After unveiling his formal review of the White House strategy in Afghanistan Thursday, President Obama admitted that the war “continues to be a difficult endeavor,” but stated that “we are on track to achieve our goals.” 2010 has been the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan.
“As I said when I visited our troops in Afghanistan earlier this month, progress comes slowly and at a very high price in the lives of our men and women in uniform,” Obama said during a press conference Thursday. “In many places, the gains we’ve made are still fragile and reversible. But there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control and more Afghans are reclaiming their communities.”
The White House review emphasizes the need to eliminate safe havens for Taliban insurgents on Pakistan-Afghanistan borders, and states that the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plan to “strengthen … dialogue with both Pakistan and Afghanistan on regional stability.”
However, such dialogue-strengthening may be impossible under the current circumstances, according to foreign policy analyst and Boston University professor Stephen Kinzer, who disagrees that progress can be made in America’s relationship with Pakistan. “Pakistan is an American ally the way that Saudi Arabia is an American ally,” Kinzer said. “They help us fight our enemies, but they also help our enemies fight us.”
“Countries act on behalf of their interests,” he continued. “It’s Pakistan’s perceived interest that it must have a friendly government in Afghanistan. If the Taliban is run out, that would be bad for Pakistan…. We’re ignoring the fundamental contradiction of our relationship with Pakistan. Their long-term strategic interests are different from ours,” Kinzer said.
According to President Obama, new, more effective relations with Pakistan “must continue to be advanced by effective development strategies,” in order to root out Taliban insurgents. However, this type of foreign policy transformation is nearly unprecedented, according to experts.
“Not much will change in the odd triangular relationship between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Kinzer said. “We formed these alliances in a different era, and we’re very bad at re-conceiving our foreign policy.”
Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia for the global intelligence company Stratfor, told Reuters that negotiating with the Taliban will require intelligence from Pakistan, but that the country will likely remain unresponsive. “I just don’t see what kind of further pressure the Americans can place on the Pakistanis,” Bokhari said. “It’s sort of a risky thing. On one hand, you’ve got to get more cooperation from the Pakistanis. But on the other hand, you don’t want to apply too much pressure that leads to tensions with the [Pakistanis] that undermine the whole strategy.”
Quad-E-Azam University professor Riffat Hussain agreed, stating, “The Pakistanis will tell the Americans, ‘Ok, we will not let this in any way undermine the cooperation we have with you, but on this [we will] agree to disagree….’ My sense is that the Pakistanis are not thinking of launching a ground offensive any time soon.”
Much of the public reaction to the war has been negative, especially as violence in Afghanistan has increased. The Red Cross released a report on December 15 showing that civilian casualties continue to grow, while armed groups threaten the group’s ability to provide humanitarian aid to the expanding number of refugees fleeing the violence.
Compounding the increased violence is Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s limited action to curb Taliban attacks. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have not been successful in fighting insurgents, partially due to the fact that training a productive police force can take years, and American training units are short staffed and overwhelmed by the task.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Reuters that the poor government structure in Afghanistan has also had a destructive effect on efforts by the US military and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“The poor governance and corruption in Afghanistan has escaped effective management by the international community,” Felbab-Brown said. “Aggressive pressure on President Karzai has alienated him from the international community without making him deliver on improved governance. In a sense, we are in the worst possible of worlds with Karzai.”
Cables recently released by WikiLeaks showed that Karzai had also used his authority to release five police officers who were caught with 124 kilograms of heroin in August 2009. As CNN reported, the policemen were sentenced to serve 16- to 18-year prison terms, but Karzai granted them pardon on the grounds that “they were distantly related to two individuals who had been martyred during the war.” Reducing the drug trade is also part of the US strategy in Afghanistan.
Af-Pak reports that many Afghan citizens worry about Karzai’s continued support from the international community, which is encouraging him to “negotiate a quick deal that is favorable to the Taliban and their supports in Pakistan, but at the expense of Afghans who in large part oppose the Taliban and would suffer from its return to power. Indeed, the members of the so-called Peace Jirga in Kabul and the High Peace Council that resulted from it are largely Karzai loyalists or power brokers who, Afghans note, are far more experienced at waging war than making peace.”
Af-Pak also states that the prospects for a sustainable transfer of police power from the US to Afghanistan “remain poorly defined and perpetually out of reach.”
The Afghanistan review does not mention President Karzai, but press secretary Robert Gibbs stated during a briefing on Thursday that the White House will “continue to work with our partners to see progress…. Civilian capacity at a number of different levels is most definitely, as the report is clear on, most assuredly one of the challenges.”