Obama’s failed Afghan peace strat­egy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Since top­pling the Tal­iban regime in Afghanistan 14 years ago, the United States has been wag­ing a non-stop battle against its foot sol­diers. Locked in a war that has al­ready cost nearly $1 trln, the US has now shifted its fo­cus to mak­ing peace with the en­emy. It will not work.

Months af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­clared that Amer­ica’s “com­bat role” in Afghanistan was over, the US and its al­lies con­tinue to carry out airstrikes on Tal­iban po­si­tions reg­u­larly, while Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces con­tinue to raid sus­pected in­sur­gent hide­outs. In fact, be­yond an in­creased role for Afghan forces in the fight­ing, the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try has changed lit­tle since “Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom” was re­named “Op­er­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port.”

Obama’s pre­ma­ture dec­la­ra­tion will be re­mem­bered much like his pre­de­ces­sor Ge­orge W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Ac­com­plished” speech, which pro­claimed the end of ma­jor com­bat op­er­a­tions in Iraq long be­fore they ac­tu­ally ended. In­deed, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of ca­su­al­ties in Iraq were yet to oc­cur.

Nor is this the first time that Obama has jumped the gun. In Oc­to­ber 2011, he an­nounced that he was bring­ing “the long war in Iraq” to an end by with­draw­ing all US troops. Yet, last year, the US was back at war in Iraq, this time in an ef­fort to rein in the Is­lamic State, with Obama re­ly­ing on the same con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion that Bush se­cured for mil­i­tary ac­tion there a decade be­fore.

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Afghanistan,

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Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­ready missed the 2014 dead­line, set in 2011, for with­draw­ing US forces. And it has re­scinded an­other self­im­posed dead­line, hav­ing scrapped its plan to halve the num­ber of US troops still de­ployed in Afghanistan – cur­rently around 10,000 – by the end of this year.

So, Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan is now open-ended – and the fight­ing is not sub­sid­ing. On the con­trary, the re­cent es­ca­la­tion of Tal­iban at­tacks in­di­cates that the ap­proach­ing sum­mer fight­ing sea­son will be among the most in­tense since the war be­gan.

The Tal­iban has al­ready in­flicted far more ca­su­al­ties among US and al­lied forces than Al Qaeda and the Is­lamic State com­bined. A to­tal of 2,215 Amer­i­can troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and an­other 20,000 wounded, since 2001. The United Na­tions doc­u­mented a record-break­ing 10,548 con­flict-re­lated civil­ian ca­su­al­ties just last year.

Yet Obama has re­fused to des­ig­nate the Tal­iban as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, leav­ing it off the list of ter­ror­ist net­works men­tioned, for ex­am­ple, in his re­cent joint state­ment with In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. In­stead, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to por­tray the Tal­iban as a mod­er­ate force that can be ac­com­mo­dated within Afghanistan’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

More­over, in 2013, Obama al­lowed the Tal­iban to es­tab­lish what was es­sen­tially an em­bassy in ex­ile in Doha, Qatar, com­plete with a flag and other diplo­matic trap­pings. And, last year, the US re­leased five top Tal­iban lead­ers – in­clud­ing Mo­ham­mad Fazl and Mul­lah Nori, who are sus­pected of car­ry­ing out mas­sacres of Sunni Ta­jiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan – from the Guan­tá­namo Bay detention cen­ter.

With th­ese con­ces­sions, the US has re­vealed to the Tal­iban – and the world – its des­per­a­tion to achieve a face-sav­ing set­tle­ment that would en­able it, at long last, to es­cape the Afghan quag­mire. It is no won­der that the Tal­iban chief, Mul­lah Muham­mad Omar, hailed the re­lease of his five com­rades as ev­i­dence that his mili­tia is “closer to the har­bour of victory.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s des­per­a­tion is sim­i­larly ap­par­ent in the gen­er­ous aid that it has pro­vided to Pak­istan, in­clud­ing an im­mi­nent arms deal worth al­most $1 bln, in an ef­fort to se­cure the coun­try’s co­op­er­a­tion on counter-ter­ror­ism. Yet the Pak­istani mil­i­tary con­tin­ues to shel­ter the top lead­er­ship of the Tal­iban, which it re­gards as an in­valu­able as­set for gain­ing “strate­gic depth” in Afghanistan against In­dia.

Amer­ica’s suc­cess or fail­ure in Afghanistan now hinges on a sin­gle limited is­sue: whether it can pre­vent the Tal­iban from march­ing into Kabul. By high­light­ing its des­per­ate search for an exit, the US has given the Tal­iban the up­per hand, let­ting the mili­tia’s lead­ers know that they can sim­ply wait it out.

De­lay­ing a fur­ther draw­down of US forces will be in­ad­e­quate to con­vince the Tal­iban oth­er­wise. With its top lead­er­ship en­sconced in Pak­istan and its field com­man­ders in Afghanistan be­com­ing in­creas­ingly au­ton­o­mous, the Tal­iban no longer has a cen­tralised com­mand. And, fear­ing de­ser­tions to the Is­lamic State, it knows that giv­ing Obama what he wants – a peace deal that en­ables him to de­clare victory be­fore his term ends in Jan­uary 2017 – would be its death knell.

Amer­ica’s fal­ter­ing Afghan strat­egy should serve as a cau­tion­ary tale of how not to make peace with an en­emy. It is time for Obama to recog­nise that a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with the Tal­iban is sim­ply wish­ful think­ing. In­stead, he should fo­cus on bol­ster­ing Afghanistan’s se­cu­rity forces and iden­ti­fy­ing ways to elim­i­nate the Tal­iban mili­tia’s sanc­tu­ar­ies in Pak­istan. Af­ter all, ter­ror­ists are not in the busi­ness of mak­ing peace; Amer­ica should not think oth­er­wise.

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