100 days of AfPak

by Rafia Zakaria

DAILY TIMES LAHORE
In the absence of ideology as the basis for selling the war to the American public, the Obama administration is likely to turn to cost-effectiveness as a marketing tool. The paltry aid commitments currently being promised to achieve the task of saving the flailing Pakistani state and revamping the Afghan army both lend credence to this argument.

A recent report suggests that a deputy of Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with a special emissary of Hizb-e Islami chief Gulbedin Hekmatyar. If this is true, it is very significant, given that Hekmatyar has long been declared a terrorist by US authorities and there is a USD21 million bounty for his capture.

This change of modus operandi from castigating enemies to figuring out which ones can be co-opted is indeed the most visible change in US policy since the Obama administration took over a hundred days ago.

While this meeting was taking place, Bruce Reidel, another key strategist at the centre of the Obama Administration’s AfPak policy, was making statements of a similar tenor to media outlets.

In an interview to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Mr Reidel, a former CIA expert on Al Qaeda, said of the Taliban, said: “a considerable number of the Taliban are not hard-core committed jihadists; they are in it for the money. If their momentum is broken, we will start to see a change in the cohesion of the Taliban by the end of the year. Those willing to renounce the jihadists can be assimilated into the new Afghan order.”

The message is clear: if the Bush administration was about ideological warfare, waxing endlessly on the virtues of nation-building and the spread of liberal democracy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is about the bare-bones strategic pragmatism of counter-insurgency.

From a blanket denunciation of all groups perceived to be hostile to the United States, Washington has turned to finding any and every one who can possibly be co-opted. The story about Holbrooke’s deputy and statements by Reidel are now visible manifestations of this turn. With the gaping US deficit still getting bigger by continuing wars, the Obama team has now outlined a path for war where goals are limited, aspirations contained and ideology shelved.

This turn in US rhetoric is cause for celebration for many strategists who could have predicted quite early during the tenure of the Bush Administration that nation building would prove too costly and ideology too unpalatable. The celebration of a return to pragmatism, however, should not be allowed to mask the caveats that extreme turns can produce.

One early casualty of the turn to pragmatic counter-insurgency over costly national building is its evisceration of the moral argument that asks Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus to curb its relations with the Taliban as a necessary condition of co-operation on the war on terror.

Even as Holbrooke’s and Hekmatyar’s emissaries were meeting in Afghanistan, a top US official in the Obama administration issued a statement saying it wanted a “serious response” from the ISI regarding its connections with terrorist groups. The statement was echoed by Reidel in his interview to Der Spiegel where he reiterated that “these were serious issues” that were being raised with the Pakistanis and that the ISI has previously used terror groups to “gain leverage against India in Afghanistan”.

While American officials may be reiterating this demand during every single interaction with Pakistan, the US turn from ideology to counter-insurgency has destroyed the rhetoric that would support it and obviates the logic of making the demand that Pakistani intelligence authorities break their ties with groups like the Taliban since it suggests quite openly that while the US has the right to pursue its strategic interests, other countries, namely Pakistan do not have that right.

In wanting to pursue this strategy and reaching out to leaders such as Hekmatyar, the US cannot demand that it alone has the monopoly on deciding who the good and bad Taliban are based on its strategic interests. If America has the right to decide which of these are good and bad, based on its concerns in the region, it follows that the Pakistani security apparatus can do the same.

There is little to praise about the pretence at nation-building engaged in by the Bush administration. Few would argue that little or no infrastructure or institutions have been built in Afghanistan. Yet this complete about-turn that seeks to abandon all basis of discerning between enemies and friends beyond those which can be bought versus those that cannot does not seem to augur a very bright future for either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In the absence of ideology as the basis for selling the war to the American public, the Obama administration is likely to turn to cost-effectiveness as a marketing tool. The paltry aid commitments currently being promised to achieve the task of saving the flailing Pakistani state and revamping the Afghan army both lend credence to this argument.

In the words of Bruce Reidel, “It is ten times cheaper to train an Afghan soldier, equip him and take care of him than it is to send an American or German there.” This may well be so, but cost-effectiveness and strategic gains do not always go hand in hand and the very basis required to sell the war domestically may end up eliminating the strategic victories that US officials insist necessitated it in the first place.

April 11th, 2009
Courtesy: http://www.wichaar.com/news/294/ARTICLE/13571/2009-04-11.html

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