Can Petraeus repeat the Iraq story?

A stronger United States President than Barack Obama would have probably given a dressing down to his commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal for his team’s indiscretion in making tendentious remarks to the embedded journalist from Rolling Stone magazine, and then ordered him to get on with his job of “degrading” the Taliban. But instead Obama took the calculated decision to “demote” McChrystal’s boss Centcom chief David Petraeus and order him to replace his subordinate in Kabul.

The paradox is that McChrystal’s assignment involved a counter-insurgency strategy, which was developed by Petraeus in Iraq and transplanted to Afghanistan. McChrystal was increasingly frustrated that the Obama administration kept dithering about a decision to as to whether and how there should be negotiations with the Taliban. Indeed, it was common knowledge that Obama’s AfPak team was entangled in seamless turf wars. The question, therefore, is why Obama capitalized on McChrystal’s mild transgressions to reassign Petraeus?

The answer could be that Obama is reviewing the ground for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Petraeus publicly maintained in the recent weeks that a speedy exit strategy in Afghanistan is not feasible. He told a US Senate hearing that any withdrawal timetable would depend on conditions on the ground. And Obama himself said last week: “We did not say that starting July 2011 suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan. We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility.”

Arguably, from Obama’s point of view, if he is beginning to get a sense that he would probably have to keep the American forces in Afghanistan well past the next US presidential election in 2012, there could be no better commander than Petraeus to demand such decision. The political divisions in Washington are less likely to escalate over extending the July 2011 deadline for drawing down if the proposal originates from Petraeus. He commands immense “bipartisan” prestige with the political class in Washington.

What if Obama visualizes a revamped US diplomatic strategy under Petraeus? The consensus opinion is that Petraeus is a very gifted diplomat. Even an optimistic evaluation of the prospects for the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan cannot regard the July 2011 deadline for drawing down the US troops to be realistic. Conquering Marjah was not particularly difficult for the US forces in February but the Taliban have quickly regrouped and are preparing to fight again. The expected civilian “surge” didn’t materialize – nor the “government-in-a-box”, as McChrystal promised. Consequently, the operations in Kandahar, slated originally for the month of June, have had to be deferred to September or even beyond indefinitely.

In sum, the counterinsurgency strategy indeed seems stymied. At the same time, the war has begun engulfing the northern provinces, including strategically vital regions like Baghlan and Kunduz. The western casualties have been on a sharp upward curve. Unsurprisingly, the British army chief David Richards has demanded that negotiation with the Taliban should begin soon as part of an “exit strategy”. Some among the US’s AfPak officials have also been quietly pressing for opportunities to hold negotiations with the Taliban with the help of Pakistani intermediaries. Last week, while on a visit to Islamabad, the US special representative for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke speculated about negotiating with the Haqqani network closely linked to al-Qaeda.

In retrospect, the arrest of various “moderate” and “nationalist” Afghan Taliban figures such as Mullah Baradar in February by the Pakistani intelligence cleared the deck for negotiations. The Pakistani army chief, Pervez Kayani, accompanied by the chief of the Inter-Services intelligence agency, are visiting Kabul on Monday in the latest in a flurry of such visits during the past two months to the Afghan capital for consultations with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Pakistani officials feel emboldened to finally come out into the open to begin advocating a negotiated deal to Sirajuddin Haqqani, an al-Qaeda ally. Meanwhile, Karzai is known to be striking out on his own for a political reconciliation with the Taliban. Karzai has also begun choreographing a new architecture of relationship with the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups some of whom object to his dalliance with the Taliban. Karzai eased out his intelligence minister Amanullah Saleh who was a hardliner.

To what extent these three-way cogitations involving Karzai, the Pakistani military and the Taliban leadership belonging to the so-called Quetta Shura have taken place in consultation with London and Washington remains unclear. It stands to reason that such a highly sensitive move fraught with unforeseen consequences, including potentially dangerous downstream consequences to regional stability, on the Afghan political chessboard could not have been contemplated without the knowledge or tacit acquiescence at the very minimum of the American and British intelligence.

If the latest Iranian reports are to be believed, Karzai has already met with Haqqani under Pakistani mediation. Nonetheless, the accounts in the American media quoting officials have sought to project that Karzai and the Pakistani military, who are the US’s key allies and are recipients of massive American aid and political support, seem to be finally getting along fine and are, alas, covertly negotiating behind the back of the Obama administration.

Credulity is being stretched a little too far that the US has been taken by surprise by this torrential flow of events during the past couple of months. And much of this dramatic turn to the war has been supposedly about the timetable set by Obama for drawdown of US troops, although the crux of the matter is the failure of the US strategy of counterinsurgency operations aimed at “securing the population”.

To be sure, there cannot be a military solution. The former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote last week in Washington Post: “We need a regional diplomatic framework for the next stage of Afghan strategy, whatever the military outcome. A regional diplomacy is desirable because our interests coincide substantially with those of many of the regional powers. All of them, from a strategic perspective, are more threatened than the United States by an Afghanistan hospitable to terrorism. China in Sinkiang, Russia in its southern region, India with respect to its Muslim minority of 160 million, Pakistan as to its political structure, and the smaller states of the region would face a major threat from an Afghanistan encouraging, or even tolerating, centers of terrorism.”

But is the Obama administration listening to Kissinger’s advice? Interestingly, Kissinger added: “Regional diplomacy becomes all the more necessary to forestall a neocolonial struggle if reports about the prevalence of natural resources in Afghanistan prove accurate.”

Washington is well-placed today to exploit the contradictions in the relationships among regional powers – Russia-Iran, Russia-Uzbekistan, Russia-Tajikistan, China-India, China-Russia, Pakistan-India, Iran-India – and to strike “grand bargains” with some of them. In South Asia, the US diplomacy has met with extraordinary success in the recent years. The US diplomacy is doing rather well in Central Asia, too. In Kyrgyzstan it is working hard to retain the US military base in Manas near Bishkek while it has all but rendered the Collective Security Treaty Organization ineffectual. Without doubt, the US’s ties with Uzbekistan have been restored and Washington is striving for a high degree of understanding with Tashkent, a key regional capital. Again, a deal will be signed shortly for setting up a $ 10 million military training centre in Karatag near Dushanbe where, according to the US ambassador to Tajikistan, “If requested, we might have people come in to help in training missions.” The Anglo-American strategy aims at transforming the war in Afghanistan whereby western troops will not get killed anymore so that western military presence in the Central Asian region can continue without the domestic public opinion getting exacerbated on that score. This was the sort of transformation of a mindlessly bloody war that Petraeus skillfully managed in Iraq. No one asks anymore whether he actually won the war in Iraq. It doesn’t seem to matter anyway.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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