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POLITICS: Perils Seen in Obama’s Afghan Strategy

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Mar 14 2009 (IPS) - With official announcements about a new strategy for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan expected in the coming weeks, details of the plan are starting to emerge in press accounts which describe a renewed focus on the war-torn Central Asian country and its volatile neighbour, Pakistan.

According to a series of interviews with administration officials, the New York Times has said that the plan to mollify the growing Taliban-led insurgency will be to peel away elements from its hard-line ideological leadership.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s review has, according to those officials, concluded that at least 70 percent of the fighters – the “foot soldiers”, as the Times called them – are not committed to the extremist goals of the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership operating in the region.

The broad strategic review of conflict in the region is based on individual assessments from three military leaders – Joint Chiefs head Adm. Mike Mullen; Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. troops in the region; and Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute – and the Af-Pak (as the regional situation is called) diplomatic special envoy, Balkan Dayton accords architect Richard Holbrooke. Former CIA analyst and administration review chairman Bruce Riedel will compile those assessments.

The now commonplace notion that the Afghanistan war can be lost across its border with Pakistan will drive the new administration strategy to significantly beef up aid to Pakistan focused on both general development and quelling its own Taliban-led insurgency, as opposed to preparations for potential war with its traditional adversary, India.

The sentiments of the administration review largely echo many of the points in a new International Crisis Group (ICG) report released Friday, “Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, New Directions,” though the ICG represents a strategy more cautious about bringing in insurgents and more ambitious about goals for the Afghan government.

Speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels this week, Vice President Joe Biden broke down the Afghan insurgency into three groups: 5 percent irreconcilable ideologues, 25 percent whose loyalties were questionable, and 70 percent who are interested only in “getting paid.”

The ethnic-Pashtun Taliban group operates on both sides of the Af-Pak border in what is sometimes called Pashtunistan, but it is not a monolith and depends on a wide variety of alliances with smaller groups that don’t necessarily share in the fundamentalist zeal of the Taliban leadership.

The division bolsters the notion that by offering incentives – particularly, in this case, cash – the insurgents can be convinced to drop their violent opposition to the Afghan central government.

A similar strategy worked in Iraq, where Sunni fighters were “peeled away” – the terminology for chipping away at the rebelion’s manpower – from the insurgency with the offer of 300 dollars per man to join U.S.-backed militias, known as Sahwa or Awakening councils.

But the ICG report is hesitant about applying the strategy in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is awash with weapons and armed groups,” said the report. “Creating unaccountable local militias – based on a false analogy with Iraq – will only worsen ethnic tensions and violence.”

The report says that rather than focusing on building “parallel structures”, efforts must be centred on building Afghan national institutions, strengthening the rule of law and tackling rampant corruption – and creating “more democracy, not less.”

In a list of recommendations of “What Should Not Be Done,” ICG places “negotiations with jihadi groups, especially from a position of weakness” first. While not completely discounting the notion of ‘peeling away’ those “groups prepared to abandon their jihadi ambitions,” ICG pointed to deals in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that have failed both by not bringing long-term peace and by “enhanc[ing] the power and activities of violent insurgents while doing nothing to build sustainable institutions.”

Former CIA officer Milton Bearden, who led clandestine efforts to back militias against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, made similar comments speaking this week at the Nixon Centre.

“If we do militias, then they can’t be ‘our’ militias,” said Bearden. He recounted the dual allegiance of militias in the past, noting that, though he gave 250,000 dollars to Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, he “was as loyal to me as he was to his [Soviet intelligence] officer.”

In another example, Bearden said that militias would profit from Soviet assistance as well.

“The Russians gave militias tonnes of equipment and arms, and we would buy them and save on shipping costs,” said Bearden.

In terms of security, ICG offers up the idea of expanding the increasingly successful Afghan National Policy (ANP) and focusing more on protecting civilian centres rather than conducting temporarily disruptive sweeps into territory controlled by insurgents.

But indications from the administration are that, as the focus shifts more toward Pakistan, expectations for Afghanistan are being lowered, including building up institutions aimed at long-term prosperity. Instead the war effort will emphasise preventing the Af-Pak region from becoming a launching ground for jihadi attacks against the West.

The Times quoted a senior European official stating that goal quite bluntly, while pointing to more gentle statements by realist U.S. Secretary of Defence Bob Gates.

This strategy of lowered expectations includes bolstering aid to Pakistan to pacify the Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in the Northwest border regions – especially aid not slated to strengthen the civilian central government – and the apparent readiness to continue a CIA strategy of targeting insurgent leadership in Pakistan with missiles launched from unmanned drones.

The Times article indicated that there was still debate as to just how much aid should be delivered to Pakistan, especially with regards to non-military aid. Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar are expected to introduce a bill soon that closely resembles a bill calling for tripled non-military aid introduced by Obama and Biden when they were both still in the Senate last year.

In contrast to the apparent indecision within the administration, the ICG report makes clear that focusing more on broader goals in Pakistan is needed. The top two goals for the country are to “strengthen civilian rule” and “support political reform in FATA,” the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest that have become strongholds of the Taliban-led insurgency and al Qaeda as they fled Afghanistan.

The recommendations call for increased economic, reconstruction, and humanitarian aid in order to ‘help win hearts and minds and deprive the jihadis of a potential pool of recruits.”

As for Afghanistan itself, ICG tacitly endorsed putting more U.S. troops on the ground, albeit in a more restrained capacity of protecting civilian centres and roads.

Obama recently ordered 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan, with perhaps 13,000 more to come if commanders on the ground have their requests met.

Bearden, for one, doesn’t consider this much of an escalation, saying that the troops were only topping up to fill vacancies left by departing NATO forces.

“I don’t say this is his Vietnam,” he said. “17,000 troops is not a surge; it’s kind of old business.”

However, Bearden warned against a full-scale escalation: “If you send in more gunfighters, you’ll get into more gunfights.”

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