President Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy – The Devil Is In The Implementation

President Obama’s speech on his Afghanistan Strategy on December 3 was probably watched by most of the world. The Afghan mission is simply that critical. This speech showed the struggle between Commander-In-Chief Obama & Politician-In-Chief Obama. In our opinion, President Obama’s decision was the only decision he could have taken to balance the political and tactical needs. We support the strategy but wonder whether he has what it would take to implement the crux of the strategy. 

We concluded our April 25 article on Afghanistan with the following:

“Soon, we fear, the Obama Administration would be faced with two alternatives:

  • Leave Af-Pak to its own misery and take the risk of being attacked in the American homeland OR
  • Get into a military confrontation with the Taleban inside Pakistan and with the Pakistani Military.

The first choice would be far worse than Vietnam and the second choice would be far worse than Iraq.” 

Mr. Obama is the political leader of his party and faces a critical congressional election in 2010. He would have preferred to follow the first alternative above and essentially left Af-Pak to its own misery by maintaining the status quo or slowly changing the mission to a advisory-training mission. That was the wish of his political base, his party and his Vice-President.

But Commander-In-Chief Obama found it impossible to accept defeat in what he had termed the “necessary war”.

So, he chose the classic middle of the road strategy that hopes that somehow General McCrystal could deliver the same success that General Petraeus delivered in Iraq and that too by 2011, before he begins his reelection campaign in 2012.

As we wrote in April, the surge in Afghanistan will be far more difficult than the surge in Iraq. The surge in Iraq succeeded because of 3 factors:

  • Iraq was a closed theater of war that America controlled,
  • American Troops could surround all the Iraqi Sunni insurgents, kill the insurgency leaders and negotiate with the nationalist Sunni leaders,
  • Every single player involved in the Iraq War, including Iran, was convinced that Bush’s America was determined to stay in Iraq for the duration. 
None of these factors are present in Afghanistan. 

  • Afghanistan is not a closed theater. The real war extends across the border in Pashtunistan, the real name for the Pashtun areas in Pakistan (see map below). 
  • American troops cannot surround all the Pashtun insurgents because the Pashtun Taleban run across the border to their sanctuaries inside Pakistan-occupied Pashtunistan. All the important Taleban leaders live in safe houses in Pakistan and are beyond the reach of American forces. The Pashtun Taleban can come across the border into Afghanistan at will and kill any tribal leaders that become allies of America. 
  • Not a single player involved in the Afghanistan conflict believes that Obama’s America is determined to stay for the duration. In fact, by announcing the 2011 withdrawal time line, President Obama has told the world that he is eager to leave Afghanistan.

President Obama realizes the first two points. That is why he was very specific in his speech to say that he would not tolerate sanctuaries for the Taleban outside Afghanistan. This was a clear warning to Pakistan.

We have maintained that the Pakistani Army is fighting a proxy war against the American Army in Afghanistan while maintaining the illusion of being America’s ally. We are not alone in this thinking. This seems to be the opinion of Foreign Policy experts like Leslie Gelb, Founder & President Emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations.

Mr Gelb recently wrote in his article in the Daily Beast “Pakistan urges the United States to stay and fight in Afghanistan to keep the Indians out, but provides succor to the Taleban to hedge against an American withdrawal. So, the Pakistanis want us to stay in Afghanistan as they help the Taleban to kill our troops.(emphasis ours) “

President Obama understands this reality. This is why he is giving a public notice to the Pakistani Army & ISI, its Intelligence Service, that he has authorized American Military to strike inside Pakistan as it deems necessary. This is an invitation for the Pakistani Army to take out all extremist leaders inside Pakistan, a sort of an offer the Pakistani Army cannot refuse. 

Does President Obama mean what he has said and will he have the nerve to do what he has threatened?  Upon this will depend the success of his strategy.

We have no doubt that the American Army will succeed in defeating the Taleban and in establishing a reasonable level of peace inside the key areas of Afghanistan. This will drive the Pashtun Taleban across the border to their safe sanctuaries inside Pakistan-occupied Pashtunistan.  

That is where the real battle will begin. If the Pashtun Taleban force is allowed to retreat to a safe sanctuary inside Pakistan as it was in 2001-2003, then the Obama strategy will fail. Despite all its vocal commitments, the Pakistani Army will NOT, in our opinion, fight the Pashtun Taleban inside Pashtunistan. 

This will force the American Army to engage in hot pursuit across the border into Pakistan. Drone attacks will not work inside Pakistan-occupied Pashtunistan because the Taleban will hide in densely populated civilian enclaves. American troops will have to go inside Pakistan to conduct military operations to take out the Taleban hiding in these areas.

This will create massive protests inside Pakistan. Will President Obama have the courage to take this intense heat from the civilian population of Pakistan and continue American attacks inside Pakistan? We think not. More importantly, we believe that the Pakistani Army is absolutely convinced that Obama’s America will not cross this red line.

Therefore, we believe that the Pakistani Army will play its usual game and surrender a few mid-level leaders to America while protecting the senior leadership of the Taleban. This is the game that Musharraf was accused of playing from 2001-2007. The game reportedly consisted of giving up middle level operational Al Qaeda leaders to America while protecting the senior Al Qaeda leaders & nurturing the Taleban. It is a fact that, during Musharraf’s tenure, the Taleban regrouped and regained its strength. 

If the Pakistani Army is allowed to play this game again, then the Obama strategy will fail. We believe that the Pakistani Army will play this game UNTIL President Obama proves that he can stay his aggressive course despite violent, massive protests inside Pakistan and intense pressure from his left-wing political base in America.

In other words, Commander-In-Chief Obama will be forced to “out-Bush” George Bush himself to win in Afghanistan.


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