Tuesday, May 03, 2011


"Two apparently distinct facts have drawn our attention. The first and most obvious is U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement late May 1 that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The second is Obama’s April 28 announcement that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will replace Leon Panetta as CIA director. Together, the events create the conditions for the U.S. president to expand his room to maneuver in the war in Afghanistan and ultimately reorient U.S. foreign-policy priorities.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as stated by Obama, is the destruction of al Qaeda—in particular, of the apex leadership that once proved capable of carrying out transnational, high-casualty attacks. Although al Qaeda had already been severely weakened in Afghanistan and has recently focused more on surviving inside Pakistan than executing meaningful operations, the inability to capture or kill bin Laden meant that the U.S. mission itself had not been completed. With the death of bin Laden, a plausible, if not altogether accurate, political narrative in the United States can develop, claiming that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. During a White House press conference on Monday, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan commented on bin Laden’s death, saying "We are going to try to take advantage of this to demonstrate to people in the area that al Qaeda is a thing of the past, and we are hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden."

Petraeus was the architect of the American counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. He symbolized American will in the region. The new appointment effectively sidelines the general. By appointing Petraeus as CIA director (he is expected to assume the position in July), Obama has put the popular general in charge of a complex intelligence bureaucracy. From Langley, Petraeus can no longer be the authoritative military voice on the war effort in Afghanistan. Obama has retained Petraeus as a senior member of the administration while simultaneously isolating him.

Together, the two steps open the door for serious consideration of an accelerated withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The U.S. political leadership faced difficulty in shaping an exit strategy from Afghanistan with Petraeus in command because the general continued to insist that the war was going reasonably well. Whether or not this accurately represented the military campaign (and we tend to think that the war had more troubles than Petraeus was admitting), Petraeus' prestige made it difficult to withdraw over his objections.

Petraeus is now being removed from the Afghanistan picture. Bin Laden has already been removed. With his death, an argument in the United States can be made that the U.S. mission has been accomplished and that, while there may be room for some manner of special-operations counterterrorism forces, the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer exists. It is difficult to ignore the fact that bin Laden was killed, not in Afghanistan, but deep within Pakistani borders. With the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan dissipating, the nation-building mission in Afghanistan becomes unnecessary and nonessential. In addition, with tensions in the Persian Gulf building in the lead-up to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan critically releases U.S. forces for operations elsewhere. It is therefore possible for the United States to consider an accelerated withdrawal in a way that wasn’t possible before.

We are not saying that bin Laden's death and Petraeus' new appointment are anything beyond coincidental. We are saying that the confluence of the two events creates politically strategic opportunities for the U.S. administration that did not exist before, the most important of which is the possibility for a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan".

George Friedman, "Geopolitical Diary: The Death of Bin Laden and a strategic shift in Washington," Stratfor. 3 May 2011, in www.stratfor.com.

"We should select first those areas of the world which...we cannot permit...to fall into hands hostile to us, and...we [should] put forward, as the first specific, objective of our policy and as an irreducible minimum of national security, the maintenance of political regimes in those areas as least favorable to the continued power and independence of our nation."

George Frost Kennan, "Comments on the general trend of U.S. Foreign policy,"
20 August 1948, in Kennan Papers, Seeley Mudd Library, Princeton University.

What can one make of the above referenced prediction? And what is the likelihood of such a 'scuttle' scenario (in the eyes of some) coming about? In terms of the situation on the ground, Western forces, the Americans in particular are exhausted by the non-improvement in 'nation-building' in Afghanistan. The scale of the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai regime both at the centre (Kabul) and in the provinces beggars belief 1. And as the example of both the last presidential and the parliamentary elections have shown, corruption and fraud are almost inherent to the nature of the existing regime in Kabul. When added to the regular series of verbal pyrotechnics by the mercurial Afghan President, it is not very surprising that Washington, et. al., are visibly exhausted with the war in Afghanistan. This is not only true of civilians in the American administration (not to speak of the Europeans), but also the military both in the USA and in the rest of NATO, are also less than enthusiastic about continuing the now almost ten year effort. Albeit, only in its third year, at anything approaching its current scale in terms of numbers of troops 'in country'. Another consideration is that the successful elimination of Bin Laden, highlights the idea that rather than attempting to proceed with the 'nation-building' exercise in its current form, a better alternative would be to return to the Rumsfeldian strategy of a 'light-foot print', on the ground with a greater reliance on drones, air power and the occasional deep penetration raid with special, elite forces. Id est, what was tried in Afghanistan between November 2001 and early 2007. The only difference being that as Western forces leave the country (in this scenario), there would be even more emphasis on building up, the Afghan Army. Any such change-over in strategy, being coupled with pourparlers with the Afghan Taliban.

The fact that the war in Afghanistan, while not widely unpopular, is hardly popular in any country which is supplying forces, would add to the pressure to change strategy on the ground and expedite the withdrawal of NATO forces. Something which the current American administration can hardly fail to be aware of. Similarly, the fact that any such change-over in strategy will allow the American administration to reduce its military expenditure, is also not something which it cannot be unaware of. The underlying aspect is that from a larger, 'geo-strategic' point of view, Afghanistan cannot per se, be viewed as an important, primary interest. It is au fond merely a place to be denied to 'others' (in this case Islamist terrorists with international ambitions). And the current effort, both in terms of lives, money and attention is not worthwhile strategically speaking. Something which is, in fact the case admittedly. The only issue is that the previous attempt at a Rumsfeldian strategy in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2006, failed to work. And while perhaps the Afghan army is now better prepared, marginally speaking to operate on its own. No one seriously believes that it could defeat, nay hold-off the Taliban if the latter were to go over on the offensive in full strength, once NATO troops were to leave the country. Unless of course, the Americans were willing to re-enter the war, at least from the air, on a massive scale `a la the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. Something which while technically possible, may not be possible politically, in say anno domini 2014, 2015, 2017? That in a nutshell is the real Afghan quandary: no strategy on the ground has proven to be successful so far. And on one has in fact suggested one that in the short-term promises anything approaching real and lasting success.

1. Anthony Cordesman, "Afghanistan and the uncertain metrics of progress," The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 21 March 2011, www.csis.org.


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