NATO Summit in Chicago and the war on terror in Afghanistan
June 3rd., 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The NATO Summit in Chicago, the home town of the US President, was the first NATO Summit in USA since the one in Washington in 1999. With the US President in a re-election year with chances of another term not assured, the NATO Summit met with eyes focused on how much political mileage President Obama would be able to extract from the war in Afghanistan that is one of the key issues upon which the US voters would vote in the Presidential elections on November 4th.
In fact, the Chicago Summit was billed as one that would set the road map for Afghanistan after withdrawal of US and NATO combat troops and how the allies would be engaged in Afghanistan after the withdrawal in 2014. In Europe, there is already a war fatigue and most countries are impatient to get out of Afghanistan. The change of guards in France has further enhanced the mood of other European nations to withdraw.
In USA too, the mood is against keeping combat troops in Afghanistan any longer. In fact, the need of revenge in the hearts of most Americans for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that had killed 3000 Americans for which they held Osama Ben Laden responsible was served when US Navy Seals killed him last May in his Abbotabad hideout. The killing of most of the top leadership of Al Qaeda that has helped turn it into a much less formidable terrorist outfit has also made the average American less interested in continuing the war in Afghanistan. The mounting death tolls, with over 2000 US troops killed so far together with 1000 more allied troops, have made most Americans yearn more for bringing the troops home without further delay.
Nevertheless, in an election year, President Obama has to tread a fine path to ensure that his handling of the Afghan war does not land him in trouble in the elections. Before becoming the President, he had opposed the war in Iraq and was also in favour of ending the war in Afghanistan. Upon assuming office, he accepted both the wars in the same spirit as his predecessor. In fact in Afghanistan, he sent more troops than there was when President Bush was in charge. He wanted to end the war on terror by claiming victory not just by killing the top Al Qaeda leadership including Osama Ben Laden, he also wanted to hound the Talibans out of Afghanistan and leave the country in the hands of the Afghans capable of running the country democratically and also able to deal effectively with security.
Unfortunately the US and its allies have not been able to ensure a Taliban free Afghanistan their success against Al Qaeda notwithstanding. In fact, after more than a decade long war on terror in Afghanistan, the Talibans continue to remain a potent force there. Many apprehend that once the US and NATO combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Talibans would be able to make easy meat of the government of Hamid Karzai that they would leave behind to lead the country. In view of such an eventuality, the US has directly encouraged the Karzai government to hold talks with moderate Talibans in order to bring them to the mainstream of democratic politics and break the strength of Taliban.
The initiatives with Taliban have not been successful. The emergence of the Haqqani terror network in Afghanistan has added to the worries of the US. These worries have led President Obama to initiate the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan under which the US would remain in Afghanistan for 10 years after all foreign combat troops withdraw in 2014 to assist the Afghan government with financial aid and training so that the good work against the terrorists over the last one decade and of course the huge financial and human costs incurred so far do not all end in failure with just the deaths of Osama Ben Laden and his associates.
The US would need similar commitment from its NATO partners to implement its plan and vision for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. It was with this objective in mind that the US President led his country in the NATO Summit. He asked of his NATO colleagues a road map for Afghanistan. His colleagues however were not upbeat. France’s new president Francois Hollande was a stumbling block. He has just won an election with promise to bring France’s 3500 troops in Afghanistan quickly. In Chicago, he reiterated that stand and said French troops would be back home this year.
In fact, it was only the US President who was upbeat in Chicago about a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The worst news for him came from Pakistan. President Zardari was invited at literally the eleventh hour.. He however put the spanner on a successful handing over of security responsibility to the Afghan Government. The Pakistan Government had halted the container supply route, absolutely critical to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan to end the combat phase of its involvement in Afghanistan, after the US air strike in Salala inside Pakistan last November that killed 24 innocent Pakistanis.
The Pakistanis demanded an unbelievable increase on charges to allow the containers to move from its territory to Afghanistan; from US$ 250 a container to US$ 5000! However, there were two even tougher conditions. Pakistan wanted an apology for the Salala attack and a commitment that it would not carry out any future drone attacks without keeping Pakistan informed. In an election year, the last two conditions were ruled out because the Republicans would be critical while the US$ 5000 a container demand was difficult for US and its NATO partners to accept because it is nothing short of blackmail.
The only alternative to the Pakistani route is the northern distribution network which winds its way from Baltic and Caspian ports through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. This route would be 21 times costlier than the costs through Pakistan before the route was closed! To make an early resolution of issues with Pakistan more complicated, Pakistan has jailed for 30 years the doctor who had helped lead the US Naval seals to the doors of OBL despite US appeal on the doctor’s behalf. Without the supply routes opening again, the way the US and NATO wants to bring the curtain on the combat phase of the war on terror on Afghanistan would be difficult to achieve.
Thus the NATO Summit that had met with finding the road map on Afghanistan as the main issue in the agenda did not make much headway. At this post-Summit news conference, the President was upbeat and said “We have delivered…We leave Chicago with clear road map”. His upbeat mood was punctured when a journalist questioned if he had an agreement with President Zardari and he was forced to admit in the negative. In fact, the two did not even meet during the Summit underscoring the current deep differences between the two countries.
Another journalist totally shattered any optimism that was left in the President when responding to his question on premature withdrawal from Afghanistan; he was forced to admit that “the Taliban is still a robust enemy”. The President then said that leaving an “imperfect Afghanistan” made sense because then “we can start rebuilding America and making some of the massive investments we have been making in Afghanistan here back home.”
Those words left no one in doubt that US is not just getting ready to withdraw from Afghanistan but ready to leave it to face the resurgent Taliban! The mood in Europe is no different and with US showing the way, a long winter is again about ready to descend upon Afghanistan that should send chills down those in that country who had believed that the US and NATO forces would end the Taliban rule for good and put Afghanistan on road to democracy and what follows with it. Hamid Karzai must have left Chicago worried most of all!
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan