x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Seven years later, US admits strategy failing in Afghanistan

Washington's top military adviser announces revised battle plan that targets 'safe haven' of al Qa'eda and allies on both sides of border

Islamabad // On the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the man nominated to lead US military forces pledged a renewed campaign in Afghanistan where he said America was not winning its war.

Adm Michael Mullen, the top military adviser to Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, told the House Armed Services Committee he has commissioned "a new, more comprehensive military strategy for the region that covers both sides of that border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area the United States says is being used as an insurgent safe haven. His appearance and that of his boss, Mr Gates, before the committee highlighted the problems facing military leaders in Afghanistan.

"The war on terror started in this region; it must end there," Mr Gates said. Underscoring that sentiment, George W Bush, earlier this week pledged a surge of US troops to Afghanistan, removing them from Iraq where, in a reversal of fortunes, top military officials said they had al Qa'eda "on the run". Nearly seven years after US and Nato-led forces went in to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the insurgents appear to have gained in strength, capturing much of the south and east of the country; while in Pakistan, it is firmly entrenched in the country's north-west fringe with violent tentacles reaching across the nation.

"I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan. I am convinced we can," Adm Mullen said on Wednesday. Pakistan is reeling under a campaign of violence by al Qa'eda-inspired extremists that has destabilised the nuclear-armed country and brought US army boots on to its soil this month. Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, yesterday offered staunch support for the country's army chief after he criticised US-led coalition raids in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Mr Gilani said the comments of Gen Ashfaq Kayani, who hit out at the operations and insisted there was no deal allowing foreign troops to carry out the strikes, reflected government policy, state media said. This comes as reports emerged that Mr Bush secretly approved US military raids inside Pakistan against alleged militant targets, according to a former intelligence official with recent access to the Bush administration's debate about how to fight al Qa'eda and the Taliban inside the lawless border area.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the classified order. The official said Mr Bush signed the order over the summer. It gives new authority to US special operations forces to target suspected militants in the area along the Afghanistan border where the militants were said to be gaining new ground. "Now al Qa'eda's full concentration is on Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Mohammed Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad.

Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, conceded that the Pakistani Taliban, which emerged after the country joined Washington's "war on terror", has now been taken over by al Qa'eda, which means that Osama bin Laden's organisation has thousands of armed warriors across Pakistan's tribal borderland with Afghanistan. What Mr Malik did not say is that al Qa'eda has been at least as successful in colonising the older militant groups in Pakistan; jihadists who had previously been focused on Kashmir, Afghanistan or killing Shiites on their home turf, and who have mutated into foot soldiers of globalised radical Islam.

Such groups as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, once secretly patronised by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency to attack Indian troops in Kashmir, have now turned on Islamabad. These outfits have networks across Pakistan used by al Qa'eda to stage suicide attacks, such as the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad this year. For the first time, militants have targeted Pakistan's army, the ISI and the Frontier Corp paramilitary that is used to patrol the tribal belt, causing a crisis of confidence within Pakistan's military establishment.

"Al Qa'eda is so dangerous because it has sanctuary [in Pakistan] and because it enjoys a network of other groups that allow it access to resources, including personnel," said Christine Fair, an analyst at Rand Corp, a private US research group. "And it enjoys operational headquarters in Pakistan." The anti-terror fight was not Pakistan's war in 2001, but now it is, although this view has little acceptance among ordinary people or even the military.

A recent public opinion survey by Terror Free Tomorrow, a US-based polling organisation, found that half of Pakistanis want their government to negotiate with al Qa'eda and the Taliban, not fight them. A third of Pakistanis actually held a positive view of al Qa'eda, while three-quarters thought that the real purpose of the "war on terror" was to weaken the Muslim world and dominate Pakistan. This was even before Washington's ground assault on Pakistani soil last week, which Gen Kayani described as "reckless" and "counterproductive".

"Expansion of the war into Pakistan without Pakistan's concurrence potentially adds more than 172 million recruits and sympathisers to the Taliban cause," said John McCreary, a US-based analyst who was formerly a senior Pentagon adviser. "Even if someone in the Pakistan government secretly concurs, he is out of step with the sentiment of the electorate and the 30,000 madrassas from which Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can recruit."

Seven years after Sept 11, the original war against bin Laden and the Taliban has come surging back for Afghanistan and Pakistan. @email:sshah@thenational.ae