Friday, April 2, 2010

Obama’s secret trip to Afghanistan: War to continue till end

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April 3rd, 2010

PRESIDENT Obama is breathing more freely these days after signing his domestically crucial Health Bill into law last week. As a sure sign of this President Obama took his first trip to the war zone in Afghanistan, his first since becoming the President. For security reasons, the visit was veiled in secrecy. The President left for Camp David on Friday afternoon to give the impression that he was going there for a relaxed weekend after his victory with the Health Bill. The small group who accompanied the President were assembled there and sworn to secrecy. From there, the President and his men left un-noticed for Andrews Air Force base to board the Air Force One to take a 13-hour long flight mostly through the night. The flight landed in Bagram Air Base at 7pm Sunday evening from where he took a helicopter ride to the Presidential Palace. Before Afghans woke up on Monday morning, Air Force One was on its way back to Washington. The President's visit to Afghanistan lasted in all six hours!

Afghanistan is not Obama's war but that of his predecessor. It was the frontier of Bush's war on terrorism before he left in search of Saddam's illusive WMD with the war on terror in Afghanistan unfinished. As President Obama did not just inherit the war in Afghanistan, he in fact stamped his total support to fight his predecessor's war with more vigor and determination to win. In fact, contrary to his pronouncements in the period leading to the Presidential elections, Obama increased US troops in Afghanistan significantly instead of bringing them back.

Obama's trip to Afghanistan was necessitated by a number of factors on the ground. The war on terrorism has not been progressing fast enough for the US to convince them that it is being won. In recent months, the number of casualties among the US troops has increased dramatically, though it has been partly the result of US attacks in Taliban held areas following deployment of additional troops by the President. In the first three months of this year, the number has almost doubled compared to the first quarter of 2009. When Obama took office, there were 34,000 US troops in the country. The President has committed to increase that number threefold to reach 100,000 by the coming summer, with many already there. On Sunday, while the President was in Kabul, there were nearly 80,000 troops in Afghanistan.

It is not just that more US soldiers have been getting killed that has worried the President. The US has placed its confidence on the administration of Hamid Karzai for creating the type of governance and security environment where there would also be no fear of resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, encouraging the US to eventually leave Afghanistan. The Karzai administration has not been able so far to convincingly respond to US apprehensions. The President, therefore, went to Afghanistan to get a first hand feeling about the results of the additional troop deployment. However, more importantly, he went there to deliver a personal message to Hamid Karzai stating that he needed to shape up on a number of fronts.

The President met with President Karzai for half an hour and then also met his Cabinet colleagues. He then met the US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the US Commander General McCrystal. Before boarding Air Force One for its long flight back home, the President addressed 2500 US troops and civilians. While addressing the troops, the President said that that they are gaining on the Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. He added that to make America safe, US troops would keep these elements on the run. To the cheers of the troops, the President said that “the United States of America does not quit when it starts something” making it clear that the troops would remain in Afghanistan till final victory is won.

In a briefing given before Obama's meetings in Kabul to reporters who accompanied the President, National Security Adviser James Jones said that in his meeting with President Karzai, President Obama would lay down benchmarks for better governance in his second term that he started last August. Jones said that the benchmarks would be in areas of merit based system for appointing key government officials; dealing with endemic corruption and the narcotics trade that is helping fund insurgent operations. In particular, Jones said that the President would seek strategic responses from Karzai on “reversing the momentum the Taliban and the opposition forces have been able to establish since 2006.” An administration official said that at the talk, the President told Karzai that some progress has been made in all the key areas where the US is seeking benchmarking of progress. President Obama welcomed some progress in local governance and emphasized the need to establish more credible national building institutions and more efforts for tackling corruption. The official described the talks as “very productive” and “business like”.

One would have expected that the President would be curt with President Karzai, given the fact that his administration is far short of the benchmarks that the US considers necessary for him to partner the US to win the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While, with the deployment of additional troops, Taliban strongholds are under serious pressure, so are increasing deaths among US troops. Establishing nation building institutions is also not progressing well enough to create confidence in the US or other western nations that have committed troops in Afghanistan. Corruption and the narcotic trade are also not under control.

Karzai assured Obama that by the end of 2010, Afghan security forces would be able to take over some security responsibilities from international forces and by 2014, responsibility for total security. These claims are very optimistic for Karzai, who has started his second term amidst accusations of fraud. His own cabinet members are also suspected of corruption. These facts notwithstanding, President Obama re-asserted his administration's confidence in Karzai.

The President even invited Karzai to Washington in May. These developments suggest that the President has no other alternative but to go along with Karzai because by committing a significant increase of troops, he has left his administration with no alternative but to finish the war where Karzai is the only Afghan leader upon whom the US can depend. An alternative to Karzai is just not anywhere around.

Despite the surge of US troops and President Obama's resolve, Osama Ben Laden is still around and delivered a message on air just a couple of weeks before Obama's trip. With the war in Afghanistan nearing a decade, the end is not yet in sight. So far over 1030 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan. The total is over 1700 with deaths in allied troops taken into account. Time and patience may be running out for the United States and its allies in the context of the Afghan War. One just hopes that President Obama was able to deliver that message to President Hamid Karzai and encourage US troops in the theatre of war.

The author is former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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