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Saturday, 3 October 2009

Obama's Afghan War Needs Credible Change (UPIASIA)


M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — This columnist was among the first outside the United States to cheer on, in February 2008, the ascent of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Even if he achieves little else during his term, the election of an African-American by a majority Euro-ethnic electorate will mellow the tension between races in the United States.

It also gives poorer peoples around the globe a confidence that there is nothing intrinsic in themselves that prevents them from reaching the collective levels of achievement of the Euro-ethnics. For this alone Obama has merited the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him.

However, many in the future are likely to judge the soundness of the Nobel Committee's decision by Obama's success or failure in Afghanistan. This is now Obama's war.

In this theater, as yet, change has been absent. An important reason has been the high cost of operations due to the policy of sourcing materiel almost exclusively from the United States and other NATO partners. Such procurement resembles the policies of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who declined to get needed materiel from the most cost-effective sources.

With even the aftershave coming from home, NATO armies have become the most expensive to field in combat. Should NATO ever do battle against an enemy more endowed than the goons that fill the Taliban's ranks, or the debilitated militaries such as those of the late former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the enemy may only need to focus on their supply lines from home to demotivate the NATO troops.

Unless the United States and its allies train soldiers who can largely "live off the land," war will remain a fiscally backbreaking and hence unpopular option. Such expensive logistics chains will handicap NATO against armies that cost much less to field in conflict.

Of course, the largest such country – China – is unlikely to go to war against the alliance, short of a meltdown over Taiwan or North Korea. Should there be war nevertheless, China's cheaper-to-maintain manpower may make a substantial difference on the battlefield, given that NATO armies are focused toward speedy outcomes rather than prolonged engagements of the Afghanistan kind.

U.S. forces during the 1950-1953 Korean War were far more battle-hardened than today’s troops. Many training programs in use now are apologies for what troops would actually encounter in the field were they to seriously seek to degrade the enemy.

NATO’s inability to keep suicide bombers at bay is understandable, given the low level of local cooperation with U.S. forces. But more worrisome is that the tactics used by U.S. General Stanley A. McChrystal are akin to a man who keeps running at greater and greater speed around the same track and is then surprised at ending up at the same place he started from.

Using present tactics, victory in Afghanistan can come only with huge increases in collateral damage – impossible for an occupying force in a post-colonial era where al-Jazeera reigns as the most-watched channel and CNN and BBC are ignored.

Only Afghans can fight Afghans without creating a backlash that encourages recruitment into the Taliban. Local troops are what is needed, but their formation has been slowed to a crawl by NATO commanders’ attempts to ensure "ethnic balance" within such forces, as well as by tedious training methods designed to equip the Afghans to fight not the Taliban but a conventional war against an enemy with NATO standards of hardware.

What is needed is to raise local forces at speed and give them only such training as would help them fight the Taliban. A basic three-month course could be followed up by refresher courses every year.

What is needed is a marriage between Afghan tactics and NATO hardware, between Afghan local knowledge and NATO remote interception capabilities. But this reality seems to have escaped NATO commanders.

Therefore there is a pool of manpower designed not for the auxiliary role played during the 2001 defeat of the Taliban, but for the main role, with Afghan troops active only in secondary theaters or high-risk actions. No wonder contempt for NATO is high within the ranks of its Afghan "ally."

In his panic, McChrystal is seeing ghosts everywhere – like in the Indian civilian operations in Afghanistan – and is blaming such wraiths for NATO's incapacity to subdue the Taliban. U.S. troops march into a village and in an hour upset the routine of life for weeks thereafter. They then leave, allowing the Taliban to return and take revenge against those few foolhardy enough to give good information to the U.S. troops.

Of course, the many that give misleading input to the allies are rewarded. Rather than penny-packet encounters, what is needed is a strategy that lures large numbers of the Taliban and confronts them in a battle where Afghan troops play a visibly prominent role.

The latest to add to the flow of NATO actions that boost the Taliban is Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose propaganda is designed to show Afghanistan's elected President Hamid Karzai as an agent of the United States and the European Union.

Brown’s hectoring remarks about accountability would be better directed toward his own administrative network in Afghanistan, which is spending almost three-fourths of its funds on self-protection and sustenance rather than on making a difference in the lives of the Afghan people.

Karzai can succeed against the Taliban only if he is seen to be independent of NATO. Yet his every difference of opinion is seen as ingratitude for the blood and treasure spent by NATO in his country.

Reducing costs by sourcing materiel from more cost-effective locations and by increasing the participation of local troops is essential. NATO needs to return to the 2001 model, where it confined itself to operations that gave the alliance a clear advantage on the battlefield. It should not lose its men and its chances of success by tactics that serve not as cures but as a palliative that has the same effects as a shot of heroin – short-term satisfaction followed by long-term degeneration.

NATO's error in 2001 was its failure to recognize that the brain and heart of the Taliban are in Pakistan, and have been since 1978. Unless such actions as international sanctions against Pakistan Army officers guilty of backing the Taliban are followed by prosecution of such individuals, help will continue to flow to the fighters battling NATO.

Presently, the United States is seeking to protect Pakistan’s army from exposure, most recently by denying India access to U.S. citizen and suspected terrorist David Headley, who allegedly played a role in the Nov. 26, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. If New Delhi were to interrogate the Pakistan-born Headley, who changed his name in 2006, it might reveal his links with the Pakistan establishment – the presumed ally of the United States and NATO.

There are dossiers that prove the army's links with the Taliban, however, and these should be made public in order to call the bluff of pro-Taliban elements in the Pakistan military. Such individuals are the enemies of their own people, who for the most part want to stop the spread of Taliban ideology. But thus far, there seems to be little change in the Carter-Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Cheney policy of blindly trusting the Pakistan Army.

Should Afghanistan once again fall to the Taliban, Pakistan would be next. This would be followed by turmoil in China and India. Sadly for these two Asian giants, they may soon be forced to pay a heavy price for Obama's unwillingness to change his military's tactics in Afghanistan.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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