November Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

During her recent visit to Pakistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in lively town hall meetings with Pakistani citizens, including students. Many of the questions for the US diplomat betrayed the locals’ distrust of the US and its policies in the region. Secretary Clinton responded with statements like this: “This is not your fight alone … You’re standing on the frontlines of this battle, but we are standing with you.”

More than to meet top-level officials, she came on a public diplomacy tour, or what the media has been describing as a “major charm exercise.” While visiting sights and meeting ordinary people, the top US foreign service diplomat reiterated the US commitment to Pakistan beyond the war on terror and focused on saying nice things to a Pakistani public that lately seems to be getting high on anti-Americanism.

She said Pakistan has the potential “to take off like a rocket” economically and be a “powerhouse.” Of course, she, on behalf of the Obama administration, was ready to throw money at Pakistan too, committing millions to poverty reduction and development. “We want to help you with jobs, economic development, infrastructure, access to education, providing support to healthcare and improving energy supply.”

Since President Barack Obama’s Inauguration in January, Pakistan has seen visits by many high-level US officials: Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, Senator John Kerry and, recently, Secretary Clinton. Obama’s promises to re-focus the war on terror on Afghanistan and Pakistan are being fulfilled.

But questions remain about the future of US involvement in the region. In Afghanistan, time is not on the side of the Americans. Its allies are getting weary of the eight-year old battle. Canada, which has 2,700 troops in the region, has a timeline to pull out in 2011. Australia is down to just 1,550 troops, and just last month said it wanted to conclude its involvement in Afghanistan in the “shortest time frame possible.” Britain is worried that it might not be able to maintain the level of its deployment. Almost 1,000 British soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan to date, according to recent Ministry of Defence figures. “There is now a very real problem about sustaining the current level of operations,” one officer was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying.

The war in Afghanistan is not just unpopular in these countries. A survey by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation from mid-October showed that 52% of Americans think that Afghanistan has turned into a Vietnam War-like conflict. Moreover, 59% of respondents opposed sending more US troops to Afghanistan.

Recent attacks are not going to help sway public opinion in the opposite direction. Less than two weeks after the poll was published, October turned out to be the deadliest month for American troops since the 2001 invasion. This bit of news came the day before the deadly terror attacks on Meena Bazaar in Peshawar and the UN guesthouse in Kabul on October 28.

Publicly, the US is declaring its resolve. Just hours after those deadly terror attacks killed over a hundred people (on the day Secretary Clinton arrived in Islamabad), the White House reiterated its plans for the region. “We [are] not leaving Afghanistan” was how White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs quoted the US president, who had just attended an assessment meeting on Afghanistan. What Obama was likely saying was, “We are not leaving Afghanistan yet.”

Neither does the US military have unlimited resources to continue fighting this war on the ground nor do the American people have unlimited patience for this war. The US will likely be looking to start its withdrawal from Afghanistan, if not immediately, then sometime within the next three years. Where does that leave Pakistan? Why would America be investing all this time and money in Pakistan if they were preparing to get out of Afghanistan? In other words, what is America’s long-term plan for Pakistan?

A withdrawal from Afghanistan doesn’t mean a withdrawal from the war on terror. Nor does it mean a total withdrawal from the region. Besides diplomatic work and intelligence gathering, military training and support would definitely continue. Both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police would need ongoing support for many years to come. And it is likely drone attacks will be used as long as necessary (read: indefinitely). But neither of the two most talked about strategies in front of Obama promise anything long term in terms of large troop numbers.

Daniel Inouye, a US senator from Hawaii, and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is another in a long list of US officials who has visited Pakistan recently. He came last month as part of a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan to assess the viability of General McChrystal’s proposed surge-type strategy. Senator Inouye’s comments on his return to the US may give an indication of where the US is heading in Afghanistan. “I believe General McChrystal’s assessment of the current situation and his conclusions, including his assessment that coalition forces must have more daily contact with the people of Afghanistan, is correct and is what is needed if we are to achieve security and stability in Afghanistan.”

