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The US should perform postmortem of its nine-year performance

Afghanistan War, Operation Enduring Freedom

By Asif Haroon Raja

Appointment of new military commanders, troop surge and formulation of Af-Pak policy in March 2009 was aimed at wresting initiative from Taliban in Afghanistan and roping in Pakistan . Within matter of six months the situation instead of improving had taken an ugly turn. In response to Helmand offensive, Taliban had struck back ferociously and had carried out series of deadly attacks resulting in heavy casualties of coalition troops. June, July and August proved worst months for ISAF. Battle losses in Helmand and in Nuristan panicked Gen McChrystal propelling him to send a distress signal in white heat to Washington to dispatch 40,000 additional troops to save the situation. He hurriedly pulled back troops from forward areas to fortified major cities to avoid fatalities. While reluctantly ceding to his request for more troops in December 2009, Obama diluted the impact by ordering withdrawal starting July 2011.

Second troop surge in 2010 didn’t bring any improvement in security situation and McChrystal’s second venture into Helmand once again met with little success. Failure of civil machinery to takeover administrative duties and refusal of Afghans to act as eyes and ears and also set up village defence network allowed the Taliban to regain entry. Situation got so bad that British troops stationed in Sangin district in Helmand province decided to pullout. Another problem which became grave was mounting dissent within non-Pashtun heavy ANA with only 3% Pashtuns. Army Chief Bismillah Khan and Defence Minister Abdul RahimWardak ignored repeated requests of President Karzai to rectify the ethnic imbalance.

Smarting under barrage of taunts from US civil leaders and others and getting fed up of undesirable interference by US Ambassador in Afghanistan Eikenberry, Holbrooke and others, McChrystal had also to put up with resentment of unit commanders in ISAF who were unhappy over curtailment of their authority to call for air and artillery support at will. Poor performances together with simmering differences within Afghan Army were among the reasons for his reluctance to undertake Kandahar operation. He also began to lean heavily upon Pakistan Army and wanted it to dismantle all militant networks in North Waziristan (NW) to ease his Kandahar venture. Pakistan Army’s hands were already full and hence it could not oblige him.

Finding himself in a logjam and seeing little scope for victory, he had the choices of either going ahead head-on irrespective of the consequences, or resigning on grounds of ill-health, or needling US hierarchy and impelling Obama to remove him from command. He chose the ‘Rolling Stone’ option and offered himself as a sacrificial lamb. Although he is being blamed for creating disharmony between institutions, today he must be a much relieved man. He has quietly heaped all his problems on the shoulders of his successor, who is certainly a worried man.

Gen Petraeus has taken over same lot of demoralized coalition troops with little heart left to fight purposeless war. US military and Nato have never remained in sync; misunderstanding among them is likely to increase in coming months. Synchronized coordination among six intelligence agencies is lacking. Afghan Army and paramilitary forces are another headache needing emergent refurbishment. Introduction of Blackwater in security and military affairs has its own set of ramifications. He plays with the same battle plan conceived by his predecessor and approved by him. He is bounded by Af-Pak plan to draw a wedge between Taliban and Al-Qaeda, divide Taliban and defeat the hardliners. He too is keen for operation in NW for he feels that move into Kandahar with a heavy force would expose his southern flank and rear to militants in NW.

By announcing withdrawal date, no amount of clarifications or revisions like ‘pullout pace would depend upon security situation’, or ‘handing over security to ANA by 2014’ will control the damage. Arrow has left the bow which has rejuvenated the resistance forces. Why should any Taliban like to board a US bus intending to flee Afghanistan shortly? They know it will not be possible for foreign troops to stay beyond 2012 since war in Afghanistan has already become the longest in history and US economy is melting fast and war has become unpopular in the west.

The Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan exactly one year after Gorbochov announced his intentions on 09 February 1988 . None had believed that Soviets would ever withdraw since the big bear had no history of retracing its steps. Taliban rightly feel that they have in principle achieved the second miracle within a span of three decades. The day Americans pull out, it will be like the history of rise of Islam under Holy Prophet (pbuh) in 6th century getting re-enacted when the two super powers of the time, the Persians (Sassanian Empire) and the Byzantine Empire under Romans, having fought with each other for a longtime finally got defeated at the hands of ill-equipped Muslim Arabs on horsebacks.       

Notwithstanding that Taliban have an influence over more than 70% of territory in Afghanistan , yet they are far from taking over reigns of country. Until and unless they capture Kabul and dismantle US bases in Baghram and Kandahar, which are the main power centres of coalition forces and Karzai regime, victory will remain illusive. Kabul ’s fall is obligatory to achieve total victory. Kabul can capitulate if focus of terror attacks is shifted to the capital city, northern route towards Salang Pass is blocked, supplies coming from Pakistan are disrupted, and like IEDs and suicide attacks which have taken maximum toll of ISAF ground troops, means to combat aerial power acquired. Russia would be too willing to provide latest version of SAMs as a quid pro quo to stingers provided to Mujahideen by Americans in 1987-88, which accelerated the rot of Soviet forces.         

