U.S. Afpak path comes full circle

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — What U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has been pursuing in Afghanistan for the past one year has now received international imprimatur, thanks to the well-scripted London conference. Four words sum up that strategy: Surge, bribe and run.

Obama has designed his twin troop surges not to militarily rout the Afghan Taliban but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. Without a deal with Taliban commanders, the United States cannot execute the “run” part.

The Obama approach has been straightforward: If you can’t defeat them, buy them off. Having failed to rout the Taliban, Washington has been holding indirect talks with the Afghan militia’s shura, or top council, whose members are holed up in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province, including the one-eyed chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The talks have been conducted through the Pakistani, Saudi and Afghan intelligence agencies.

Obama, paradoxically, is seeking to apply to Afghanistan the Iraq model of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used a military surge largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains. But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and it is a moot question whether the same strategy can work, especially when Obama has not hidden his intent to end the U.S. war before he comes up for re-election in 2012.

In a land with a long tradition of humbling foreign armies, payoffs are unlikely to buy peace. All that the Pakistan-backed Taliban has to do is to simply wait out the Americans. After all, popular support for the Afghan war has markedly ebbed in the U.S., even as the other countries with troops in Afghanistan exhibit war fatigue.

If a resurgent Taliban is now on the offensive, with 2008 and 2009 proving to be the deadliest years for U.S. forces since the 2001 American intervention, it is primarily because of two reasons: the sustenance the Taliban still draws from Pakistan; and a growing Pashtun backlash against foreign intervention.

The Taliban leadership — with an elaborate command-and-control structure oiled by Wahhabi petrodollars and proceeds from opium trade — operates from the comfort of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Fathered by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and midwifed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in 1994, the Taliban emerged as a Frankenstein’s monster.

Yet President Bill Clinton’s administration acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye as the thuggish militia, in league with the ISI, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. The U.S. came full circle when it declared war on the Taliban in October 2001. Now, desperate to save a faltering military campaign, U.S. policy is coming another full circle as Washington advertises its readiness to strike deals with “moderate” Taliban (as if there can be moderates in an Islamist militia that enforces medieval practices).

In the past year, the U.S. military and intelligence have carried out a series of air and drone strikes and ground commando attacks from Afghanistan in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region against the Pakistani Taliban, the nemesis of the Pakistani military. The CIA alone has admitted carrying out a dozen drone strikes in Waziristan to avenge the bombing of its base in Khost, Afghanistan, by a Jordanian double agent, who in a prerecorded video said he was going to take revenge for the U.S. attack — carried out at Pakistan’s instance — that killed the Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud.

Yet, the U.S. military and intelligence have not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against the Afghan Taliban leadership in Baluchistan, south of Waziristan. The CIA and the ISI are again working together, including in shielding the Afghan Taliban shura members so as to facilitate a possible deal.

Obama’s Afghan strategy should be viewed as shortsighted and apt to repeat the very mistakes of American policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three decades that have come to haunt U.S. security and that of the rest of the free world.

Washington is showing it has not learned any lessons from its past policies that gave rise to monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and to “the state within the Pakistani state,” the ISI, which was made powerful during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as a conduit of covert U.S. aid for Afghan guerrillas fighting Soviet occupiers.

To justify the planned Faustian bargain with the Taliban, the Obama team is drawing a specious distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban and illusorily seeking to differentiate between “moderate” Taliban and those that rebuff deal-making.

The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if such specious distinctions are drawn. India, which is on the frontline of the global fight against international terrorism, is likely to bear the brunt of the blowback of Obama’s Afpak strategy, just as it came under terrorist siege as a consequence of the Reagan-era U.S. policies.

The Taliban, al-Qaida and groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are a difficult-to- separate mix of soul mates who together constitute the global jihad syndicate. To cut a deal with any constituent of this syndicate will only bring more international terrorism. A stable Afghanistan cannot emerge without dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Afghan Taliban and militarily decapitating the latter’s command center in Baluchistan. Instead of seeking to achieve that, the U.S. is actually partnering the Pakistani military to win over the Taliban.

Even if the Obama administration managed to bring down violence in Afghanistan by doing a deal with the Taliban, the Taliban would remain intact as a fighting force, with active ties to the Pakistani military. Such a tactical gain would exact serious costs on regional and international security by keeping the Afpak region as the epicenter of a growing transnational-terrorism scourge and upsetting civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, where Japan and India are two of the largest bilateral aid donors.

Regrettably, the Obama administration is falling prey to a long- standing U.S. policy weakness: The pursuit of narrow objectives without much regard for the interests of friends.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.