Specifically, he supports McChrystal’s plan to make the Afghanistan war strategy one that focuses on forging alliances and protecting the people. Protecting the people involves a focus on populated areas, and thus McChrystal’s demand for more troops: boots and guns are needed if the US is to back up their promises of protection.

Inouye’s comments reveal more. US goals are no longer about defeating the Taliban; they are about holding them off. Winning is not absolute. The “ultimate objective” says Senator Inouye, is to ensure a “secure and stable Afghanistan.” This means achieving a political solution backed by well-trained Afghan security forces so that US troops can start to pull out. A heavy military footprint in the war-torn country is not an long-term option.

The inability to defeat “an indigenous force” like the Taliban is just one of the realities the US faces. Public resentment over the human toll of the war and, of course, money are both huge national issues in the US. Each 1,000 troops the US sends to Afghanistan cost taxpayers $1 billion. McChrystal’s desire for 40,000 more troops would cost $40 billion more. In a time of economic uncertainty — Americans are still very concerned about job security and unemployment, as shown by the new consumer spending figures out of the US on October 30 that came in at a nine-month low — domestic concerns will be weighing heavily on Obama.

The other strategy is being pushed by Vice President Joe Biden. It involves reducing American forces and focuses more on going after Al-Qaeda directly. Biden’s plan, instead of protecting Afghans with large contingents of soldiers, proposes more strikes against Al-Qaeda and Taliban hideouts, using Predator drones and special operation forces. Much of this would happen on Pakistan’s side of the border. The New York Times had this to say of Biden’s plan: “The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan. Mr. Biden has often said that the United States spends something like $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 in Pakistan, even though in his view the main threat to American national security interests is in Pakistan.”

The reports from early 2009 of $1 billion-worth of embassy and consular expansions in Pakistan signal that the US has no plans of disengaging with the region any time soon. What it does show is that it is getting prepared for less troops on the ground in Afghanistan and a more intense involvement in Pakistan. With its proposed new embassy in Islamabad and the planned purchase of Peshawar’s Pearl Continental Hotel, the US government plans to provide office and housing space to dozens, if not hundreds, of new civilian personnel. These enclaves are, theoretically, the first signs of America’s new covert plans to increase the fight on this side of the Durand Line. Eliminating Al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens and training grounds have always been a part of Obama’s plan for Pakistan and the region. Another part of the Obama plan for stabilising the region is clearly the humanitarian aspect, what Obama insiders have labelled “dignity promotion.” Aid would be directed at education, health and infrastructure initiatives. The Kerry-Lugar Bill focuses on this with its civilian spending, though there are plenty in Pakistan who say the bill is anything but dignified.

The still green president is under a lot of pressure to get out of Afghanistan, but a complete withdrawal was never on the cards. And the factors weighing on Obama the most may be domestic, not global. Democrat leaders in the both the US Congress and Senate have publicly spoken against sending more troops to Afghanistan for various reasons. Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, has said that the US must accelerate the training of Afghan security forces before the US commits more of it own forces. And as Obama pushes hard to make major changes in domestic policy too, say some commentators, Afghanistan would be the issue he may need to compromise on most to appease his own party.

In the end Obama could go with a combination of both the McChrystal and Biden plans. One thing remains sure though, President Obama looks likely to keep true to his commitment of focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Secretary Clinton not only gave all the signals that the US plans on becoming deeply involved with Pakistan but also publicly said so. “We have agreed to resume and intensify the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue, which I will personally oversee from my country.”

The US revival of a strategic dialogue with Pakistan shows the US commitment to this country, outside of Afghanistan. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, the US is not prepared to leave Pakistan. This is the US way of saying, Afghanistan may be unpopular at home, but we need to keep fighting the war on terror, and we need your support. Clinton’s trip and her promises of more money seem like America’s way of softening up the Pakistani public for what is to come: a complicated multi-pronged engagement with the region that could last 30 years or more.