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McChrystal's Ouster: Where is Af-Pak Policy is Going?

When the Rolling Stone Magazine published disparaging remarks made by Gen. Stanley McCrystal and his Commanders about President Barak Obama’s top security team, there was no question that the General had to go. It is a bit surprising that McChrystal’s commanders mainly responsible for the comments are still in their posts in Afghanistan. Perhaps, they will be eased out gradually as McChrystal’s successor Gen. David Petraeus starts building his own team.

The USA has always been a vibrant democracy where the elected government commands the gun. Despite McChrystal’s brilliant career as a special operations soldier, retaining him in post could have encouraged indiscipline among the US forces in Afghanistan. This could eventually lead to the forces on the ground making their own war plans by-passing civilian authority. But that is what may have been happening. McChrystal’s strategy was getting into conflict with that of the White House. He created a relationship of trust and friendship with President Hamid Karzai when Washington publicly berated Karzai.

Special operation personnel are apparently not very familiar with political and diplomatic nuances required by commanders operating overseas. They have a target given and they strike and complete the job without talking much about it. Mc Chrystal crafted his strategy to reduce civilian casualties to the extent possible under the circumstances. He told his soldiers that the death of one innocent civilian would create ten new enemies. This meant a slowdown of this surge, but suggested a path to win over hearts and mind.

Having said that, it is necessary to look at the whole canvas of USA’s policy conduct in Afghanistan and the Af-Pak policy. Have these created some frustration among US army commanders involved on the ground that provoked such comments against the political leadership? Gen. McChrystal’s relations with the US Ambassador in Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, a former General himself, was known to be icy. Two old army comrades are supposed to be buddies, but Ambassador Eikenberry was with the civilian administration now. The conflict was between the civilian political leadership in Washington who have to deal with much more in diplomacy and politics. General McChrystal had to deal with the conflict on the ground, and as a special force commander he wanted to get on with his job irrespective of political consequences.

Policy nuances from the White House, the Pentagon and the State department are shifting on a monthly if not weekly basis, which messes up the action on the ground.

One of the recent issues that has impacted the war is President Barak Obama’s reiteration that US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan will start from July, 2011. This was in contrast to Gen. Petraeus’ testimony to the Congress that the withdrawal would be “based on conditions” and that “July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits”.

White House Chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel tried to project that basically the President’s decision and Petraeus’ observations were not in variance, clarifying the July 2011 date will certainly see withdrawal, but the scope and scale would be determined at that time. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen also subscribes to Petraeus’ view.

Obama’s time-line appears to be directed for consumption in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially for the Afghan Taliban who want US and other foreign troops out before they negotiate with the Afghan government. This, on the other hand, has encouraged the Taliban. They perceive that the US and NATO forces are war weary and about to retreat, and have stepped up attacks. McChrystal had the right idea in saving civilians lives, empowering civilians, and holding liberated areas. This plan appears to have faltered. Despite Defence Secretary Gates’ recent assertion that the Marjah operation was a success story, it is not entirely true. Marjah may be quiet by day, but at night Taliban fighters come and extract revenge on those civilians who helped the US forces.

A major problem the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan face is Pakistan’s powerful intelligence organization, the ISI which works with the Pakistan army but also reserves for itself independent operations. The US top security team headed by the US President should be very much aware of the fact that the ISI is a power unto itself.

The ISI stands fully disrobed today. The various terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan and against India are controlled by it. It is not only the recent report on ISI-terrorist connection released by the London School of Economics (LSE) which indicts the ISI, but many experts including Pakistan’s Suja Pasha and Ahmed Rashid have written and spoken widely supporting LSE’s conclusion. It is now common knowledge that it is the ISI which introduced Pakistan rogue nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, to the Taliban and Al Qaida leaders in the period 1999-2001. Therefore, it would be baffling for the US forces on the ground in Afghanistan, when Washington decides to share information with the Pakistani army on anti Taliban operations in Afghanistan.

From 2007, the US has given enough hard evidence to the Pakistan army and government of the ISI cooperation with the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Pakistani establishment has also been appraised about the Haqqani network’s several attacks in Afghanistan including the suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and on a hotel which housed some Indian workers. In this operation the ISI was in direct contact with the Haqqani network. This network’s commanders have claimed they are in touch /collaboration with the Al Qaida including Osama bin Laden. They also give protection to the Al Qaida.

It is, therefore, even more surprising when some American officials say that ISI’s contacts with the Taliban is to procure intelligence, and the Haqquani clique does not have any links with the Al Qaida.

Another interesting development in this context was the initial American statements that they were receiving a lot of important information from the Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan, Mulla Baradar, who is in Pakistani custody. Later it came to be known that the Americans had no access to Baradar and had not received any actionable intelligence from his Pakistani interrogators.

The fact is Mullah Baradar was in touch with President Hamid Karzai’s elder brother Ahmad Wali Karzai (AWK), and was possibly exploring a way for a compromise. Obviously, Mullah Baradar’s activities went against Pakistan’s Afghan strategy and could even divide the Taliban. After all some Taliban ministers from the 1998-2001 regime like foreign minister Muttawakil, have become inactive. Pakistan is evidently trying to control the Taliban, and people like Baradar cannot be allowed to conduct negotiations with the Karzai government independent of Pakistan.

Here, President Hamid Karzai is a key player, and the way the Americans dealt with him only generated mutual distrust. Corruption is endemic in most countries like Afghanistan. The US must concentrate on one issue at a time, despite reports of AWK’s involvement in the drug trade. Anyway, the US counter-drugs trade/poppy cultivation efforts in Afghanistan has diminished considerably. The US drug enforcement officials would rather have countries affected by Afghan drugs to strengthen their own preventive measures.

The recent spat between the US officials and Karzai has weakened counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts, despite the apparent patch up between the two sides.

Karzai has been left to design strategies for his own survival and for the survival of his family, while promoting the larger hold of his Pashtun tribe. Under the circumstances he has been compelled to compromise with Pakistan to an extent. He has tempered his anti-Pakistan tirades and is having more interactions with the Pakistan army and ISI. He went to the extent of dismissing his Intelligence Minister Amarullah Saleh in the first week of June. Pakistan considers Saleh to be an Indian loyalist. Karzai has also stopped demanding extradition of Mullah Baradar, an Afghan citizen, to defer to Pakistan. And to top it all, he met the Haqqani clan leader Sirajuddin Haqqani along with the ISI Chief Gen. Suja Pasha.

At this moment, Pakistan is having its cake and eating it, too. On Afghan strategy it is consolidating its future assets – the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It has resisted pressure from the USA to attack the Haqquani headquarters in North Waziristan. Even it they ultimately do so, they will ensure another safe haven for the Haqquanis in the mountainous border belt.

It appears that USA may be shifting its anti-terror operations from Taliban and the other anti-American groups to Al Qaida and Osama alone. Everyone can read this as a defeatist signal and hurry to disengage from Afghanistan. A major question is will President Barak Obama ultimately ask Pakistan to deliver Al Qaida and Osama-bin laden in exchange for all that Pakistan wants in Afghanistan ? This is not a mid-summer night’s dream scenario. The reason is, the American leadership appears to be dressing The Pakistan army and the ISI in a new black-tie dinner jacket. American officials are floating the story that the ISI’s Taliban contacts are for intelligence gathering, and the Haqqani network has no links with the Al Qaida.

Pakistan is emerging as the puppet master having been given the strings by Washington. In Pakistan’s strategy calculations, however, Hamid Karzai is pro-India. He studied in India, his family lived in India during the earlier war years. There is no trust between Pakistan and Karzai – whatever is happening is very temporary, and each side will look for opportunities to counter the other.

The old Northern Alliance leaders like Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Pakistan remain on opposite sides of the fence. The remaining Northern Alliance groups remain inclined to India and Russia in Pakistan’s perception, and the Taliban is anathema to them. Afghanistan’s smaller ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Hazaras are disturbed by Karzai’s reaching out to the Taliban. A Taliban participated government will take the country to the old Afghan war against the Taliban.

Russia has recently warned that getting the Taliban on board the Afghanistan government would return the country to its old terrorist avatar. Russia has suffered from the terrorist nexus between Chechen rebels, Uzbek terrorists, the Taliban and elements in Pakistan endorsed by the ISI.

In the new emerging situation, India’s position and interest in Afghanistan are threatened. Much would depend on the US policy on India in Afghanistan, and Karzai’s position similarly. Taking the second aspect first, Karzai and the Northern Alliance derivatives are far more dependable for India. The US policies oscillate as per the immediate winds and that is a concern. But is Hamid Karzai becoming unpredictable?

In the interim, there is a huge question mark on Afghanistan’s stability. While Gen. Petraeus is not a stranger to the Afghanistan issue, his health is not the best, he will also be the recipient of Washington’s variations of strategy. Obama has ordered a review of the Afghan situation in December, six months short of the July 2011 deadline. That will unveil Obama’s mind more clearly.

Otherwise, if the recent trends are to continue all can expect another bloody period in Afghanistan.

(The writer Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New For a Chinese assessment of the subject, may please see )

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