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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 9, February 20, 2010

Obama’s Short-sighted Afghan Strategy

Monday 22 February 2010, by Brahma Chellaney


What US President Barack Obama’s adminis-tration has been pursuing in Afghanistan for the past one year has now received international imprimatur, thanks to the well-scripted London Conference. Four words sum up that strategy: surge, bribe and run. Obama has designed his twin troop surges not to militarily rout the Afghan Taliban but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. Without a deal with Taliban commanders, the US cannot execute the ‘run’ part.

The Obama approach has been straight-forward: if you can’t defeat them, buy them off. Having failed to rout the Taliban, Washington has been holding indirect talks with the Afghan militia’s shura, or top council, whose members are holed up in Quetta, including the one-eyed chief, Mullah Omar. The talks have been conducted through the Pakistani, Saudi and Afghan intelligence agencies.

Obama, paradoxically, is seeking to apply to Afghanistan the Iraq model of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used a military surge largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains. But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and it is a most question whether the same strategy can work, especially when Obama has not hidden his intent to end the US war before he comes up for re-election. In a land with a long tradition of humbling foreign armies, pay-offs are unlikely to buy enduring peace. All that the Pakistan-backed Taliban has to do is to simply wait out the Americans. After all, popular support for the Afghan war has markedly ebbed in the US, even as the other countries with troops in Afghanistan exhibit war fatigue.

If a resurgent Taliban is now on the offensive, with 2008 and 2009 proving to be the deadliest years for US forces since the 2001 American intervention, it is primarily because of two reasons: the sustenance the Taliban still draws from Pakistan, and a growing Pashtun backlash against foreign intervention.

The US military and intelligence have carried out a series of air and drone strikes and ground commando attacks in Waziristan against the Pakistani Taliban, the nemesis of the Pakistani military. The CIA alone has admitted carrying out at least 11 drone strikes in Waziristan to avenge the bombing of its base in Khost, Afghanistan, by a Jordanian double agent, who in a pre-recorded video said he was going to take revenge for the US attack—carried out at Pakistan’s instance—that killed the Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud. But, tellingly, the US military and intelligence have not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against the Afghan Taliban leadership. To help facilitate the ongoing indirect negotiations, the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are working together, including in shielding the Afghan Taliban shura members.

Obama’s Afghan strategy should be viewed as a short-sighted strategy intent on repeating the very mistakes of American policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three decades that have come to haunt US security and that of the rest of the free world. Washington is showing it has learnt no lesson from its past policies that gave rise to Frankenstein’s monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and to “the state within the Pakistani state”, the ISI, made powerful during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as a conduit of covert US aid for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas.


To justify the planned Faustian bargain with the Taliban, the Obama team is drawing a specious distinction between the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and illusorily seeking to differentiate between “moderate” Taliban (the ‘good’ terrorists) and those that rebuff deal-making (the ‘bad’ terrorists). The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if such specious distinctions are drawn and the security interests of the world’s most populous democracy, which confronts a tyranny of geography, are ignored. India, on the frontline of the global fight against transnational terrorism, will bear the brunt of the blowback of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy, just as it came under terrorist siege as a consequence of the Reagan-era US policies in that belt.

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are a difficult-to-separate mix of soul-mates who together constitute the global jihad syndicate. To cut a deal with any constituent of this syndicate will only bring more international terrorism. A stable Afgha-nistan cannot emerge without dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Afghan Taliban. Instead of seeking to achieve that, the US is actually partnering the Pakistani military to win over the Taliban.

Even if the Obama Administration managed to bring down violence in Afghanistan by doing a deal with the Taliban, that would keep the Taliban intact as a fighting force, with active ties to the Pakistani military. Such a tactical gain would exact serious costs on regional and inter-national security by keeping the Af-Pak region as the epicentre of a growing transnational terrorism scourge. Regrettably, the Obama Administration is falling prey to a long-standing US policy weakness: the pursuit of narrow objectives without much regard for the security of friends.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

The author is a Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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