Obama Playing Politics with Afghanistan

There was a time, early on in his presidency, when President Obama described the war in Afghanistan as ‘ a war of necessity.’ His allusion to need, then, had a connotation of something handed down to him as a legacy from his predecessor. However, now that he’s in the home-stretch of his term-and vying desperately to win a second term in the White House later this year-that ‘necessity’ seems to have acquired real urgency for him.

An election year invariably springs up all kinds of surprises in the American political landscape: this year being no exception to the rule. Obama and his team feel he’s vulnerable on the all important front of the US economy where, despite his best effort, he has not been able to surmount the hydra-headed monster of an economy out of sync. Critics fault him, in particular, on the job creation front where unemployment is still a major challenge and posing a considerable danger to his chances of re-election.

So, foreign policy comes in a s a natural second-best option to show that Obama is on top of things and steering the country on the right course. Afghanistan is-has been for years-the most important and sensitive foreign policy concern of US, and that’s where Obama thinks he can outwit any opponent, and out-manoeuvre any challenge, simply by virtue of being the man-in-charge and in a position to make a tangible difference.

That explains the convening, with great fanfare, of a NATO summit in his home town, Chicago, whose mayor, Rahm Emanuel, happens to be the former chief of Obama’s White House staff. Emanuel is a trusted confidant of Obama’s. He has great connections with the powerful Jewish lobbies in US and takes pride in having served in the Israeli army. He went to Israel to serve his ‘national duty’ there in the early 90s on a sabbatical from the Clinton White House. With such formidable credentials to boast of, Obama must appreciate the value of his friendship with the Chicago mayor and the latter’s enthusiasm to use his position in the president’s home town to boost his re-election chances.

However, much as Obama may count on the blessings that a successful summit in his home town on an issue as timely and sensitive as Afghanistan may garner for his re-election bid, he must be under no fanciful illusion that there’s no more room for bravado in a war that has dragged on for nearly 11 years with very little to show on the plus side for US and 48 of its ‘allied countries,’ including all 28 members of NATO.

Notwithstanding Obama’s occasional bombastic-out of sheer political necessity-that the US aim in the war in Afghanistan was still to beat the Taliban and prevail on them, he knows as ell as anybody else with the right calculus on Afghanistan that it’s no longer winnable. In fact, the war has already been lost, to put it mildly, and US and its pompous western allies have only a lot of egg to show on their faces after 11 long years of war-mongering by the most advanced and sophisticated armies in the world armed to the teeth. Therefore much in contrast to the battle-cry of the last NATO alliance conclave of two years ago in Lisbon, Portugal, the summit that opened in Chicago on May 20 had a more modest goal, per se, to flaunt among its participants, which happened to be nearly 50 countries hanging on to the US coat-tails in the war-ravaged and scarred Afghanistan.

The Chicago summit had one over-riding theme: how to manage an orderly exit from Afghanistan where the major concern of all the combat-weary US allies now seemed to be none other than face-saving and cutting their losses to the minimum.

War-weariness is universal among all the US allied countries whose citizen have left their bumbling political and military leaders in no doubt that they have had enough of a war that seemed to be going nowhere and has only heavily dented their economies. Ailing European countries, such as Greece, Spain and Italy, are proof of the pudding that the senseless and inane war in Afghanistan has exacted a colossal toll from its once-eager participants.

Australia, priding itself as a loyal and trustworthy partner with its western friends, has already announced that it will be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013-a year ahead of the Lisbon-deadline of 2014. But the newly elected Socialist President of France, Francois Hollande, has perhaps dealt the heaviest blow to the aspirations of those in NATO that would like to prolong their stay in Afghanistan by categorically asserting that he will keep his campaign pledge to pull all 3400 of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of the current year.

Hollande’s no-nonsense posture stole a lot of thunder from Obama’s overt ambition to manage an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. More than that, Hollande’s refusal to be brow-beaten by his more fanatical western allies made a laughing stock of the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s puerile bravado, articulated in launching the Chicago Summit, that there would be “no rush to the exits.”

Sensing the combat-weariness of people in practically every country participating in the war effort in Afghanistan-and most importantly the rising crescendo of voices of discontent among the Americans against a war that has dented their economy grievously-Obama took on a tack of more ‘humanitarian regard’ for the people of Afghanistan, whose losses have meant little to the likes of Obama.

Obama’s opening gambit for the meeting in his home town had been worked out a day before he descended on Chicago itself. He had persuaded his G-8 partners at their exclusive get-together at Camp David, outside Washington, on May 19 that the main aim of the NATO summit in Chicago should be to persuade its participants to raise their contributions to the tune of $ 4 billion a year for Afghanistan in order to support the Afghan army and police.The latest corner stone of Obama’s political strategy, aimed overwhelmingly at his US audience who will be deciding his fate in the presidential tussle later in November, is to somehow convince the American people that he’s keen to cut their losses and bring US troops home by 2014 in an orderly fashion. He is seeking to win them over to his doctrine that although the Taliban may not be defeated on the battle-field, as such, the Afghan army and police, trained by US and its European allies, will have acquired the necessary expertise and wherewithal-with NATO’s help and generosity-to withstand any Taliban backlash.

