The New Afghanistan Strategy and Obama’s Reappraisal of US Foreign Policy

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Context

The process of reaching a decision regarding timing and the number of troops to be sent to Afghanistan unexpectedly metamorphosed into a comprehensive review of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. In the course of making such a choice, one logically ends up also assessing what is in the national interest as a whole; how to align the country’s economic and military policies in such a way as to reach the desired objective. This in large part explains why deciding on a new Afghanistan strategy has become so lengthy, confused and cumbersome.

Analysis

A strategic review worth its salt can never ignore the evolving global enviornment – one must consider not only current, but potential allies and adversaries. The first step in such an evaluation is to identify the major emerging players – Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC).

The President, of course, needs the advice of his closest associates and cabinet members, but he also has to develop his own perspective regarding difficult policy matters. One must take into account multiple viewpoints in order to grasp the complex reality.

Media reports claim that the new US strategy towards Afghanistan will be announced after President Obama’s all-important trip to Asia in mid-November.Hillary Clinton was recently in Pakistan, where she worked tirelessly to change misconceptions regarding US intentions towards the region. Senator John Kerry as well as US senior military officials, have also made recent trips to Pakistan. The Prime Minister of India, Manamohan Sigh, will be conducting his state visit to the US at the end of this month.

Moreover, President Obama and Vice President Biden have both recently spoken with Russian leaders, giving them a first-hand opportunity to develop fresh perspectives regarding Russia and its intentions. The President has also had in-depth encounters with Israeli leaders.

Reappraisal of American policy also involves a critical question: what is at stake for America in Afghanistan? Answering this question satisfactorily involves evaluating US interests internationally, understanding how they are related and then prioritizing in terms of the prevailing global recession. Prioritizing involves considering the following:

  • Whether it is more important to confront the nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea or to focus on stabilizing Afghanistan;
  • Which is more pressing – preventing destabilization in Afghanistan or Pakistan;
  • Whether or not countering Chinese and Russian ambitions is more important than fighting extremism;
  • Whether environmental developments like global warming are more of a threat than international rivalries;
  • Whether progress towards a two-state solution in the Middle East or stopping the spread of extremism is more critical;
  • Whether the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will be helpful or hurtful to US interests;
  • How to keep NATO intact and effective in the future.

Then comes the task of identifying the real challenges in Afghanistan – obviously necessary if the situation is to be improved significantly:

  • Is the coalition mustering a counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist campaign in the region? Each requires a different approach.
  • If safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan are eliminated, will that change the situation in Afghanistan and if so, at what cost?
  • Is the goal to eradicate Al Qaeda only or the Taliban and other Jihadist groups in the region as well?
  • What can and cannot be achieved in the short and long-term by altering the regional balance of power?

The US entered Afghanistan after 911 in order to prevent the country from becoming a refuge for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups who had helped plan the attack on the WTC. Although there have been no fresh attacks on US soil since that time, the situation in Afghanistan has unquestionably deteriorated (consider the recent election and bombings in Kabul). The Al Qaeda militants are still at large and Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, has been weakened by the local Taliban. Then there is the matter of the Jihadist’s involvement in Kashmir, damaging to India.

It is clear that only Al Qaeda has the capability to deliver. The members of the Taliban are fighting for their local agendas or often simply for money. US is moving in the direction of negotiations with those militants with merely local grievances and the question becomes if US will do the talking with or without the help of allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It is commonly assumed that these allies can still bring the parties (Afghan Taliban) to the table. This, of course, means recognizing the importance of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Af-Pak policy unveiled soon after President Obama’s inauguration attempted a comprehensive approach to the region, but didn’t take into account the critical issue of Kashmir.

US prefers a bilateral track between Inadia and Pakistan to solve outstanding disputes. US policy appears to envision a global role for India to counter China, while a much constrained one for Pakistan. US in all likelihood would prefer changing the behavior of Pakistan, particularly in view of its economic woes, which are worsening while fighting against extremist. From early indications, this change in Pakistan’s India perception might be occurring slowly, but a lot also depends on China-US-Russia relations.

In finding a solution to Afghanistan, the US will have to address the tangled interests of local and regional players. Perhaps the best strategy is to deal with these interests separately and at the appropriate time, that is, to prioritize them. As a practical matter, of course, help from allies will not be forthcoming without considering their interests. One can attempt through diplomacy to convince other players to become allies, the alternative being coercion via economic pressure and force.

Not all potential friends and foes are readily identifiable, of course, and thus much will depend on the assumptions underlying future policy, which in turn depends on correctly gauging the intentions of other international actors and then deciding what can be achieved through persuasion and compromise. At the moment, for obvious reasons, it is best to attempt cooperation with both allies and potential adversaries, utilizing diplomatic and economic leverages as much as possible. But a genuine compromise cannot occur without consideration of the interests of allies. It is this which complicates the new US Afghanistan strategy and foreign policy in general.

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