America in Af-Pak – Will The 3rd Time Be After A Nightmare?

This week President Obama announced the end of America’s military venture in Afghanistan. He laid out the time line for the first phase of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The pace of this withdrawal is faster than what US Military Commanders want.

We are not surprised. When President Obama announced his surge in December 2009, we wrote:

  • 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.

This week President Obama demonstrated that he cannot handle the intense pressure from his left-wing political base in America. He faces a difficult reelection campaign in November 2012 and the withdrawal of US troops by Summer of 2012 seems perfectly timed for the final run of his 2012 campaign.

Presidents are expected to put the Nation’s geopolitical interests above personal political expediency. That is the Nation’s expectation of its Commander-In-Chief. So President Obama’s plan drew protests. The most biting yet restrained criticism came from David Gergen, an adviser to four Presidents. In his interview with CNN’s Tom Forman on Thursday, Mr. Gergen said:

  • I may be old-fashioned Tom, but I tell you .. I have been engaged in this for the last 40 years. Traditionally Presidents listen to their international team on foreign policy issues, their military advisers and so forth; they have the domestic people there but the foreign policy team really determines the course. And particularly in this case, here we got General David Petraeus who is not just his commander in the field but one of the most successful generals we had in modern times and by the way the man who did turn Iraq around with a surge and was trying to turn around Afghanistan with a surge and it seemed to be working. And Petraeus himself wants to wind it down now, the question is how to wind it down? He comes up with a set of recommendations that he thinks has the best chance of success and the President says No. That is where I got off the train. Every President I know would have said ‘I know… this is not popular, I know it is costing us but this is what we got to do for military purposes, I am not going to bend with the wind of public opinion, I am going to go out and try to persuade the public this is what we must do’. And having just killed Bin Laden, I thought he had a lot of political capital to persuade the country to go with him and with the Petraeus recommendation.
Apart from political expediency, President Obama is betting that by leaving Afghanistan, he can leave the problems of Afghanistan behind.

That is exactly what the Russians thought when they exited Afghanistan in 1989 after a nine year military campaign. Russia ended up importing Islamic terror groups into the Russian controlled territories of Chechnya and Dagestan. This battle against Islamic terror groups continues in Russia to this day, 22 years after Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia is so concerned about the vacuum that will be left behind after America’s exit in 2014 that Russia is thinking of getting involved in Afghanistan again. 

America has already exited Af-Pak once and then returned with greater force. America first entered Af-Pak in 1980 after the Soviet Army marched into Afghanistan and occupied it. The CIA began a nine-year effort to train, arm and support the Afghan Mujahideen or “freedom fighters” who had escaped into Pakistani controlled Pashtunistan. The Pakistani Army and ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence was the conduit for this effort. The Mujahideen attracted young men from the Middle East to wage “holy jihad” against the Soviet Union. Among them was a charismatic man named Osama Bin Laden.

The “winners” of that war were the Afghan Mujahideen  and the Pakistani Army/ISI. The Pakistani Army had finally achieved “strategic depth” against India. The Pashtun Mujahideen morphed into an Islamic force and created the Taleban. The Taleban with the help of Pakistani Military/ISI walked back into Afghanistan and took over that country. Osama Bin Laden became a close friend and a kin of the Taleban leader Mullah Omar.

After America left Af-Pak in1989, these American “allies” turned into America’s enemies by the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2001 when Osama Bin Laden and his organization launched the most devastating attack on American homeland since Pearl Harbor. America returned to Afghanistan with a much larger force and a larger mandate.
When President Obama withdraws from Afghanistan, he is leaving behind the same “winners” from 1989, the Pashtun fighters and the Pakistani Army/ISI. Unfortunately, these blood brothers are far more lethal and more extremist today than they were in 1989.

There seems little doubt that the Pashtun Taleban will win back control of Afghanistan after American forces withdraw. The Pakistani Army is far more powerful today than it was in 1989 thanks to American military aid over the past 10 years. Now it has the 5th or 6th largest nuclear arsenal in the world including small tactical nukes, thanks to China. The Pakistani Army is far more radicalized than it was in 1989. Based on a recent survey, the junior officers consider America to be the greatest threat to Pakistan and their sympathies lie with Islamic terrorism against America.

Will these conditions prove ripe for the Morning After Scenario? We heard this from a well respected American analyst at an address arranged by a first-tier American University. The speaker was so well connected that he opened his remarks with “I had dinner with Musharraf yesterday”. This analyst argued that, sooner or later, one of the terrorist attacks on American soil would succeed. If this attack is linked to Pakistan or Pakistani-occupied Pashtunistan, then America’s reaction would not be moderate. This he called the Morning After scenario.

If this scenario occurs, then America would be back in Af-Pak for the 3rd time with a much larger force and a more lethal mandate.

President Obama’s bet is that by leaving Afghanistan, he will reduce the chances of the Morning After Scenario. We fervently hope he turns out to be correct.

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