Obama’s new national security adviser, Tom Donilon, encapsulated Obama’s new tactic by insisting that “Chicago is a critical milestone in the next step toward a responsible ending of this war.”

The ever-loyalist Rahm Emanuel, anxious that Chicago should turn in maximum mileage for his boss’ re-election campaign to the White House tried to put an even sharper accent on what the Obama team was after in going the length of convening the elaborate and great assembly of US friends and allies in his home town and bless Obama with their endorsement of his exit plan from Afghanistan. Emanuel articulated before the media, in advance of the summit, that “NATO will now be deciding how to de-emphasize its involvement, its foot-print, in Afghanistan and how to wind down its presence. It will be known as the Chicago Accords, basically. That’s significant. Something that started post 9/11 will now…be on a downward slope-not an upward slope. And that’s going to be agreed to here.”

However, Obama’s bid to work out a perfect ‘down-ward’ strategy received an unexpected buffeting from the country that has stood by the US war-effort most loyally and steadfastly all through these years but now seems to have been caught at an awkward tangent in its relationship with Washington.

US-Pakistan relations have been caught in a time-warp since early 2011 and haven’t improved, to date. Osama bin Laden’s elimination in a US stealth operation in May, 2011 dealt a major blow to these relations. But the last straw on Islamabad’s back that snapped the patience of the people of Pakistan with their hectoring ‘ally’ was the murder of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an American night raid against its  Salala check-post along the Pak-Afghan border, last November 26. Pakistan hasn’t backed down on its demand of an unconditional apology for that mayhem but Washington hasn’t blinked on that demand. Islamabad’s response to such arrogance has led to a halt to its transit facilities for NATO supplies in Afghanistan.

Obama may, perhaps, have apologised  to the Pakistanis had it not been an election year. With his revanchist Republican Party adversaries and enemies breathing down his neck and just looking for any chink in his armour to make him look like being weak, Obama just can’t afford to tender a public apology to a country that has been on US dole for a decade. It’s a matter of political cunning as much as pride.

But pride and honour are equally at work in Pakistan. Elections aren’t that far ahead in Pakistan, too; according to its constitution they must be held before April, 2013, when the current 5-year lease of the parliament will expire.

The incumbent ruling elite of Pakistan, led by deadly corrupt duo of President Zardari and PM Gilani, are weak and vacillating and wouldn’t, ordinarily, have had the gumption or guts to take on their mentors and benefactors in Washington so publicly. But the stakes are too high for even them to be seen going against the will of the people.

The fight is, in fact, between Washington and the people of Pakistan and the Pakistani leaders are simply caught in the middle. They would want to oblige Obama and their other minders in high places in Washington. They are the same people whose mendacity to Washington has been amply exposed in the Wiki-League revelations. Zardari and Gilani, though both publicly taking a stand against the US-spawned scourge of Drone attacks against unsuspecting and innocent civilians of Pakistan’s tribal belt, privately condoned this lethal practice and assured their masters in Washington that their public remonstration was nothing more than a sop to their people.

So, with the people of Pakistan up in arms against an unapologetic and hectoring super power whose arrogance is apparently out of control, even the corrupt cabal of Pakistan’s rulers finds its hands tied from responding favourably to Obama’s demand that NATO supply route across the Pakistani territory be re-opened. The Americans have, likewise, been reluctant to apologise for their murderous behaviour or put an end to drone attacks.

Zardari was given a last-minute ticket to the Chicago summit amid speculation that Pakistan was on the verge of lifting the ban on NATO trucks and trailers once again using its land to transport supplies for the western troops in Afghanistan. But then something went wrong. US officials tried to wish away the issue pedantically by saying that the deal fell through because of Pakistan’s demand for a 5,000 dollars fee on every NATO truck travelling on its roads. But if that’s correct it only highlights the stinginess of a country that has been spending more than 100 billion dollars a year on its war effort in Afghanistan.

 What exactly went wrong, really, is still a subject of intense speculation. But Obama couldn’t think of anything better than scorning Zardari publicly by refusing to grant him a private audience. Even the NATO Secretary-General, Rasmussen, had the gall to meet with Zardari one-on-one. That was some welcome for the head of state of the country that has borne the heaviest burden of the war in Afghanistan; more than a hundred thousand of Pakistan civilians have been killed in bombing raids, suicidal attacks by terrorists, and in sneak, nightly, raids of US drones. The toll of the Pakistani soldiers killed in battles with the Taliban has been more than 5,000.

So while Obama might think he has paved the road to his retaining the White House with finesse and dexterity by twisting a lot of arms around at the Chicago conclave-and forcing his NATO allies to stick to his given time table, with a few notable exceptions-he failed to twist the Pakistani arms enough to squeeze out of Zardari what he’d set out to.

Obama may feel smugly confident that in the heat of the presidential race he’d be seen as resolute and firm to the electors because he didn’t knuckle under Pakistan’s ‘unreasonable’ demands. That may well be so. But his hubris has also, ironically, handed over to Zardari a huge leverage, too. Pakistan’s thieving leader could also face his bemused people with pride that he didn’t buckle under blatant American pressure, either. Such are the vagaries of politics when practised by puny politicians and not statesmen of real stature.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 June 2012 on page no. 18

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