US policy-makers had hoped that the taking-over of Gen. David Petraeus as the commander of the US Central Command, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the US Commander in Afghanistan working under Gen.Petraeus would bring about a more proactive strategy to weaken the Taliban and create a divide between it and the Afghan people. The two had earned a reputation in Iraq for reversing the fortunes of Al Qaeda and the former Baathist soldiers of Saddam Hussein, creating a divide between the two and enlisting the support of different tribal leaders and through them their followers for the US military operations. The improvement in the ground situation in Iraq----though not yet irreversible--- was largely due to their thinking, planning and execution.
2. Hopes in Washington that the two Generals would bring about similar results in Afghanistan have been belied so far.The Af-Pak troika of the administration of Barack Obama---- Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for the Af-Pak region, who handles the political and diplomatic angles, and the two Generals--- has not been able to come to grips with the problem almost six months after the new Af-Pak policy of the Obama adminstration was launched in March last. The present ground situation favours the Pakistan-based Neo Taliban. Since the two Generals took over, the Neo Taliban has been able to increase and strengthen its presence in the north too. The situation is still one of a bleeding stalemate, but the prospects of the US-led forces breaking the stalemate and prevailing over the Neo Taliban are not any the brighter since the two Generals took over.
3. The dilemma posed by the worrisome ground situation is reflected in the growing impression that Obama's Af-Pak strategy has failed to take off and is unlikely to take off and that the time has come to think of a new strategy in which the key to success would be in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan.Vice-President Joe Biden seems to favour a change of focus from a Neo Taliban-centric strategy in Afghanistan to an Al Qaeda-centric one in Pakistan.
4.Presently, the political pressure is on Pakistan to act against the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements operating from sanctuaries in its territory and on the Hamid Karzai Government in Kabul to improve governance, reduce corruption and pay better attention to the problems of the people in the areas controlled by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the US-led Western forces.
5. Neither of these pressures has worked. Nor have the never-ending incentives offered by the US to Pakistan---the latest of which is the expected passage by both Houses of the US Congress of the Kerry-Lugar Bill making a long term commitment of US$ 7.5 billion to Pakistan in the form of non-military aid over a period of five years. The military aid, which too continues to increase, will be in addition. Original expectations when Obama assumed office in January last that strict benchmarks would be laid down for the periodic disbursements of this aid in order to ensure that Pakistan does act sincerely and firmly against the terrorists have been belied.The more Pakistan is pampered, the less it acts against the terrorists. That has been the lesson since 9/11 and this lesson has not been learnt by the officials of the Obama administration.This is evident even from the grim Assessment dated August 30,2009, prepared by Gen.McChrystal, on the basis of which he is reported to be planning to ask for another surge of 21000 US troops--- a request over which Obama is reportedly not enthusiastic.
6. The pressures on Karzai to improve governance have not worked either. This is partly due to the difficult ground situation, which would pose a dilemma to any ruler---however democratic and however competent. Moreover, instead of strengthening the position of Karzai, US officials have done everything to weaken his credibility in the eyes of his own people as well as the international community through allegations---some true, many unwisely inspired--- regarding his inability or unwillingness to act against corruption and narcotics production and rigging in the Presidential elections. Even if he wins the elections in the first round itself----as he is expected to--- the importance of that victory has already been diluted by these allegations. US officials take a lot of care not to say or do anything, which might weaken the position of the Pakistani leadership, but they do not take similar care in respect of Karzai.
7.In the existing gloomy scenario, there are only two positive factors, which provide some cheer. Firstly, the improvement in the flow of human intelligence to the US intelligence community from sources in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which has led to some significant sucesses in the form of eradication of some middle-level leaders of Al Qaeda and even senior leaders of the Pakistan Taliban known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by US drone strikes. After having eliminated Baitullah Mehsud, the Amir of the TTP, the Drone strikes are now focussed on eliminating the Haqqani network consisting of the old Soviet era mujahideen warrior Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons. If the US succeeds in eliminating the Haqqani network--- I hope it will--- the pressure on the US forces in Afghan territory could lessen--- at least in the short term. As against this, the impact of the elimination of Baitullah on the ground situation in Afghanistan would be minimal. His elimination was more a boon to the Pakistani security forces grappling with terrorists of their own creation in their territory than to the US-led Western forces in Afghanistan.
8.The second positive factor is the role of India as a force for stability in Afghanistan. Any objective analyst has to concede that the various road construction, democracy-promotion and people-oriented programmes undertaken by India in the areas controlled by the Government of Afghanistan have benefitted not only the people of Afghanistan immensely, but also the long-term Western objective of a democratic, modern Afghanistan.
9. One would have expected the US policy-makers not only to recognise the importance of retaining the role of India as a force for stability, but also encouraging India to expand further its people-oriented role in Afghanistan. In his assessment, McChrystal recognises --- though somewhat grudgingly-- the beneficial role of India and the support for that role from the Karzai Government, but one is surprised to find that he shows understanding for the Pakistani concerns over India's role and hints that these concerns have to be taken into consideration while formulating any revised strategy. He himself says that no strategy will work unless it is people-oriented, but at the same time wants something to be done to address Pakistani concerns over India's people-oriented role.
10.The Afghan people---whether Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbecks or others--- distrust and hate the Pakistanis after seeing the role played by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the creation and fattening of the Taliban since 1994. One saw the extent of the hatred for the Pakistanis when the American and Northern Alliance troops entered Kabul in 2001 under Operation Enduring Freedom. Pakistanis assisting the Taliban Government in Kabul were hunted, killed and their dead bodies thrown into the gutters of Kabul.