There is growing skepticism among policy makers in USA . The critics say that US military and civil officials associated with Afghanistan lack clarity, vision and have no set goals and their benchmarks are based on vague assumptions making achievement of goals that much unattainable. Shadow boxing for authority is continuing between Pentagon under Robert Gates cum CIA and State Department under Hillary Clinton cum White House. For Obama, next one year period is crucial to achieve some measure of stability in Afghanistan since it will have a direct bearing on the outcome of elections in USA in 2011-12.  

It is time for USA to perform postmortem of its nine-year performance as to why today it finds itself in such a sorry state; and as to why at this belated stage when it has lost its maneuvering space, it is desperately needing the support of Pakistan. Washington should make a candid assessment as to what the US gained in blindly trusting India and Israel and what it lost in distrusting Pakistan . Isn’t it ironic that after punishing Pakistan for nine years on fabricated charges, the US has now begun to realize that stability of Pakistan is critical to stability of Afghanistan , South-Central Asia and for US national security? Who will account for immeasurable human and economic losses suffered by Pakistan ? Had the US played a fair game with Pakistan and co-opted the Army and ISI in its war plans, it could have emerged as a victor.

At this critical stage, the US needs a General like Gen Patton or Gen McArthur to steady the ship and snatch the victory from the jaws of sure defeat. Like McChrystal, Petraeus too is a spent cartridge with nothing to gloat about. He is no match to one-eyed Mullah Omar who has proved his mettle and has all the qualities of a great leader. Petraeus will swim with the tide but doesn’t have the aura and drive to lift the sagging morale of 46-nation troops he commands, galvanize them into a well-knit team and kindle in them requisite warrior spirit to push back the surging tide and turn it in favorable direction. I may hazard to add that best of military plans fail under an indecisive and weak leader while an average plan succeeds under a dynamic leader.

Therefore rather than wasting time in hatching conspiracies against Pakistan, focus should be on selecting the right man and giving him full liberty of action to run the show. He should dispassionately take stock of the obtaining situation, resources available, go about refurbishing grey areas, revise battle plans in accordance with ground realities and see if pitched battles are desirable. Any military leader with little grey matter would conclude that it is pointless to reinforce failure and would advise that from henceforth all efforts should be made towards salvaging the precarious situation through dialogue only and not through a mix of dialogue and use of force since it would prove counter productive.   

The intellectually bankrupt think tanks in USA instead of publishing anti-Pakistan articles scripted by Indian writers in US newspapers and magazines should critically examine as to why the US failed to usher in democracy, political stability and economic prosperity in war-torn Afghanistan ? They should seek answers as to why USA could not win over the Afghans or train ANA and police despite spending trillions of dollars? An answer should be found as to why colossal amount was wasted on futile chase of Osama and other high profile militant leaders without any success? They should search their hearts and come out with honest opinion whether efforts wasted on dividing and killing Taliban will prove productive and whether it will be desirable to waste time and resources on propping up dead horse of ANA.    

The US strategists must now ponder over the coming withdrawal phase of coalition troops, starting in July 2011, whether it will be a clean break under a Geneva like accord or it will be a running battle, or total airlift of manpower leaving behind all the heavy baggage, tanks, guns, mines, explosives and ordnance as in the case of Soviets. Learning from history that Soviets could not do so, process of mine clearance should start by early next year. They must contemplate upon northern outlet through Central Asia and southern outlet through Pakistan as to what steps are required to make them safe for supplies as well as rearward road moves.

The civil leaders like James Jones, Holbrooke, Eikenberry and others in the meanwhile should also do their homework and stick to their domain rather than poking their noses in military affairs and trying to become military strategists. As a matter of fact it was because of hardnosed Holbrooke’s aggressive attitude which gave rise to civil-military tensions. He was behind making Af-Pak policy, which was devised to balkanize Pakistan on Yugoslavian model. He had started to behave like a typical viceroy and tried to assert his authority in Pakistan but his inflated ego was deflated by Lt Gen Shuja Pasha in April 2009 and ever since he has put on the guise of affability. However, beneath the mask of friendliness, he remains firm in his set goals.

Michael Hughes has once again refreshed balkanization theme through his recent article appearing in Huffington Post, which is another reminder that hawks within Obama Administration pumped by Israeli and Indian lobbies have not given up their nefarious designs against Pakistan . Hillary has reiterated that Osama is in Pakistan and that any terror attack on USA with connection to Pakistan will have devastating impact on Pak-US relationship. It is rather late in the day to indulge in such tomfoolery. Entire focus should now shift towards making plans how to stabilize Afghanistan and how to ensure safe and honorable withdrawal of coalition troops. Emphasis should be on establishment of a broad based interim government so that Afghanistan may not relapse into another internecine war once USA quits.    

The writer is a retired Brig, a defence analyst and author of several books; he writes for Asian Tribune, Pak Tribune, New Nation, Veterans Today, Opinion Maker, Thinkers Forum Pakistan and numerous national and international newspapers/ websites. Email: [email protected]

View the original article at Veterans Today

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