Afghanistan-Obama’s Dangerous Faux Pas

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by Lieutenant General Hamid Gul

CEO Think Tank MEASAC (Covenant for Peace & Unity)

Tall, lanky, easy of manner, and articulate, Obama exuded hope and confidence across the globe as he entered the White House. The world was yearning for a paradigm shift and he held out the promise of change from former President Bush’s disastrous policies of aggression and unilateralism. So palpable was his message that he was conferred the Noble Peace Prize in anticipation of his future performance.

Two years down the lane of history however, the dream stands almost shattered. The promise of change essentially presaged external disengagement to focus on the domestic travails.

Breaking away from Afghanistan should have been a sine qua non for such a scheme of things. Yet, the third review of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy has failed to come out with a clear-cut solution. The withdrawal plan is confusing and ambivalent. There is the same old rhetoric of ‘do more demands on Pakistan, ad nauseum. Reversing the ‘ Taliban momentum’ too is very much in place. Glimpses from Bob Woodward’s book “ Obama’s War” clearly portray a beleaguered Obama unable to overcome the military obduracy with political will and sagacity.

He plucked the first acid test of his presidency to the great disillusionment of the world.   With 62% of Americans wanting to end the war and 85% of Afghans hankering for the vacation of occupation, Obama could have easily upturned the incompetent and ambitious generals, especially, General David Petraeus, who is intoxicated by his partial success in Iraq and is eying the office of the President of the US.

His hare-brained strategy to create local warlords to confront and contain the ‘National Resistance’- for that is exactly what the Taliban Movement has morphed into-is a recipe for an abiding misery for Afghanistan. For one thing, Afghans are not Iraqis. Their history is testimony enough; for another, the conflict here has ideological underpinnings and the Afghan nation has an unmistakable tendency to gravitate towards ‘faith’. It could only prolong the conflict and create room for faith fighters from all over the world to rally in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The proxies and remotely operated firepower will not be able to change the results.

The answer to such daunting problems would be to beat a quick retreat albeit a negotiated one. There would entail direct US talks with the Taliban leadership instead of going about in circles and using puppets to pull off the magic where it might have failed. Sadly, the lesson has not been learned from the two fruitless surges, 21,000 additional troops first time in Afghanistan and 40,000 the second time since Obama’s entry into the Oval Office. More troops only produced more casualties for the allies, with almost 2 dead and 4 wounded for each day of the year 2010.

In fact, the 9 years history of the Afghan war shows that every time NATO tried to wrest the initiative from the Taliban the latter grew in strength. The patron is unerring through the operation ‘Anaconda’ in eastern Afghanistan in 2003 to operations ‘Khanjar’ and ‘Mushtarak’ in the south. General Petraeus’ claim that he has had significant success in Kandhar is spurious and misguiding. In reality, the much-flaunted operation ‘Kandhar’ never took off. And now the insidious plan of creating local militias is doomed to fail.

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Taliban are almost certain to penetrate and control these militias and earn dollars at the same time to finance resistance against occupation and the puppet government. Such are the ways of wily Afghans. Already the flourishing narco-trade, of which the Taliban gets a handsome share, and in addition, the ‘protection money doled out to the Taliban commanders for safe passage of NATO’s supply columns, is filling the coffers of the opposition.

So outlandish to reality are the plans being hatched by the American generals running the show in Afghanistan, that one wonders whether they have ever been groomed in the ‘art of war. Take for instance the factors that govern the outcome of an armed conflict. A secure line of supply and reliable intelligence input are absolute imperatives to success on the battlefield.

In the case of Afghanistan, both these elements are highly unreliable. Long overland supply routes from the entrepot (Karachi) to the Afghan border are ambush prone and expensive. 200 NATO tankers and containers were torched in the year 2010 alone. The 10 days blockade of one of the two routes by the Pakistan Military following a NATO helicopter’s attack on a border check post which killed 3 Pakistani soldiers, brought the NATO command to its knees. With growing anger in Pakistan over drone attacks, the specter of the blockade will continue to haunt NATO operations.

To top it all the US policy of allowing India to destabilize Pakistan internally by fomenting unrest in Balochistan by harboring, training, and arming the Baloch separatists is patently self-destructive. It tantamounts to cutting the very branch on which they are precariously perched.

The US policymakers seem to be oblivious that Pakistan’s socio-political and financial vows could lead to a big disaster as the NATO troops would be stuck in  Afghanistan’s ‘mouse trap’ in the event of any turmoil in Pakistan. There is no adjacent Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam) where troops and equipment could be ferried in a hurry.

Search for an alternative route through Central Asia and Russia is unlikely to come to fruition as:

a) it’s very long and exorbitantly expensive (more than ten times the present cost)

b) Russians have a long memory. They would want to see the US humiliated in Afghanistan; besides, besides extracting unacceptable strategic concessions. An alternative supply line would remain a pipe dream. The burden of maintaining visualized troop levels till the end of 2014 and beyond would break the economic back of the flagging US economy as well as create uneasiness among the NATO allies.

