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     Volume 8 Issue 64 | April 3, 2009 |

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The Forgotten War

What does Barack Obama's new strategy mean for Afghanistan and Pakistan, will he see out the war by finally dismantling Al-Qaeda and its network of terrorism, or is the new plan just a case of lowered expectations?

Nader Rahman

Barack Obama has outlined his strategy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, but many questions remain unanswered. How much longer will he and more importantly can he, pump money and troops into what is quite obviously is the failed state better known as Afghanistan and how justified it is to do the same in a fractured Pakistan? Analysts remain cautiously optimistic that Obama has spelled out reasonable and achievable targets, yet seemingly there was no real end to the conflict in sight. The lack of a genuine exit strategy could hurt Obama, but with his new plan, the seeds of hope, no matter how small have been planted. If Al-Qaeda and the Taliban can be stopped then maybe Pakistan can rebuild itself along with Afghanistan. But those dreams are a long way off, his new plan has to be implemented, and in a way that implementation is a test of his foreign policy credentials. The region at large hopes he succeeds; yet they almost seem braced for a defeat.

It would be interesting what Obama and America would view as defeat in Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq in 2011 has been viewed in some quarters as a defeat, but in many ways the withdrawal was the best option America had without fully accepting defeat. They started out the war in Iraq claiming it was over weapons of mass destruction, within months that quickly changed to regime change for the betterment of the Iraq and its neighbours. The final implicit reason was to spread the word of democracy into a region, which more often than not shunned the idea. If and when they finally leave Iraq by Christmas 2011, what will they really be celebrating?

They never did find those weapons of mass destruction, their regime change simply led factitious battles betweens Shias and Sunnis, entrenched Al-Qaeda and its military activities and hardened its neighbours pseudo-democracies to fight what they thought to be American imperialism to the death. Along the way there was the small matter of hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians that were killed and injured, but one assumes America views that to be nothing other than collateral damage. Their slim victory out of the mess, is that Iraq, can in an awkward way govern itself and that if all goes well the roots of democracy have been planted. Eventually their real victory will be that they will finally leave Iraq, a hollow victory indeed. The same seems to be the case with Afghanistan and Pakistan as victory there has now been redefined by the Obama administration.

In his speech on March 28 announcing the new way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan he said, "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," he later went on to say, "to succeed, we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban's gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." Interestingly their goal (for the overall mission in Afghanistan) and the benchmark against which they can assess their success and failure are quite different. While the goal may be to rid the region of Al-Qaeda, they will measure their success by promoting a more capable and accountable Afghan government. In many ways that seems like a step backward and a more realistic outcome to expect for what many have called America's forgotten war.

Pakistani tribesmen search for victims amidst the debris at the site of a suicide blast at a mosque in the town of Jamrud.

Curiously Obama also has to distance himself from the conflict. He is desperate for the conflict not to become 'Obama's war', after Iraq was branded 'Bush's war'. His exit strategy is a more personal one, if things go bad again in Afghanistan, he will have to face the wrath of America and in fact the whole world, many who now view the war as Obama's pet. That was also partially why in his speech he said, "We have a shared responsibility to act; not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what's at stake at this time is not just our own security. It's the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today." He wants an increased NATO presence in Afghanistan, because he does not want the war to be viewed as simply an American exercise. Eight years ago it was America followed by the free West who fought in Afghanistan to rid the world of Al-Qaeda's brand of terrorism. Unfortunately for them the war did not go to plan, now seemingly American money and military personnel are being poured into a conflict with no end in sight.

The reality is the rest of the world has bailed and America must now walk the path alone, but Obama will do anything in his power to remind NATO that they too have a role to play. Part of the new way forward is adding 4000 troops to the 17,000 extra he has already pledged to General McKiernan. The real point is if Obama believes the war can be won with a simple 'surge' in troops. From his speech it seems like he is hedging his bets, increasing troops and also trying to increase the training imparted to the fledgling Afghan army. Obama sees the training and support of the Afghan Police and Army as the stepping-stone to a quiet withdrawal from Afghanistan. While that may not be as heroic as sweeping Al-Qaeda out of the region, it is a more realistic achievement, which America is desperate for.

Pakistani security officials arrest a suspected militant (R) near the site of a police training center in Lahore.

The real problem is with Pakistan and on that front Obama has come up with what seems like an ingenious plan to get a real foothold into the country. Obama said, "A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone. Al Qaeda's -- offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction. We stand for something different. So today I'm calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorises $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years, resources that will build school and roads and hospitals and strengthen Pakistan's democracy." With over a billion dollars to Pakistan every year for five straight years he hopes to build faith and prosperity at the same time. That he hopes will force the Pakistani people to push Al-Qaeda mentally and physically out of their land. But it could also be met with disastrous failure, with a notoriously corrupt man at the helm of Pakistan there is a real fear that the money will line government pockets rather than build schools, roads and hospitals. That would further infuriate the uneasy population and would allow Al-Qaeda the ideological foothold they need to turn the population against not just the government but all things American. There are other worries as well, at the press briefing after Obama's speech a journalist asked, "You're talking about significantly increasing aid to Pakistan, for example, on the civilian side. How do you plan to deal -- get that aid into the tribal areas when even Embassy workers in Peshawar had to retreat? I mean, how are you going to deal with that problem?" Embarrassingly the question was not answered, leaving his one billion dollar a year plan for Pakistan looking shaky just as soon as it was announced.

On the CBS programme 'Face the Nation' aired the day after his speech, Obama cleared out one major issue which would have jeopardised his plans in Pakistan. Since his inauguration there has been widespread fear in Pakistan that Obama would finally send ground troops into Pakistan to smoke the terrorists out of their dens. Obama soothed those fears by saying, "If we have a high-value target within our sights, after consulting with Pakistan, we're going after them," he also went on to say, "our plan does not change the recognition of Pakistan as a sovereign government, we need to work with them and through them to deal with Al-Qaeda. But we have to hold them much more accountable." Seemingly the message was that Pakistan would be a sort of partner with the war on Al-Qaeda, rather than treated as an enemy. That will do a lot to calm nerves in Pakistan, but on the flip side there will not be a decrease in the drones that are used to pummel suspected targets within the Pakistani border.

In the mean time Hillary Clinton has been dispatched to the Hague for the international conference on Afghanistan, to pawn Obama's strategy to the rest of the world. The response she receives will be central as to how other countries deal with Afghanistan and that could prove to be even more important than Obama's strategy. The fate of Afghanistan in part rests with Russia and other Central-Asian countries that border it. The new way forward must include Russia, but for that to happen America has to loosen its stance on its missile defence system in Russia's European backyard. Russia aside the Obama administration has now found itself in a tricky situation with Afghanistan and Pakistan, with nowhere to run, they have to proceed with caution. Pakistan is possibly the most unstable country in the world with nuclear power, and feeding them an endless amount of money to help change their ways is questionable to say the least. As for Afghanistan one feels Obama may be happy with training the army and the police and quietly leaving. If he on the other hand decides he wants to definitively win the war and drive Al-Qaeda out, then he must be dreaming. If that is the case, the rest of the world is braced for his defeat.


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