What President Obama’s administration has been pursuing in Afghanistan for the past year has received international imprimatur, thanks to last month’s well-scripted London Conference. Four words sum up that strategy: Surge, bribe and run. Mr. Obama has designed his twin troop surges not to rout the Afghan Taliban militarily but to strike a political deal with the enemy from a position of strength. As his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has admitted, the aim of such troop increases is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, not to beat back the insurgency. Without a deal with Taliban commanders, the U.S. cannot execute the “run” part.
The Obama approach has been straightforward: If you can’t defeat them, buy them off. Having failed to rout the Taliban, Washington has been holding indirect talks with the Afghan militia’s shura, or top council, whose members, including the one-eyed chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, are holed up in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. The talks have been conducted through the Pakistani, Saudi and Afghan intelligence agencies. Gen. McChrystal has cited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as possible venues for formal talks.
Mr. Obama, paradoxically, is seeking to apply to Afghanistan the Iraq model of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used a military surge largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni tribal leaders and other local chieftains. But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and it is a moot question whether the same strategy can work, especially when Mr. Obama has not hidden his intent to end the U.S. war before he comes up for re-election in 2012. In fact, he has reiterated July 2011 as the time for a gradual U.S. military withdrawal to begin.
In a land with a long tradition of humbling foreign armies, payoffs are unlikely to buy peace. All the Pakistan-backed Taliban has to do is simply wait out the Americans. After all, popular support for the Afghan war has markedly ebbed in the U.S. even as the other countries with troops in Afghanistan exhibit war fatigue.
If a resurgent Taliban is on the offensive, with 2008 and 2009 proving to have been the deadliest years for U.S. forces since the 2001 American intervention, it is primarily because of two reasons: the sustenance the Taliban still draws from Pakistan, and a growing Pashtun backlash against foreign intervention. The Taliban leadership - with an elaborate command-and-control structure oiled by petrodollars from Arab sheikdoms and proceeds from the opium trade - operates from the comfort of sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Fathered by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and midwifed by the CIA in 1994, the Taliban rapidly emerged as a Frankenstein’s monster. Yet President Clinton’s administration acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that thuggish militia, in league with the ISI, fostered narcoterrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism. With Sept. 11, 2001, however, the chickens came home to roost. In declaring war on the Taliban in October 2001, U.S. policy came full circle.
Now, desperate to save a faltering military campaign, U.S. policy is coming another full circle as Washington advertises its readiness to strike deals with “moderate” Taliban (as if there can be moderates in an Islamist militia that enforces medieval practices).
In the past year, U.S. military and intelligence have carried out a series of air and drone strikes and ground commando attacks from Afghanistan in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region against the Pakistani Taliban, the nemesis of the Pakistani military. The CIA alone has admitted carrying out a dozen drone strikes in Waziristan to avenge the bombing of its base in Khost, Afghanistan. The Khost bombing was carried out by a Jordanian double agent at Pakistan’s insistence. The agent said in a prerecorded video that he was going to take revenge for the U.S. attack that killed the Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
But, tellingly, the U.S. military and intelligence have not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against the Afghan Taliban leadership in Baluchistan, south of Waziristan. The CIA and the ISI are again working together, including in shielding the Afghan Taliban shura members so as to facilitate a possible deal.
Mr. Obama’s Afghan strategy should be viewed as a shortsighted strategy that unwittingly has repeated the very mistakes of American policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three decades that have come to haunt U.S. security and the rest of the free world. Washington is showing it has learned no lesson from its past policies that gave rise to monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and to “the state within the Pakistani state,” the ISI, which was made powerful during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as a conduit of covert U.S. aid for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas.
To justify the planned Faustian bargain with the Taliban, the Obama team is drawing a specious distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban and illusorily seeking to differentiate between “moderate” Taliban (the good terrorists) and those who rebuff deal-making (the bad terrorists).
The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if such specious distinctions are drawn. India, which is on the front line of the global fight against international terrorism, is likely to bear the brunt of the blowback of Mr. Obama’s AfPak strategy, just as it came under terrorist siege as a consequence of the Reagan-era U.S. policies in that belt.
The Taliban, al Qaeda and groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are a difficult-to-separate mix of soul mates who together constitute the global jihad syndicate. The only difference is that al Qaeda operates out of mountain caves in Pakistan while the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba operate openly across Pakistan’s western and eastern borders. To cut a deal with any constituent of this syndicate will only bring more international terrorism.
A stable Afghanistan cannot emerge without dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Afghan Taliban and militarily decapitating the latter’s command center in Baluchistan. As U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry put it in his leaked November cables to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “[M]ore troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain.” Instead of seeking to cut off the Taliban’s support, the U.S. is actually partnering with the Pakistani military to win over the Taliban. And, as an inducement, it has upped the annual aid for Pakistan for next fiscal year to $3.2 billion - a historic high.
Even if the Obama administration managed to bring down violence in Afghanistan by making a deal with the Taliban, that would only strengthen the militia’s cause, besides keeping the Taliban intact as a fighting force with active ties to the Pakistani military. Such a tactical gain would exact serious costs on regional and international security by keeping the AfPak region as the epicenter of a growing transnational terrorism scourge and upsetting civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, where India has emerged as one of the largest bilateral aid donors.
Regrettably, the Obama administration is falling prey to a long-standing U.S. policy weakness: the pursuit of narrow objectives without much regard for the interests of friends. It seems determined to save face even if the United States ultimately loses the Afghan war.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.