Monday, September 28, 2009

America's Afghan Problem

No doubt there is a substantial constituency of Americans, mostly Liberals on Left, who would even like to 'draw down' on the current number of American soldiers in Af-Pak theater. For military and Conservatives to warn that such a policy would essentially collapse Kabul's government and the country would slide back into a prolonged Civil war; is a true warning. So by and large reducing the existing foot print should be 'off' the table at least for few more years.

The real question is whether to adopt the General McChrystal's prescription of increasing further the number of American soldiers by 40,000 or so. General McChrystal is right when he says the key to quell an insurgency is to protect the local population from insurgents, gain confidence of that population and as a result alienate those insurgents to finally vanquish the enemy. He is also right that in the end there is no other solution to address an insurgency; all other options are waste of resources. Further, it is also true thatTalibans in Afghanistan are insurgents and as a result, the General contends, that his strategy prescription is the only game.

If Afghanistan were a province of USA, this theory applies. This theory also holds merit, for example, in the case of insurgents in Kashmir from Indian perspective. Meaning when a nation state is attempting to firm up its grip on a certain region and population infested by insurgency; one has to follow the McChrystal principle. Trouble is America is not for that end in Afghanistan. America is there to eliminate Al Qeda and to remove permanently all conditions in Afghanistan which otherwise work as the 'petri dish' of terrorists. So where has America reached in that regard? Al Qeda is probably not there in Afghanistan any more and Talibans are not there too. The 'petri dish' of terrorists has essentially moved to Pakistan from Afghanistan.

Given this reality, it is natural for Americans and Congress to expect that whatever American presence is there in Afghanistan that can be continued in order to hold the gains achieved so far and there is no need to get invested any further. Ironically, what General McChrtstal is advocating, it kind of raises a question - why does he need more soldiers? General is essentially intending to fight the war with the same 'fire power' as like Taliban and with extremely restrained shooting. No one is denying that Afghanistan is not where Iraq has been in order to kick start the virtuous cycle of stability. But if existing as is American forces in Afghanistan continue to repeal Taliban and are able to provide basic 'intelligence' to take off bad guys through air; why not simply continue that? Why do these objectives need more forces than what the current set is able to achieve with the same level? In other words, it is diminishing returns after this point.

Let us say because of these additional forces, consequent American causalities, many more billions of dollars and American engagement of many years; Afghanistan stabilizes as an independent nation. But if it happens that Pakistan continues to be the 'problem child / effective state sponsor of terrorism' as it is now; what happens to Afghanistan then? Will the peace, obtained at so much additional cost, hold then? Unlikely. In other words, no matter at what cost Afghanistan peace comes, it is way too fragile as long Pakistan continues to be what it is now - effectively state sponsor of terrorism. On the other hand it is always going to be possible to stabilize Afghanistan adjust to a peaceful and stable Pakistan by paying down some additional finite and manageable cost anytime in future.

So once we understand that stability and manageable nature of Pakistan is the necessary condition for overall peace in S. Asia and more importantly, for no more possibility of any other 9/11 kind of episodes; then in effect improving things further in Afghanistan at much greater cost is bit irrelevant. Even if America stabilizes Afghanistan but leaves Pakistan to fester as is, in the end it is not going to serve Americans.

Given all this, in practical terms stability in Afghanistan is dependent on what happens in Pakistan. What are choices for America to make Pakistan 'no more a petri dish of terrorists'? Even today, the Zazi case in Denver shows that bad guys can get terrorism training in Pakistan and enter with impunity back in States to create havoc. With a sovereign nation like Pakistan with a powerful Army and possession of Nukes; containing bad guys means letting the local government take the heat of beating bad guys. Any time America directly gets involved in killing bad guys suspect, the domestic politics would flare against an already weak government. When the ruling class in Pakistan aligns it's survival with a cheap 'anti-Americanism', USA has lost any ability by then to influence events in Pakistan to contain and eliminate elements detrimental to America. This is because no one, including General McChrystal or uber conservatives, are under any impression to occupy Pakistan and attempt Iraq style nation building there. With such a nation building completely taken off the table in case of Pakistan, the best course for America is to manipulate levers of 'money and weapon toys for Pakistani Army'. Unfortunately, this is where America had been failing all along. General Musharraf essentially out smarted Bush and Cheney for many years to save his 'terror machinery' while all along playing the game of consenting to American wishes. Reality is unless America becomes smart in breaking the infrastructure of terrorism in Pakistan - that 'petri dish of terrorists' - what happens in Afghanistan will not give the security what Americans are desperately looking for. For America, the real nightmare is not sending additional troops in Afghanistan, but having a government in Pakistan in collusion with its Army and ISI which thrives on 'anti-american' sentiments. That is where American needs to focus on.

In other words, despite the disastrous history of VP Biden's foreign policy calls in past, he may be on something worthwhile when he intends to make Pakistan as the primary engagement in South Asia and not Afghanistan. Even if General McChrystal is right about his military strategies, he is not addressing the real problem which America needs to solve. Everything else is dispensable, including his requests for additional forces or an illustrious career of a top class warrior.

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