It is tempting to see Barack Obama as an antiwar leader because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. As the next president of the United States, he has to deal with the situation that he will inherit. Events have convinced him that America cannot continue to fight on all four fronts – Iraq, Afghanistan, the global war on terror and the collapsing economy. He wants to cut his losses on at least two fronts. In Iraq, he would reduce America’s military presence and possibly end it within a finite period; he would also do away with the most ugly and financially ruinous aspects of the ‘war on terror’. So he says the Guantanamo detention camp will be closed. The notorious practice of kidnapping and torture of people will have to stop. However, a few things are not clear. What will happen to detainees who are clearly innocent? And how will those who are suspects in the eyes of the United States be tried? The idea of secret military courts with a different set of rules of prosecution has caused unease among legal experts and human rights organizations.
Obama’s interest is focused on Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where he thinks the battle against terrorism has to be fought. But events have overtaken this analysis following the carnage in Mumbai by young gunmen who appear to have come from Pakistan. They highlight a giant web of crises spanning a large area from Palestine to India and illustrate the way in which many crises can become one. Obama’s global ambition may be limited. But his approach has striking similarities with the one followed in Iraq under George W Bush. With Robert Gates continuing as defense secretary and General Robert Petraeus as head of the US Central Command overseeing military operations across the Middle East, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is difficult to expect a radical change.
Obama supports a military surge in Afghanistan similar to that seen in Iraq in 2007, when violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province was at its worst. Many in Washington would like to believe that the surge was responsible for a dramatic improvement in the security environment. In fact, suicide attacks and murders continue on a daily basis. The latest bomb attacks were launched in Baghdad on the very day (December 1, 2008) Obama was to announce his National Security team, which also includes Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Gates and Petraeus are among the architects of the current strategy in Iraq. Its effects are celebrated in Washington, but contested elsewhere for three main reasons. One, to split Al-Qaeda, the United States decided to finance and arm as many as a hundred thousand tribesmen called the ‘Sons of Iraq’, who patrol large areas in the country. Two, the move has created Sunni warlords in a country which has a Shi’a majority and a Shi’a-dominated government. Three, it has reinforced sectarianism. The consequences of all this pose greater danger for Iraqi society.
Similar tactics were used in Afghanistan in the 1980s during the US proxy war against the Soviet Union, with consequences that are before us. One of the lessons of that conflict was that the Soviet occupation army of a-hundred-and-twenty-thousand used every brutal tactic it knew, but failed to subdue the Mujahideen guerrillas armed and financed by the West. The experience of recent years is no different. America’s diversion to Iraq caused a lack of resources in Afghanistan. Whether the same tactics will work in the Afghan theater is doubtful. Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and its deeply entrenched tribal system, poverty and lack of development pose an entirely different set of challenges.
The mood in Pakistan this time is very different from what it was in the US proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. General Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler at the time, played the religious card to his own and America’s advantage in the short run. The sentiment in Afghanistan and Pakistan since America’s return to the region is hostile. America is seen as the aggressor. Its use of overwhelming destructive power kills civilians across the frontier. People whose lives are cheap are also dangerous. An enlarged occupation force may have its advantages. But it would also represent a greater provocation and a more obvious target.
The retention of Robert Gates and General Petraeus in the coming Obama administration poses a deeper problem. Both were leading players in the regime that kidnapped, tortured and detained people in Guantanamo and secret prisons around the world. They must bear some responsibility for what happened during the Bush administration. For President Obama to say torture was wrong and he would stop the practice and yet keep two of the most senior figures of the regime that perpetrated these crimes would be hard to understand for people around the world. For this reason, it would be unhelpful for America’s image, badly in need of repair.
I do not suggest that all is necessarily lost in Afghanistan. But a more aggressive military posture and tactics to bribe some of the Taleban away from the hard core are not among the most effective. Knowing what I do about Afghans, although they are men of honor, they will take money from occupiers and then fight them. It has happened in the past, both distant and recent. There is no reason to believe it would not happen again.
Obama is a leader of intellect. He knows that Afghanistan is a chronically ill country. It is desperately poor – the root cause of much of the violence and drug trafficking. Violence and corruption have infected every level of Afghan society. The government installed in Kabul by the United States has lost credibility. A military surge is not the answer to these chronic problems. A long-term commitment to reconstruction and rehabilitation in Afghanistan is required. As Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid suggest in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2009), America has to lead a historic effort involving regional players. Pakistan needs economic, instead of military, aid to ensure its own survival. Democracy needs to be strengthened and the military made to withdraw from politics. A hawkish approach from Washington cannot produce these ingredients, essential for the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Deepak Tripathi, former BBC correspondent in Afghanistan, is a researcher and an author.