US Intelligence failures in Afghanistan have been monumental. Over-reliance on FAS (Afghan State Intelligence) for field intelligence and unrealistic dependence on Pakistan’s ISI led to intelligence fiascoes. Afghan Intelligence is amateurish, hence, more of a source of disinformation than genuine intelligence. ISI’s support was bound to be tentative and reluctant given the circumstances under which it was press-ganged into service following 9/11. Despite spending billions of dollars on intelligence gathering the sixteen intelligence agencies of the US did little more than chase the shadows of Al Qaeda.

Ostensibly, only 20 valuable targets of Al Qaeda have been eliminated so far by drone strikes in the FATA area of Pakistan. Whereas, over 2,200 innocent Pakistani civilians have been devoured by these senseless attacks. All this barbarity has had little effect on the war itself, least of all on the Afghan battlefield. On the contrary, the frontline of Pakistan has been ravaged by revenge attacks from suicide bombers. As a corollary, Pakistan is no more willing to embark on a potentially disastrous adventure in North Waziristan.

Drone attacks are illegal, immoral, and counter-productive. One day there might be retribution for this vile undertaking a la ‘Lockerbie’ in cash or in kind. After all, its a long war, and Al Qaeda, the chief adversary has already relocated to softer sports closer to their ‘Center of Gravity, the Red Sea area. CIA chief, Leon Panetta had admitted that fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operators are now present in the Af-Pak zone. Many or more, maybe cooling their heels in any one of the European countries.

NATO’s entire intelligence apparatus is rusty, incompetent, and corrupt. Only the impostor Mulla Akhtar Mansoor’s case is enough to put them to shame. Somebody ought to investigate to find out about the secret and unaccountable funds embezzled by the intelligence operators in this fruitless war.

Private security contractors are enjoying the bonanza of free flow of money like never before. They have awarded lucrative contracts to retired CIA/FBI officers on the basis of an ‘old buddy’ relationship. Privatization of intelligence gathering (David Furlong’s case is in point) is a novel way to squander money for negative returns. While the adversaries are engaged in an ideological conflict with a high degree of motivation. They cannot be countered by greedy, tired, and morally depraved legions of intelligence midgets.

Now come to the combat zone. Historically, there are three decisive determinants of victory or defeat; time, space, and relative strength. Evaluation of each of these is illuminating in the context of Afghanistan. Taliban are reportedly saying that ‘Americans have the watch but we have the time.’ And how true! Anyone with a rudimentary insight into Afghan traits would vouch that they cannot be tired out in a war of attrition. As for space, resistance controls 85% of Afghanistan’s territory and holds sway over government functionaries where they lack direct authority.

On the scales of relative strength, the guerrilla fighter has always enjoyed superior orientation due to freedom of movement and the ability to surprise. Remember, the guerrilla does not have to win, he has only to deny victory to the adversary. Besides, it’s not a numbers game in the conventional sense. Even then no one can say that resistance is short of manpower. And now with the scent of victory in the air, who would not rally behind the victors?

Only in the department of firepower did the allies have absolute supremacy, but if firepower alone could win the wars, General Westmoreland would not have had to ‘cut and run out of Vietnam.

Obama’s feet-dragging withdrawal strategy defies all military logic. The time-tested doctrine of achieving a ‘clean break’ to avoid a ‘ running battle’  would be a wise course to follow.  Whimsical formulations such as dividing Afghanistan or establishing ‘stay behind fortresses’ to maintain a lifeline for the moribund puppet regime in pursuit of illusive objectives would only prolong the agonizing Afghan imbroglio. Worse still, it will destabilize Pakistan, the only ‘relief zone’ available to NATO for an honorable withdrawal. Pakistan would likely be driven into a revolution or a civil war, which could ignite an inferno that would consume the entire south Asian region.

In conclusion, President Obama must trust and follow his instinct which showed amply in his Cairo speech, 4th June 2009. “Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women.

It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” It was a legitimate and realistic objective and behold … attainable with dignity intact if the occupation were to end sooner rather than later.

Sadly, he seems to have changed his premise since. President Obama needs to stand up to his generals as they will never accept their failure and shall continue to ‘invest in the error’. This is the established psychology of military commanders vividly analyzed by Norman F. Dixon in his book “On The Psychology of Military Incompetence”. If President Obama fails to measure up even in the fourth review of the Af-Pak strategy due in April 2011, his folly would be recorded by history as a ‘Monumental Blunder.’

Obama faces another challenge which is no less daunting. If he fails to deliver on his promise of change he runs the risk of closing the doors of the White House to a colored man for a long time. His finesse depends on addressing the dark impulse and imperial hubris in American policy-making.

SOURCELieutenant General Hamid Gul

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