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Afghanistan: The US surge to nowhere

By Harsh V Pant
June 25, 2010 15:45 IST
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India should carve out a policy response that protects India and its interests from the negative externalities of the US strategy in Afghanistan, writes Harsh V Pant.

General Stanley A McChrsytal had to go. There was no doubt about it. Once McChrystal's interview to the Rolling Stone magazine was out in which he and his staff seemed to be mocking the civilian policy-making team of the Barack Obama administration, it was clear that it was an appalling violation of the norms of civilian-military relations.

And so President Obama fired his top commander in Afghanistan and replaced him with McChrystal's boss and mentor and another soldier-monk, General David H Petraeus. As head of the United States Central Command, Petraeus had oversight over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the entire region. Now he will be taking a step down but a role that is probably more important for the American national security as well as Obama's presidency.

And yet though Obama's may have reasserted civilian control for the time being, his failure to take complete ownership of the war that had once described as the necessary one is becoming a big liability. McChrystal's disdainful comments and the realities on the ground in Afghanistan have exposed the enduring fault-lines in the strategy that Obama forged last year among his civilian advisors and military commanders.

It was symptomatic of wider problems with Obama's strategy and the divisions within his national security team. And a year down the line, Obama has failed to reconcile the differences among his advisors even as the perception is gaining ground that the war is going badly for the NATO forces.

Though Obama made it clear that the current war strategy will continue and not be altered, there is a grudging acknowledgment in the US policy-making circles that Obama's surge is not showing any signs of success so far. There will be a full review of the war in December but there are growing voices that a serious assessment of the military and civilian policies is needed now. About half of the additional 30,000 troops that Obama decided to send to Afghanistan are now in the country, with the rest scheduled to land by the end of the summer. This will swell the number of American troops in Afghanistan to about 100,000. And they have around 14 months to make a difference before withdrawals are due to begin.

The Marja offensive in Helmand province was initially deemed a big success but no effective Afghan authority has emerged to take the place of Taliban. The American civilian leadership in Afghanistan has lost all faith in the leadership of President Hamid Karzai and vice versa. More damagingly for the Obama administration, the views of the American civilian leadership did not align closely with those of its top American military commander till now, General McChrystal.

Obama himself didn't help his cause and lost credibility with Karzai when he started publicly rebuking him for various governance failures in Afghanistan. True, Karzai has spectacularly failed in constructing modern governmental machinery and seems to have little interest in building provincial and local governance institutions. But for better or worse, that's the hand that Washington has been dealt with in Afghanistan. Now Obama is tying to belatedly handle Karzai with greater sensitivity in public.

The Obama administration realised that confronting Karzai publicly was not working and was even becoming counterproductive. As Karzai came under US pressure to reform his corrupt government in recent years, he has often lashed out publicly, even threatening to join the Taliban in a recent fit of pique. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has openly suggested that Karzai bears considerable responsibility for all that has gone wrong in Afghanistan, refusing to root out corruption and preferring cronies to competent managers.  

It remains to be seen if this will be enough especially in the larger context where the relationship of Karl Eikenberry, the US Ambassador in Kabul, with Karzai are at their lowest ebb. Of course, Eikenberry did not see eye to eye on strategy with McChrystal. Where McChrystal enjoyed a close relationship with Karzai and had suggested that US officials should show more public deference to Karzai, Eikenberry had advised that the Obama administration should try to find other Afghan figures, including provincial leaders to work with rather than rely so heavily on Karzai.

Eikenberry's differences with McChrystal made it difficult to have him as a credible interlocutor while Richard Holbrooke, responsible for overseeing the civilian aspects of Afghanistan's rebuilding, was marginalised by Obama. Holbrooke doesn't get along with Karzai and there have been constant reports that he is on his way out. As a result, there is no single US points-man in Afghanistan. Obama is yet to come to grips with this slide in Afghanistan.

Under such a scenario, it remains unclear how the Obama administration will be able to start transferring responsibility to Afghans by July 2011. The Kandahar offensive will be much harder than Marja and no wonder it still remains a work in progress. The Obama administration's much touted reconciliation plan remains non-existence even as differences with Kabul have hardened on whom to include in this outreach and what the agenda should be.

As India refashions its Afghanistan policy, it should take the evolving dynamic on the ground in Afghanistan into serious consideration. There is a strong sense in certain quarters in India that American cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. While this may indeed be the case, American Afghanistan strategy is facing a crisis and things are likely to get much worse before they get any better. America's lack of capacity to come to terms with the challenges in Afghanistan will have long-term implications for regional security in South Asia. India should, therefore, carve out a policy response that protects India and its interests from the negative externalities of the US strategy.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

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