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Grasp the nettle

Obama’s biggest challenge is to find the best way of preventing Afghanistan from being a haven for terrorists, writes Maleeha Lodhi.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2009 00:00 IST

President Barack Obama weighs his options on Afghanistan amid dwindling public support in America for the war. Political debate has escalated in Congress and the media about both the aims of the Western mission and its chance of success at a time when there is growing uneasiness within a fractious international coalition whose members see a lack of strategic clarity in Washington.

President Obama has promised a careful re-assessment of strategy before making any decision. He has said he will not be rushed into making up his mind about sending more troops until he has “absolute clarity about goals”.

While he mulls over the assessment submitted in August by General Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in Kabul, the fraud-ridden presidential election in Afghanistan has thrown Washington’s political strategy into disarray.

With no legitimate political structure in place, this denudes any counter-insurgency plan of its most critical requirement. Although frenetic damage limitation efforts by Western diplomats are in progress, the uncertainty created by a deeply flawed election is feeding into growing public scepticism in the US as well as in Europe.

As American casualties have risen, public support for the war has waned. A series of opinion polls indicate the changing public mood in America and rising war weariness in the midst of pressing domestic concerns.

It is among President Obama’s own party that support for the war had been flagging. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned that there is little appetite in Congress to authorise additional forces beyond the 21,000 that are already on their way and which will take the total of US forces to 68,000 by year end. With most Democrats opposed to continuing or expanding the conflict, this has placed Obama in the awkward position of relying more on the Republicans for support in the war.

It is in this challenging environment that the White House is reflecting on the recommendations made by General McChrystal. The bulk of this review of reviews was leaked last month. In the 66-page report the General describes the situation in Afghanistan as “serious but with success still achievable”. He warns that unless he is provided more troops and a robust counter- insurgency strategy the war may be lost.

McChrystal has submitted a formal request for additional forces possibly for as many as 40,000 troops to the Pentagon. But this has not yet been sent to the White House to enable it to first rethink overall strategy.

The debate over troop numbers is really one about how deeply to commit to a conflict that is increasingly unpopular. The debate has been polarising. Republicans like Senator John McCain have called for committing “decisive military force”. Powerful Democrats have argued against deeper involvement in which an escalation strategy exposes the US to the risk of being bogged down in a Vietnam-style quagmire.

The debate has also pitted Vice-President Joe Biden, who advocates a narrow counterterrorism approach that focuses on al-Qaeda and General McChrystal who is pressing for a broader counter-insurgency strategy.

It is now more than apparent that the Obama administration rushed into a policy review of Afghanistan and hastily announced its conclusions in March 2009, 60 days after assuming power. This represented a compromise among different views and sought to bridge the minimalist/maximalist approaches by offering something to everybody.

What was rolled out on the ground reflected little break with the past. For all the emphasis on a civilian surge and a stronger diplomatic thrust, the military prong remained predominant. And mission drift followed.

President Obama now confronts tough choices that he sought to avoid in the first seven months of his presidency. The immediate decision is whether to accede to the military’s request for more troops or to scale back and re-define both the mission and its goals. His administration probably calculates that it has less than a year to show progress before public support evaporates.

The choice for him is not between walking away from Afghanistan and pursuing an open-ended military engagement. Both are unfeasible. The challenge is to find the best way of preventing the country from being a haven for terrorist networks.

He can no longer take the decisions that are necessary without addressing strategic questions: Is the goal of the military mission now simply the avoidance of defeat? What does ‘success’ in Afghanistan really mean? Can Afghanistan be stabilised by doing more of the same? This is what another troop surge implies. Is it possible or even feasible for outsiders to undertake nation-building?

How can a viable political strategy be fashioned in the aftermath of the fraud-stricken Afghan election? How can talks with the insurgents be initiated? On what terms?

If training and expanding the Afghan National Army and police is the basis on which an ultimate exit plan depends, how can progress be expected when that process remains skewed in favour of non-Pashtuns? How can such forces take over more responsibility for their country’s security if they suffer from this deficit?

It is on how President Obama addresses these questions that future stability in Afghanistan may hinge. He has shown a sense of realism in stating in recent interviews that he does not believe in an indefinite occupation and is not interested in being in Afghanistan to “save face.”

He needs above all to recognise the need for a transition strategy that includes a process of reconciliation undertaken by Afghans themselves, investing seriously in more representative and viable Afghan security forces, and forging a regional compact. Unless a radically different tack is followed, the outcome may not be any different than it has in the past eight years.

(Maleeha Lodhi was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and Britain and former editor of The News, Islamabad)