Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ahmed Rashid on the US End-game in Afghanistan

Esteemed journalist Ahmed Rashid's Financial Times essay on how the US intends to bring closure to its war with the Taliban in Afghanistan is a must-read - well-informed and wide-ranging.  He concludes:
The Pentagon has dominated discussion of Afghanistan since Mr Obama came to office, by talking about troop numbers. The administration now wants to change direction and talk less about troops and more about a political strategy to end the war. Many of the top generals, including General David Petraeus, who commands all US-Nato forces in Afghanistan, will be replaced over the next nine months – giving Mr Obama the opportunity to bring in officers who will concur with his strategy.

One hiccup ahead is Mr Karzai’s request for a “strategic partnership agreement” with the US after 2014. The Pentagon is keen on this so it can maintain between two and six bases in Afghanistan to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda. Most countries in the region – such as Pakistan, China and Russia – will object to an indefinite US military presence, while Iran will see it as a permanent threat.

For the US to want to maintain bases after 2014 directly contradicts with the US desire to win the co-operation of Afghanistan’s neighbours. A further concern is the escalating dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Arab revolt. The Saudis accuse the Iranians of fuelling Shia unrest in the Gulf and the Saudis now want to secure Pakistan and Afghanistan on their side. However, no peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.

The end game has begun in Afghanistan. How the US and Nato play their cards will be vital. A rush for the exit by some Nato countries could prove catastrophic. As negotiating partners the Taliban are at best an unknown quantity.

But there is at last a determination in Washington to have a political strategy rather than depend on a military outcome – and in the context of the past decade that is a breakthrough.
As I posted earlier, keep an eye on those talks that Marc Grossman et al. are having with Karzai's government about those permanent US bases that Hillary et al. swear are not intended to be permanent.  Some of the project-American-power advocates have been holding up as parallels the post-WWII US presence in Japan and Germany and the post-Korean War presence in South Korea.  Personally I find the parallels to be flawed, at best.  Japan and Germany were compelled to surrender unconditionally, and South Korea was a willing ally in the wake of that war.  But in Afghanistan, no one is projecting a realistic scenario in which the Taliban are going to be defeated or are going to become willing allies of the US.  Rather, any permanent/enduring/whatever bases that the US tries to maintain in Afghanistan are going to be major irritants to the Taliban, as well as the Pashtun tribes on the whole, as well as targets for jihadist/insurgent/resistance elements who will be supported by regional neighbors (Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, among others) who will resent the US presence in their neighborhood.

Our bazillion military bases across the globe are bleeding our coffers dry.  Our economy is threatened by an unsustainable debt  and huge budget deficits - a situation perilous enough for Standard and Poor to admit that at least some thought has been given to reducing the US's rating.  A destabilized Middle East is causing gasoline prices to rocket upward, at growing cost to Americans' confidence back home.  And one of our most critical foreign suppliers of oil - Saudi Arabia - no longer sees us as a reliable partner after we bailed out on Hosni Mubarak (which put us on the right side of history, for sure, but could easily wind up costing all of us at the pump.

The US had better wise up.  We've been accustomed to having all the leverage, or at least a preponderance of it.  Those days are coming to a close.  If the US is going to have any chance of cutting its losses, Mr. Obama needs to stop calling his plays out of W.'s playbook, quit listening to the chest-thumpers who bang on about projecting American power and achieving American victory, and start coming to terms with the emerging new world order.

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