Escalation as the New US Afghan Strategy – and a Reality Check


There are two factors crucial to an understanding of President Obama’s address yesterday explaining the new Afghan strategy: the escalating global recession and the need for those hardest hit to protect their global interests. The connection between economic hard times and world wars has been obvious to everyone for decades. The interconnected world of today, however, with its lethal weapons and technologies, makes such a scenario impossible. Thus, the President’s sounding the alarm regarding Pakistan’s nukes in the course of his speech is a matter for concern: one should remember, after all, that such anxieties helped bring about the second Iraq War and are a cause of present concerns in regards to Iran and North Korea.



In a series of articles we will examine the new Afghan strategy, its premises and implications. To do so we must touch on the following:

  1. US Domestic Politics

Usually a global power will find it difficult to change a policy once in place, since it involves admitting that mistakes were made, possibly resulting in reduced prestige. Thus, the decision to change course requires a great deal of courage.

President Obama, elected to office proclaiming the mantra of “change,” now finds himself confronted by resistance. The outcome of the conflict between those calling for change and those insisting on business as usual will largely turn on the state of the economy. If it worsens, pressure on the President and Congress will mount, and polarization will intensify.

The policy outlined by the President reflects these tensions. Sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan pleases conservatives, while setting a timeline for an exit strategy beginning in July 2011 is a bow to liberals. When an elephant shifts course it does so slowly because of its size. Ironically, the size of the elephant is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

One could say that the President is attempting a phased approach designed to bring about a dramatic change in the region. More specifically his policy involves the following:

  • Give the military what it needs now, setting the stage for an adjustment, if necessary; if this policy doesn’t work, the administration will change course.
  • Sending more troops is largely symbolic. The real emphasis focuses on diplomacy to persuade Pakistan and Afghanistan to get serious about extremists. This will help US develop a position of strength for any subsequent peace negotiations. However, which group of extremists to target other than Al Qaeda (the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, the Kashmiri Jihadists, or the Haqqani Network) is an issue which complicates the position of the various stakeholders, and which also fails to fully take into account the role of regional tussles involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and India, play in the Afghan war.

Now if America’s economic situation continues to deteriorate, the public will no doubt sour on the war. The President is fully aware of Al Qaeda strategy, learned from the jihad against the Soviets: smaller cuts overtime will bleed the bear to collapse. This is also a reason for inserting a timeline in the new US Strategy. Consider the following comment in the President’s speech:

“Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

  1. The Pakistan-India Factor

The global powers are entering a new era. This is the pattern: China and Russia will assert themselves when they think necessary, emboldening the emerging regional powers and their allies. At the same time (as previously noted by POLITACT), the regional powers will face the choice of which global powers they want as allies.

In this context, the US bilateral approach towards China has become more conciliatory. This could be seen in President Obama’s recent visit to China, where in stark contrast with the past, Obama lifted the country to a G2 relationship with the US. Clearly, the US recognizes China’s increasing stature and desires a measure of reciprocity in coping with Iran and Afghanistan, while playing with the sentiments of Russian and India. In addition, of course, the US sees economic advantages to a rapprochement with China. Despite all this, however, the US and China will continue to test each other’s resolve.

The relations between the US and Pakistan, by contrast, have reached a stage of entropy. We have noted in prior articles that the Pakistani public has become increasingly hostile towards both the extremists and the US policies; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got a taste of this during her recent visit to the country. The question is: how do you engage and build a strategic partnership with a country whose population sees the US as hostile to their country and Islam? Former President Musharraf fell victim to this dysfunctional relationship and President Zardari appears headed for the same fate. The nation’s military, however, has regained the public support lost during the Musharraf era, due mainly to the resolve it has recently shown against the Taliban in Swat and other parts of the Tribal Areas. At the same time, the public will not be as supportive of measures taken against groups which they believe have legitimate grievances, i.e., the Afghan Taliban and the Kashmir Jihadists. Many in Pakistan believe that the reason for the spread of extremism in Pakistan and the region is the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

POLITACT believes that the relationship between the US and Pakistan has reached a critical stage. For America to adopt a more aggressive approach towards Pakistan will likely backfire, resulting in a hardening of the Pakistan position; evidence of this can be found in General Kiyani’s recent declaration that “no one can separate Islam and Pakistan.” He is in effect saying to all concerned that the country has now done whatever it could reasonably be expected to do in the war against terrorism and will not take kindly to further prodding. Equally, the statement reflects the need for him to strike a balance between the liberal and conservative sentiments existing in the country.

Just as Israel received moral support for its counterterrorist tactics since 911, India is benefiting by the linkage of Kashmiri Jihadi’s with terrorism and Al Qaeda. The fact that the investigation of the Mumbai incident revealed the presence of Al Qaeda linked LeT operatives in the US and their possible role in planning the attack, makes Lashkar-e-Taiba a US problem as well. By this logic US and India share the same enemy.

The recent statements emanating from the JuD and the Afghan Taliban leadership are attempts to counter these views. Both have attempted to distance themselves from the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, against whom both Pakistan and the global community are already taking action. In the meantime, the Obama administrations appears to be connecting Al Qaeda, LeT, the TTP, the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, thus considerably widening both the scope and the cost of the conflict- one that can’t be resolved in 18 months.

Thus, the real question becomes: how do you cultivate a better relationship and bolster cooperation with an ally while ignoring its interests in the region? Or, as put by David Sanger in his book, The Inheritance, “How do you invade an Ally?”

To be continued.Part II

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