Dr Maleeha Lodhi: Troubled mission

Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

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Gen Stanley McCrystal announces at a NATO conference that the US-led military operation to secure Kandahar will be delayed at least until September and proceed slowly because of lack of local support.

• Top US military officials keep changing the way they define the campaign, putting this at odds with their original description.

• American defence secretary Robert Gates acknowledges pressure to show results by yearend but adds there are no “illusions” about “big victories.”

• It is widely acknowledged that the Marjah operation intended to serve as a model for Kandahar has not worked while the insurgency continues to make gains.

• Strong reaction from Washington follows President Hamid Karzai’s sacking of two top security officials. One of the fired officials accuses him of doubting whether the US-NATO mission can succeed.

• Hastily-called Congressional hearings indicate rising anxiety over the war effort as senior officials are subjected to tough grilling.

What do these developments signify? That nine years into the war the US-led mission is mired in confusion and uncertainty. The unresolved tensions in American strategy have now caught up: between a surge and exit announced by President Obama last December, between escalating military pressure and the “reconciliation” plan being pursued by Karzai, between an unrealistic deadline set for Afghan forces to take over security responsibilities and the continued lack of progress in building a professional army, and between promises to improve governance and the absence of an effective “local partner,” exacerbated by deepening American mistrust of the Afghan leader.

This muddled approach indicates that Washington neither knows how to end the conflict nor how to continue an unpopular war that cannot be won. Many NATO nations are already looking for the exits. Most members of the international community would prefer to see a political settlement that brings the conflict to a close. But Washington is still searching for a political strategy at a time when its military efforts are foundering against the realities on the ground. Increasingly, it appears that the Obama administration knows what it doesn’t want rather than what it does. This lack of clarity has hobbled any move towards evolving a political plan.

Meanwhile, public support for the war continues to fall with partisan divisions in Congress putting the Obama administration on the defensive. Recent hearings on the Hill reflected the mood of pessimism about the US-led Afghan project. When members asked if the timeline of July 2011 that Obama had set for troops to start withdrawing helped or hindered, the mission officials struggled to reply.

Contradictory signals continue to emanate from Washington about its goals in Afghanistan. If the idea of the surge that tripled the number of troops was to buy strategic space in order to put a coherent policy in place, this hasn’t happened so far. The space is looking more like a void.

At least four immediate factors raise questions about the US approach. One, the increasingly troubled relationship between Washington and Kabul, which Karzai’s dismissal of his intelligence chief and interior minister again brought to the fore. The American response to their removal reflected annoyance over “losing” officials described as being the “closest to the US.”

It led to renewed questioning of whether Karzai was an ally or obstacle in officially orchestrated American media comment. This was also fuelled by Amrullah Saleh’s desperate and unseemly attacks against his former boss. Among the allegations he hurled at Karzai was that he was striving to strike a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban to prepare for a post-America scenario in Afghanistan. Given Saleh’s longstanding animus against Pakistan and his opposition to “reconciliation,” this rant was unsurprising. But revived strains between Kabul and Washington showed how the two governments were marching out of step towards the Afghan endgame.

Two, Washington continues to be ambivalent about the political path Karzai appears to be pursuing. He was able earlier this month to gain the endorsement of the peace jirga for his reconciliation effort to reach out to the Taliban. Of course, he only proceeded once he had secured Washington’s backing for “reintegration” of low-level Taliban fighters. But US doubts about who to negotiate with and how and when to do so impose constraints on the ability of these efforts to make headway.

Moreover, “reconciliation” is still a goal and not a strategy. Karzai has yet to evolve a clear political path towards attaining this goal. Even though almost everyone agrees on the need for accommodation, there is neither consensus nor clarity about what reconciliation should involve.

Meanwhile, the declared US intent to press ahead with the much redefined military push in Kandahar is at odds with the path of negotiations that the Afghan peace jirga has approved. The US still believes that once it has militarily weakened the insurgency it would be better positioned for negotiations as the Taliban would be forced into talking peace.

This view rests on questionable premises. Some of these surfaced during a recent conference on Afghanistan-Pakistan at Centcom headquarters at Tampa. One expert stated flatly that US-NATO forces are as strong as they can expect to be and any hope of strengthening that position was unrealistic. Some US and NATO officials go further, privately describing this assumption as “delusional.” There is no Plan B if the US military campaign is unable to make significant progress.

Three, it is more than apparent that, despite claims to the contrary, efforts at building Afghan forces to gradually take over security responsibilities and meet the timelines set have made little headway. Building professional and competent Afghan army and police forces has proven much harder than American officials anticipated. The ambitious numbers and tight deadlines set are way off target. As Secretary Gates recently admitted, the coalition is short of even trainers to expand the Afghan National Army (ANA). Morale in the ANA remains low, illiteracy is high and the rate of defections continues to increase.

This addresses attention to the fourth unresolved contradiction in US strategy: a lack of alignment among different elements and disconnect between various timelines. The start of a troop pullout is planned for next July, the Afghan army is supposed to be sufficiently trained and ready by then to start assuming some responsibility, the military surge is expected to be completed this August, the Kandahar campaign is now delayed till early fall, and presumably what McCrystal once called a “government-in-a-box” is to be rolled out to “transfer” authority, even though this failed to happen in Marjah. Somewhere in the midst of this, Karzai’s “reconciliation” plan has to unfold.

The various stands of the approach are out of sync with one another or clashing with hard ground realities. This not only casts a shadow over next month’s international conference in Kabul but the very fate of the US-NATO mission.

End-piece: A new book on Obama’s first year, The Promise, by Jonathan Alter recounts the extensive deliberations in the White House about Afghanistan. It recalls Obama’s directive to McCrystal: “Do not occupy what you cannot transfer,” and details how he agonised over the troop surge.

That decision, he writes, was “as much about Pakistan as Afghanistan” because the “dysfunction” there was the only issue keeping him up at night. “By doubling drone attacks and troop levels from a year earlier Obama saw himself as trying to make the best of a deteriorating situation.”

By signalling a troop withdrawal along with the surge announcement Obama “was trying to turn the tables on the military, to box them in after they had spent much of the year boxing him in.” The logic was: “If the situation improved on the ground, it was time to begin leaving; if it didn’t, that meant the escalation had failed and adding more troops wouldn’t fix anything.”

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