Obama’s old wine in new bottle

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The way President Barack Obama reached the world’s top position is indeed sufficient proof of his abilities. In terms of common sense and talent George W Bush and Obama are on opposite ends. Thus, in this part of the world we were very hopeful that Obama’s policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan will bring positive change, but unfortunately his policies proved self-contradictory and hopeless. Gen Pervez Musharraf was once the most despised person in Pakistan, but is now praised due to the worse leadership of Asif Ali Zardari. In the same way, the common people in Pakistan and Afghanistan now see Bush as a far better president than Obama. There was much hue and cry about the Af-Pak policy when Obama took over the presidency, but it proved confusing from the very moment of its announcement. In the same breath, sending 30,000 forces and initiating political dialogues surprised and confused the analysts. Now, after two years of massive human and material losses, he has announced the old policy with a new zeal. When he was announcing the much awaited new policy, it sounded nothing more than old wine in new bottle.


For Afghans the only important part could be the numbers of outgoing forces. The numbers are going to be 10,000 by the end of this year and 23,000 next year. The net number game is almost being the same as the number of American forces in Afghanistan in the Bush era. Obama’s policy was pushing in 30,000 and troops and then pulling them back in two instalments. The idea behind Obama’s sending in extra forces was to force the Taliban to negotiate on US terms. The job of the US troops also was to train Afghan personnel so that the Afghans could be able to take charge of their own institutions when the time came for the exit of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan. Today what we see is quite the opposite. The boosted morale of the Taliban forces is evident, but on the other hand Afghan institutions are looking around for regional linkages and even more to find some good links among the Taliban.


US relations with the Afghan administration are also at an all-time low. The United States’ efforts to defeat Hamid Karzai in the presidential elections and its subsequent failure in this led to more complex relations between the two. Today Hamid Karzai sees the Taliban and Pakistan a lesser threat to him and his government than the United States. In this situation Obama owes some explanation to US citizens and people around the globe. If the forces were to be withdrawn, what was the purpose and rationale in sending them in in first place? After the episode of Osama bin Laden’s death, Obama is trying to convince us all that American war objectives have been achieved. But his contentions are not backed by ground realities. Despite Osama bin Laden’s death, the Taliban are stronger than ever and have even proved their strength last year in northern Afghanistan.


Now we are left with a ragging question: Why, in comparison with the reckless Bush, the smart Obama faced more failures on the Afghan front? The answer is very simple. The Bush policies were wrong and hostile, but there was not a shred of confusion about them. Obama is surrounded by a team with opposite views on Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden is in favour of a speedy withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan while Gen David Petraeus, a Republican by origin, is in favour of a longer stay and brutal use of force in Afghanistan. Gen McChrystal, a person capable of balanced analysis, is sent home, while David Petraeus has been given wider powers and influence. The Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department are not on the same page in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the approval of military expenditures needs approval from Congress, now full of Republicans. All these conflicting factors result in a policy that could not fit in the ground realities. Even the policy on countries neighbouring Afghanistan reflects the same confusion. In Iraq they easily compromised to form a setup favouring Iran, but in Afghanistan the policy is to fight against Iranian influence, as one can observe in the construction of military bases in Herat and Shindand.


The US policy on Pakistan in terms of Afghanistan needs no comments for its confusion and opposite pulls. The Bush policy was clear, Pakistan was an ally. Obama, on the other hand, wishes to achieve everything from Pakistan as an ally and to keep New Delhi happy at the same time. He thanks Pakistan for its contribution in the elimination of Osama bin Laden but at the same time sends negative messages through CIA chief Leon Panetta, Congressmen and the US media. On June 22, in the presidential policy speech on Afghanistan, Obama praised and warned Pakistan in the same breath. On the one hand he allows Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban and on other presses Pakistan to use brutal force in North Waziristan.


The whole issue boils down to the fact that the US can’t spend any more on Afghanistan. There are 150,000 foreign personnel in Afghanistan. Each costs the US one million dollars per annum (as compared to 12,000 dollars for native soldier). These financial realities are horrible and the Americans realise that by a fraction of such expanses they can finance a ten times larger Afghan force working for the US. But the lure of military presence and its political prestige is great for US policymakers. Because not a single solution is reached, the present policy is for the US to adopt the middle way. Withdraw maximum numbers of military personnel and relocate military bases to important cities of Afghanistan.


Thus huge military bases are being created at Herat, Shindand, Helmand, and Mazar-e-Sharif. Contracts for those military bases are for the next one decade. The runways being constructed on these bases are capable of being used by the largest aircraft. Once this new plan is realised the number games will favour the United States, or at least this is what is envisioned by the policymakers. For the US less military personnel means less dollars to spend and less dependence on Pakistan for its supply routes. Against this backdrop it is very easy to decipher President Obama’s reference to Libya in his speech and Leon Panetta’s claim that even without Pakistan the United States can win. Once this is realised the Americans could enjoy sitting in their military basis and enjoying coffee or whatever drink they prefer and observe the situation. If the political solution does not suit their interests at any point of time, it would be easier to distribute weapons and dollars among Afghanis to change the situation. Added benefit would be indeed to keep disciplined the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan so the regional agenda of the US must not be disturbed.


The writer works for Geo TV.Email: saleem.safi@janggroup.com.pk