By Adnan Gill
About a half a century ago, a young, ambitious and charismatic American president inherited a confined war. Soon after his inaugural, he owned the war! His name was John F. Kennedy and he owned the disastrous Vietnam War. About 50 years latter, another young, brilliant and charming president owned yet another inherited war. His name is Barack H. Obama and he is on way to own the Afghan War. Could it be a classic case of history repeating itself? Time will tell.
President Kennedy essentially remained committed to containing Communism, a Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In his inaugural address, he pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy was determined to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam . He said, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place”. And just like that, he owned the Vietnam War.
President Obama drew the line in sand against terrorism, when he disclosed the enemy, “So let me be clear: Al Qaeda and its allies are in Pakistan and Afghanistan .” Then he identified the battlegrounds, “We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan , and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Though, the modus operandi and the timelines of such a fickle goal remain as allusive as the search for the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq .
Reverse the clock 30 years back. A superpower of the time, Soviet Union , also tried to ignore the harsh lessons of history by entering the graveyard of empires. Betting on brute military force, the Soviets entered Afghanistan with around 1,800 tanks, 80,000 soldiers and 2,000 AFVs. In one week alone, Soviet aircraft flew close to 4,000 sorties into Kabul . Latter, two additional divisions pushed the strength of Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces (LCOSF) to over 100,000 personnel. By the height of occupation, the Soviets tipped the scales with some half million personnel. In addition, Afghan armed forces were raised to a strength of 300,000 men. A decade latter, Soviets had to leave Afghanistan financially exhausted, demoralized and defeated. Ignoring the lessons of history came at a punishing cost of about 15,000 dead, 469,685 sick & wounded, and some 500 MIA. Brute force alone failed to maintain a hold on Afghanistan . The war of choice bankrupted the mighty Soviet empire; hastening its ultimate disintegration.
The 9/11 (2001) attacks set the stage for an American led Afghan invasion. It was spearheaded by a dozen or so CIA (Special Activities Division) operatives on horsebacks; mostly armed with suitcases full of $100 notes. By March 2009, the strength of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) jumped to approx. 61,960 troops; out of which 29,820 are American. An eerie reminder of mission-creep (a fundamental cause of the Vietnam defeat) came when President announced a troop surge. In addition to already ordered 17,000 combat troops, President Obama promised additional 4,000 troops for training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Recently, an increase of ANSF strength from current 82,780 to 134,000 personnel was approved. Déjà Vu; just like the Soviets, who tried to raise loyal Afghan armed forces; now the coalition too is building ANSF.
Another example of mission-creep stood out when the focus of Afghan-Pakistan/Af-Pak strategy shifted from fighting Taliban in Afghanistan to hunting terrorists allegedly growing stronger inside Pakistan . In a stated objective of its policy, US declared Pakistan to be the ground-zero for the war on global terrorism. It accused, its one time partner, the ISI of cultivating terrorist organizations. It also set a pretext for possible military operations inside Pakistan . It stated, “Disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan to degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks.” Could it be another wild goose chase, like the Iraqi ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ hunt? Time will decide.
Apparently, to shore up public support Obama strategy prays on public fears of terrorism threat. Banking on worst case hypothetical scenarios, it suggests the terrorists getting their hands on Pakistani fissile materials. US Policy White Paper warns, “The threat that al Qaeda poses to the United States and our allies in Pakistan - including the possibility of extremists obtaining fissile material - is all too real. Without more effective action against these groups in Pakistan , Afghanistan will face continuing instability.” Interestingly, it doesn’t address the clear and present danger posed by the well documented illegal trade of fissile material flourishing in the ex-Soviet states.
There are numerous similarities between Af-Pak strategy and the failed strategies from the recent wars. If history is any guide, similarities like mission-creep, vague objectives, and confusing exit strategies are proven recipes for loosing wars. Nonetheless, all is not lost. Going back to reliable allies and proven strategies could still save the day.
A recipe to wining the war is very simple:
a. Instead of demonizing, reestablish alliance with the ISI contacts, so a mutually beneficial game strategy can be formulated to root out the terrorist organizations.
b. Tell India to immediately cease destabilization operations in Pakistan , and to dramatically reduce its footprint in Afghanistan .
c. Reserve Predator attacks for the most wanted terrorist leadership only.
d. Stop implanting and supporting milo-political dictators in Pakistan .
e. Encourage formation of Afghan government, bureaucracy and military inline with the ethnic ratios.
f. Involve tribal-leaders in nation building initiatives.
g. Establish diplomatic relations with Iran to pacify their concerns regarding Afghanistan .
h. Above all, stop alienating highly territorial tribals, through the application of brute military force; which more than often multiplies civilian casualties.
Mr. President, win the hearts and minds of the masses, who are tired of violence and hungry for peace, they will win the war for you.