Sunday, May 6, 2012

USA seeks long term engagement in Afghanistan to end war on terror

Daily Sun, May 6, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

President Barak Obama undertook a surprise visit to Afghanistan, his third in his current term last Wednesday.  The explicit reason for the surprise visit given by White House was the need for the President to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) that would keep the two countries together for a decade after US and NATO combat troops depart in 2014. That the visit also coincided with the first anniversary of the killing of Osama Ben Laden (OBL) however figured more prominently in most political analysis in the USA. 

The US and Afghan diplomats negotiated the SPA painstakingly. The Koran burning issue and the incident in which a US soldier killed 16 Afghans including women and children not too long ago had threatened to end the US involvement in Afghanistan with the two countries falling apart strategically.  The Agreement had also become necessary for President Obama to claim that the US would be able to bring the war on terror to an end satisfactorily in an election year in which Afghanistan would be a major issue.  

The US has invested heavily in Afghanistan. It went there primarily in pursuit of OBL and Al Qaeda that had masterminded the 9/11 attacks that killed over 3000 Americas. It also held the Taliban Government of Afghanistan guilty of giving OBL and Al Qaeda the sanctuary to carry out the terrorist attacks on US soil. The part of regime change was easy and the Taliban Government was quickly overthrown after the US invaded Afghanistan in October, 2001. 

The task of killing OBL and dismantling Al Qaeda was however a much more difficult task.  In fact, it took the US a decade thereafter to take down OBL and break Al Qaeda; tasks achieved at huge financial and human costs. According to one estimate, US spent US$ 2.3 to US 2.7 trillion till June of last year in Afghanistan. In 3 years under President Obama’s watch, 575 US soldiers have been killed there, the same number lost in 7 years under President Bush. In the process however, the US angered Afghans as well as Pakistanis by collateral damages that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children that led to the resurgence of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drone attacks in this regard have been particularly reprehensible. 

In fact, the Taliban is now back strongly in Afghanistan to challenge the Karzai Government that never graduated from a puppet regime of the US to one fully in control of the country. The emergence of the Taliban and weakness of the Karzai administration encouraged the US to negotiate with the Taliban so that the moderate elements among them could be encouraged to enter mainstream politics and share power in an Afghan national government after US withdrawal.  The Obama administration that had last year announced that the US would withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan by 2012 in place of a deadline of 2014 set earlier in belief that most Americans were weary of further US involvement of troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere appears to have changed its deadline once again. 

It is now not stressing that the nearly 100,000 US combat troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawn within this year.  Instead, the administration is now hinting that perhaps a quarter of that number would be returning by 2012 and the rest not before 2014. In fact, the new strategy of the Obama administration as outlined in the SPA is for the US to remain involved in Afghanistan more deeply and intimately than was earlier anticipated. In the period till 2024, the US would not just be providing the Government of Afghani financial aid for over all governance; it would also be assisting with troops whose role would not necessarily be training and support related.  

In an election year, the SPA would be handy for the President’s re-election effort.  Without it, he would have been accused of handing Afghanistan back to the enemy instead being given the credit for killing OBL and breaking Al Qaeda. He would also have been accused for failing to bring the war on terror to a satisfactory end. The decision to visit Afghanistan on the anniversary on OBL’s killing was thus a tactical one. It will  help remind Americans that it was his decision to engage in Afghanistan instead of withdrawing as many had thought he would that netted OBL and rendered Al Qaeda incapable of being a major threat any longer. 

That the President made the right choice with the surprise visit was evident from the way the Republicans reacted.  They criticized him for what they said was his triumphant stance where he spoke in the first person about achievements in the war on terror instead of giving the troops the real credit. They drew references to President Eisenhower and his stance on the Second World War where he did not speak of his own contributions but highlighted those of the troops. A Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee went to the extent of accusing the President of putting down the troops. 

In fact, the President was neither triumphant nor did he take away any credit from the troops.  He also did not praise himself as his opponents have accused in his speech in Afghanistan.  CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer trashed the accusation of the Congressmen of putting down the forces by stating that in 3 years of Presidency, President Obama has not just whole heartedly inherited the overseas involvements of his predecessor, he also increased the budget of the Pentagon successively in these years. Non-partisan analysts in the USA commented that the President deserved the credit for taking OBL out and breaking Al Qaeda. 

Afghanistan, OBL and Al Qaeda are going to figure importantly in this year’s election. The President is no doubt going to get votes for these successes. Whether he will eventually win or not will however depend mainly on the state of the economy that is showing signs of recovery, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, the President has undertaken the trip with the election in view because what is coming in the media surrounding the anniversary of OBL’s death are all heartwarming for the President’s re-election team. 

In the time before his death, OBL was disappointed with the extremism of his terrorist organization, particularly in their involvement in killing Muslims in sectarian fights. Papers/documents recovered from his residence in Abbotabad and released subsequently have shown that he had instructed his associates to stop killing Muslims and instead to concentrate on the enemy that he identified as the Americans.  

Political analysts in the USA now feel that a year after the death of OBL,  USA is  a much safer although they feel that there is no scope to lower the guard against terrorism. These analysts feel that a lot of future terrorist threat in USA would be home grown.  These analysts also feel that Al Qaeda’s brand of militant Islam has been rejected in the Muslim world.  It has helped the cause of Islam there in the way the US would like and as being witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia where once fundamentalist and militant Muslim parties/organizations are finding public acceptance for their moderate stance of Islam. 

The morning after President Obama left Afghanistan, 6 suicide bombers attacked a secured part of Kabul highlighting that the extremist Taliban are still a threat. The future of the SPA may not be as simple as President Obama visualized in his address to Americans from Bagram Air Base. Meanwhile though the SPA would please majority of the Americans who want the troops to return home but also want US influence in Afghanistan not to end abruptly to bring the war on terror to a satisfactory end. Hence both the  visit and the SPA may help President Obama politically as his opponents apprehend. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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