11. Gen.McChrystal's ideas, if implemented, would provide an environment for the re-assertion of the hated Pakistani role by paying attention to Pakistani concerns over India's positive role.This shows how short-sighted US policy-makers and military-officers can be.The General's assessment is disappointing because it fails to put its finger on the crux of the dilemma being faced by the US-led Western forces, similar to the dilemma which the Soviet troops faced in Afghanistan in the 1980s before they decided to quit in 1988.This dilemma arose in the case of the Soviet troops and has now arisen in the case of the US-led Western troops from the absence of a counter-sanctuaries component to the counter-insurgency strategy.
12.The reluctance of the Soviet troops to take their fighting to the sanctuaries of the Afghan Mujahideen in Pakistani territory led to a situation where the Soviet troops kept bleeding till battle fatigue and public disenchantment with the war set in. Similarly, the absence of an effective counter-sanctuaries component is leading to a situation where the US and other Western forces as well as the ANA are bleeding more and more. There are already the incipient signs of a battle fatigue as cound be seen even from the General's assessment and the beginning of a public disenchantment with the involvement in Afghanistan. This disenchantment is already pronounced in West Europe and Canada and one could see the beginning of it even in the US. Instead of allowing the Neo Taliban to infiltrate in increasing numbers from its sanctuaries and recruiting grounds in the FATA and the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan and then fighting or countering their ambushes in Afghan territory, the US should take its counter-insurgency operations to the camps of the Neo Taliban in adjoining Pakistani territory----whether in the FATA or in Balochistan.
13. The US already has an air-mounted counter-sanctuaries strategy in the FATA with the help of the Drones, which provide a deniable way of hitting at the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Neo Taliban. This strategy has had its successes, but, despite them, has proved inadequate. Initially, these strikes were concentrated on the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and its allies in North Waziristan. Earlier this year, when there was a danger of the TTP expanding its presence to the non-tribal areas and posing a danger to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, the focus of the Drone strikes shifted to South Waziristan against the sanctuaries of the TTP.During the last six months or so, the objective of these strikes became not protecting the NATO forces and the ANA in Afghanistan from attacks mounted from the Pakistani territory, but assisting the Pakistan Army in reversing the advance of the TTP into the non-tribal areas. After killing Baitullah in the first week of August, the US has again changed the direction and is now focussing on the Haqqani network, whose threat is more in Afghan territory than in the FATA. The US has not been able to mount a full-scale operation against Al Qaeda sanctuaries in North Waziristan due to the dispersal of its resources to South Waziristan for use against the TTP.
14. Even this limited success has not been there against the staging grounds of the Neo Taliban in Balochistan.The US continues to depend on the Pakistan Army for action against the sanctuaries of the Neo Taliban. The ISI-sponsored Neo Taliban is the only asset left with the Pakistan Army for regaining its primacy in Afghanistan if and when the US and other Western troops leave Afghanistan. Pakistan wants to regain this primacy without the direct deployment of its own army as it did in the 1990s. If the US is waiting for the Pakistan Army to act against the Neo Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistani territory, this is not going to happen. The US has only two alternatives---either itself act against the sanctuaries in Balochistan and destroy the Neo Taliban leadership in order to restore the damaged image of the US forces in Afghanistan, thereby paving the way for an honourable exit or keep its operations confined to Afghan territory, thereby continuing to bleed and face the prospect of an exit forced on the US by the Neo Taliban under humiliating conditions.
15.The role of the Drones---even if extended to Balochistan-- may not be as effective as their role in the FATA. The places in the FATA where the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda,the TTP and the Haqqani network are located are far from inhabited areas. The dangers of civilian fatalities are not large. In the Quetta and adjoining areas of Balochistan, the sanctuaries of the Neo Taliban are located in inhabited areas. It would be very difficult---almost impossible---to avoid large civilian fatalities. Deniable ground operations would, therefore, be necessary to eliminate the sanctuaries of the Neo Taliban. The US has the capability for such ground operations, but does not have the political will to use it lest it add to the already high anti-US feelings in Pakistan and affect even the limited co-operration which it has presently been getting from Pakistan in the FATA.
16. This danger of adverse reaction in Pakistan has to be faced if the US wants to bring about better ground conditions, which would enable it to contemplate withdrawing from Afghanistan with honour and with some confidence that Afghanistan will not revert to its pre-9/11 position of being the rear base for Al Qaeda. Before contemplating withdrawal, the US has to destroy Al Qaeda sanctuaries, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the FATA, the Haqqani network and the Neo Taliban sanctuaries in Balochistan. It has to come to terms with the hard reality that this is something which the US has to do without depending on Pakistan.Pakistan and Al Qaeda are biding their time hoping that after the US withdrawal, they can move into Afghanistan once again. This should not be allowed to happen.
17. Instead of discussing the various options available in this regard,McChrystal's report skirts the crux of the dilemma and discusses other issues having little relevance to a counter-sanctuaries strategy. His assessment reads more like one prepared by a senior officer attending a joint staff course than a recommendation for action prepared by an officer in charge of command and control. It is possible there is a classified part of the Assessment in which McChrystal discusses a counter-sanctuaries strategy. If not, his thinking doesn't bode well for the ultimate success of the US operations in the Af-Pak region.
18. This may please be read in continuation of my earlier paper of May 13,2009, titled "The Af-Pak Situation--An Update", at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers32/paper3186.html (27-9-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )