistan's government to curb the longstanding assistance many Pakistanis - including some working in the country's security forces - provide the Afghan insurgents. Although Pakistani President Asif Zardari might be inclined to follow Obama's lead, he is too weak to enforce his preferences on the Pakistani military. The Pakistani army thus far has focused its counterinsurgency efforts on countering the Pakistani Taliban, which has been conducting a murderous wave of suicide bombings against the security forces as well as government and civilian targets within Pakistan. In contrast, they have declined to repress the Afghan Taliban, their erstwhile allies who have established sanctuaries in remote regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which serve as support bases for the insurgency in Afghanistan." Nathan Hodge at Danger Room noted that while the latest version of Washington's approach to the war attempts to distance itself from the goal of nation-building, in its implimentation that is what it will entail. "In announcing the escalation of the Afghanistan war last night, President Barack Obama made an interesting declaration. 'Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended,' he said. 'Because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.' Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is playing the same tune. In testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said: 'This approach is not open-ended "nation-building".' "The administration may excise the phrase 'nation-building' from the talking points, but whether or not they choose to employ it, that's precisely what Afghanistan 3.0 involves. "Whether it's soldiers teaching better planting techniques to Afghan farmers, diplomats and aid consultants advising local leaders or provincial reconstruction teams building roads, bridges and schools, Afghanistan has become a major nation-building effort. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Congress has appropriated more than $39 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. That figure is rapidly approaching the approximately $50 billion spent on rebuilding Iraq. "And the exit strategy - building capable Afghan security institutions and transferring responsibility to them - is, by definition, a nation-building project. And as long as the operating budget outstrips revenue, it looks like Afghanistan will remain a charity case." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on the mixed response to the new strategy coming from America's European allies. "The Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said he believed other members of the alliance would contribute 5,000 soldiers - and possibly more - to make a 'substantial' increase to the 42,000 Nato troops already ranged against the Taliban. " 'This is not just America's war,' he said at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. "But the president's entreaties drew an ambivalent response in some European nations where the war is broadly unpopular among voters who question why it is being fought and whether it can be won. "France and Germany ruled out an immediate commitment, saying they were awaiting an Afghanistan conference in London in late January. Other nations offered only limited numbers of soldiers."

pwoodward@thenational.ae