The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan

with 2 comments

Does Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan play into the hands of those it tries to defeat? Amit Pandya, a senior associate at the Henry L Stimson Centre in Washington and the director of the project Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges, seems to think so. In a recent op-ed he wrote for Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, Pandya criticises the new strategy at its grassroots level, taking particular issue with its increased emphasis on militarisation and direct international involvement.

War has caused significant institutional and social decay and political instability in both countries. A substantial increase in the size of the Afghan army will further militarise that society, and tip the national-local balance upon which Afghan political stability has always depended.

This is an interesting perspective and one that I had not thought about. Afghanistan is a small country in terms of population, estimated to be at around 32 million (nothing in comparison to its neighbour Pakistan, the 6th most populous country in the world at almost 166 million or even Iran’s 70 million). What sort of impact would increased militarisation of the population have on an already incredibly war-ravaged nation? These are not question we normally are accustomed to asking, considering how few people we know personally in countries like Australia that have ever participated in an actual conflict, let alone done military service. There is no telling what sort of social trauma a lengthy counter-insurgency operation relying on guns and grenades will create in Afghan society. If it’s unavoidable then so be it, but is it?

Increased military operations will also result in more inadvertent civilian casualties, will give rise to more popular resentment, and could be a source of recruitment for insurgents. President Obama noted the 700 US dead since the war began in 2001, and the fact that 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for US forces. He might equally have noted that according to a UN report released in February, Afghan civilian casualties were 40 per cent greater in 2008 than in 2007, and that fully half of these were the result of military operations by international forces.

An important point, people often conveniently forget to mention Afghan civilian casualties alongside US troops when discussing war deaths. Pandya also points out that anti-US sentiment will increase in both Af & Pak as people have not forgotten the history of US involvement in the region since the 80s and how much it contributed to the current situation.

Pandya also talks about the new (or perhaps finally coming to boil) attitude to Pakistan:

The implication that the US would consider overriding the sovereign judgments of Pakistan, and that the US presumes that Pakistan is not aware of its own security interests in rooting out these sources of violence is ominous. It flies in the face of all that we know about the deep nationalist concern and distrust – among liberal, progressive and secular Pakistanis – of US intentions in Pakistan.

Far more important to the execution of terrorist operations are financial, communications, technological and organisational networks located pervasively (and less detectably) in global society [as opposed to territorial considerations].

Ominous indeed, the only possible need I can see for public sabre-rattling against the Pakistani government is one of domestic politics, hawks in America want reassurance that Obama will not sit idly by as the Pakistanis do nothing. Encouraging Pakistan to act and act more efficiently, however, would be much better served by more intimate (and clandestine perhaps?) relations between US and Pakistani intelligence and advisors. Pakistanis are already rightly unhappy about the infringement on their sovereignty (and the many civillian deaths) leading from the unmanned drone attacks. Fanning these flames is not wise.

That said, a territorial presence in these areas of al Qa’eda and other extremists is not entirely immaterial. Training in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains a part of the operations of international terrorist networks. A better way to prevent a return to the former Taliban government’s protection of al Qa’eda would be based on incentives and vigilance. The Taliban should be offered an opportunity to participate in the political process of Afghanistan on the condition that their alliance with or hospitality to al Qa’eda would be a deal-breaker. A consensus among all stakeholders among Afghanistan’s neighbours and other Afghan parties would act as watchdogs and guarantors of this. This would require an intense US effort and commitment of diplomatic capital, but a lower US profile.

While it’s a good suggestion, Pandya seems not to have considered that the Taliban themselves would probably reject it outright. No one with any clear philosophy or ideology would want to plunge into the murky world of Pakistani politics right about now, my interpretation of Pakistani politics is that it’s pretty much a world of self-interest, corruption and nepotism. I don’t see how Taliban-style Islamism could ever hope to survive in such an environment. Besides, they’re obviously achieving better results through ‘negotation’ with the Pakistani Government (eg. recent video of girl lashed in SWAT) than their Islamist colleagues fighting for seats in Parliament.

Finally, Pandya makes it clear what his opinion is on the question of whether it’s an Afghan war that spilled over into Pakistan or whether the issues are largely of Pakistani origin and always were:

Despite the Obama administration’s emphasis on al Qa’eda and their extremist allies as the source of violence and extremism in Pakistan, the truth is that there is a far more pervasive culture of extremism in Pakistan that affects a broad swathe of the population, and leads to tacit sympathy for purveyors of violence seen to be “standing up to the Americans”. This is challenge enough for Pakistani society. It is exacerbated, not ameliorated, by a higher US profile in the region.

Surely the situation is exacerbated by a higher US profile but can anything be achieved without one? Pandya doesn’t seem to have come up with any really clear alternatives.

If you were confused during this post check out my earlier post, The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan

Bonus Pakistani army fun:

Here’s a recent post from Karachiite blogger and journalist Huma Imtiaz:


Love fanmail. This is what I received in my email today after a piece of mine got published.

‘hi huma today read ur writeup /interview of writter .excellent work of urs .want to know u in detail .I m ex army officer ,left army pre mature and know in security buisness at islamabad .waiting 4 ur response ‘

Clearly having any basic understanding of English grammar and punctuation is not essential in the Pakistan Army, which I can safely say is better off an institution with this man’s departure. He also sent along his phone number if anyone’s interested.


Well one would never expect Pak army officers to be romantically interested in this type of woman – ie. intelligent, educated and cynical young journalists. You would think on the contrary they would run in the opposite direction. Who knows? Maybe he thinks he can tame Huma. Maybe he’s a shill trying to tempt her into political incarceration. Who knows?

Hat-tip to Boston for the pic.

Double hat-tip to for the exposure, syndicated my blog with those guys and have got lots more readers 🙂


Written by alexlobov

April 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think it’s about time that we cut our losses and got out of Afghanistan. Disrupting terrorism is a noble goal, but the idea that we can bring them into the 21st century is ignorant, dangerous, and expensive.


    April 15, 2009 at 6:12 am

  2. Tim,

    That’s an interesting perspective. It’s hard for me to say exactly how successful the US would be at “modernising” Afghanistan because I’m not sure what the actual population thinks. Something tells me that there is popular support for a functioning nation-state and many Afghans I know (that fled the country) hark back to the days when Kabul was a modern and liberal city to live in (1970s before the coup & Soviet war).

    I’m tempted to say the current problem is that the US is still one leg in and one leg out of the conflict. I feel it requires a lot more troops and a lot more finance but whether Obama would get a mandate for this from the US people is questionable.

    Another questionable thing is the terrorist threat emanating from the Afpak border. Has it been overstated? It’s hard to say from here how big the threat actually is…


    April 15, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: