Following a 60 day review the Obama administration has released its “new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan”. While Obama campaigned on “change” and has since asked Pentagon officials to “avoid using the term…‘Global War on Terror’”, his “new strategy” is just more of the same.
“Extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan” we’re told, are “planning new terror attacks” and their “targets remain the U.S. homeland, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Europe, Australia, our allies in the Middle East…” .
Even the spectre of “extremists obtaining fissile material” is raised in spite of the Islamist coalition only winning six out of 342 seats in the recent Pakistan elections.
Nowhere does the review ask whether the administration’s own policies are provoking the resistance when clearly this is the case.
Airstrikes that kill civilians have been criticized by both Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and Afghanistan’s President Karzai.
According to a UN report, these airstrikes killed 828 civilians in Afghanistan last year. This included a wedding party of 47 in Nangarha in July.
Nor does the review recognise how unpopular the occupation is. If locals join the insurgency, it’s because they have been “paid or coerced”. A more realistic assessment, however, comes from the International Council on Security and Development (ICSD):
…the Taliban are winning on another front—the battle for hearts and minds. By tapping into a variety of local grievances… from poppy eradication and bombing leading to civilian casualties, to high levels of unemployment and chronic underdevelopment…the insurgency has succeeded in attracting sympathy beyond its traditional support base…
The Obama administration, too, paints a picture of the insurgency as coming from outside Afghanistan. Again the ICSD’s assessment differs:
The Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 per cent of Afghanistan, up from 54 per cent a year ago. Taliban forces have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan’s western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul.
When it comes to solutions the review looks very similar to Bush’s “surge” policy in Iraq. They plan to send more troops, train more locals to fight on behalf of the occupation, and bribe sections of the resistance to support the government. Pressure will continue to be applied to the Pakistan government to crush “the extremists”, while airstrikes into Pakistan will continue. Obama has even threatened to send US troops across the Pakistan border if necessary.
Another part of the plan is to get the US’s allies—including Australia—to supply more troops.
It is hard to see Obama being any more successful at defeating the insurgency than Bush. Increasing the troop numbers is meant to reduce “collateral damage” from airstrikes, but more troops on the ground will only convince Afghans the occupation is permanent and fuel resistance.
Another problem Obama has is that the popularity of President Karzai—who fronts the occupation for them—has plunged, and there is no obvious alternative.
Obama’s “new strategy” could well just inflame the insurgency. Already the US’s gung-ho approach has spread the instability into Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban recently claimed responsibility for an attack on a police academy saying it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the US in collaboration with Pakistan on our people”.
The people in the Swat Valley, too, fought back against a heavy handed attack from Pakistan’s military that displaced hundreds of thousands. At one stage a march stretching for more than 20 kilometres successfully demanded the military’s withdrawal.
There is also the potential for this instability to spread beyond the north west provinces. Pakistan’s corrupt politicians have very little credibility with the vast secular majority who—along with sections of the military—do not support the government’s commitment to the “war on terror”. Already the government was forced to reinstate sacked judges after mass protests. The dire state of Pakistan’s economy and the global economic meltdown, too, is increasing the instability.
The beginning of a solution for the region is to get all the foreign troops out now—including Australian troops. Afghanistan and Pakistan should then be supplied with economic aide that is not tied to a brutal occupation. Now that would be real change.
By Mark Gillespie