Is Obama a Man of Peace?

In the second week of December, President Obama will be heading for Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, conferred on him, gratuitously, by the people in charge of awarding this most coveted of prizes in the world. When the announcement of it was made last October, it took the world by surprise. Few had any clue as to what Obama had done to deserve this most high-profile of Nobel awards.

Obama amply justified the fears and derisions of a vast body of skeptics, world-wide, bemused by his choice for the peace award, barely a week before heading to Oslo to keep his appointment with the notables invited to the august ceremony, by announcing his plan to further augment the fighting strength of American forces in Afghanistan, by as much as 30,000 additional troops, by next summer.

Obama couldn't have chosen a more befitting and more relevant venue than West Point-the U.S. Military Academy in New York State-to unveil his latest strategy for Afghanistan. The hallowed precincts of West Point have trained and turned out from its portals generations and legions of fighters to constantly fuel the juggernauts of the most-war-addicted country in the world.

Obama's decision to fall in line right behind the plan hatched by his anointed commander for Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had been conveniently leaked to an eager and avid news media several days in advance of his December 1st appearance at West Point. With the air thick with myriad speculations and guesstimates about Obama's final blue print for the Afghan theatre of war, the news media had started beating their drums about it with great enthusiasm. It was billed, for days in advance, as a major policy statement, with some commentators going as far as to describe it as Obama's seminal discourse on war and its anticipated impact on the current U.S. position in the world, especially in the context of the 'war on terror' inherited by him from his predecessor.

That Obama opted for a more robust military presence in Afghanistan is not surprising at all, given his track record from the days when he was running for president. He came to the White House with an articulated sense that the Afghan theatre of war had been neglected and down-graded by his miscued predecessor in favour of Iraq, and deserved to be quickly rectified. Within weeks of settling down in the Oval Office he had rushed 35,000 soldiers to Afghanistan-bringing the troop level to its present strength of 68,000; with this hefty addition of 30,000 more, the U.S. military boots on the ground, in Afghanistan, would swell to nearly a hundred thousand.

That's the number of only those in uniform. However, as ruefully reported by the non-establishment media opposed to the war in Afghanistan, there are more American combatants, sans uniform, in Afghanistan than those wearing it, taking into account the burgeoning ranks of mercenaries and tens-of-thousands of notorious and lawless military contractors. Critics of war are arguing that by the middle of next year, there will be as many as close to half-a-million American men in the two- war theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But more serious and ominous than the numbers game is the sense-which any independent observer of what Obama has been saying and doing in regard to Afghanistan would derive; and that's that in sticking to his campaign rhetoric that the war in Afghanistan is winnable, and George W. Bush's second-guessing of it was dead wrong, Obama is getting sucked into a quagmire. Not only that, but he is also, unconsciously perhaps, straying into the minefield of American militarism that has become the hallmark of U.S. in the post-Cold War era.

This quagmire may not entirely be of his making. The generals and war-mongers in the Pentagon have been tugging at his sleeves and breathing down his neck for sometime, as have been the Republicans whose predilection for the use of force has been a bane of American history, especially since WWII. There's no doubt that by succumbing to their pressure Obama has taken a very costly insurance policy. The Pentagon cabal seems to be working on him just the way it did on President Johnson when he was cornered, in the mid-60s, to send more troops to Vietnam. By pandering to them, and to the likes of his presidential race-rival, Senator John McCain-who don't want to hear any mention of an end-game in Afghanistan-Obama has categorically signed on to their agenda and has conceded to play ball according to their choice.

In his West Point address, Obama pooh-poohed any comparison with Vietnam and insisted he wasn't Vietnamising the war in Afghanistan. But comparisons are quite appropriate in the way the war effort is spinning out of control and also the way this war is dividing and polarizing the Americans.

War weariness among the American people is a natural phenomenon after more than eight long years of relentless conflict in not one but two countries. On top of it, the way these wars have bled the American economy-and are still bleeding it with the numbers of those without jobs ground-swelling to record heights-the American people can't be faulted for turning their ire toward Obama the way they did toward his inane and clueless precursor in the Oval Office. Obama's public approval rating has dipped, for the first time since he won the presidency, to below the 50 percentage points. This should be a cause of concern to not only him but also to the Democrats in Congress. 2010 will be the year of mid-tern elections in U.S. and many a pundit are already predicting a rout of the Democrats.

By letting himself manipulated by the war-mongers on Afghanistan, a la Johnson on Vietnam, Obama is clearly not only raising the ante of doubts about his agenda but also opening himself to the kind of criticism that Bush had been badgered with, and rightly so. Obama is, unconsciously, walking the plank that doomed Bush. He's making the war in Afghanistan as much his war as Bush had made Iraq his main war of aggression.

The choice of the military academy at West Point couldn't be anything other than a conscious Obama effort to send a loud signal to those Americans addicted to perpetual conflict that he wasn't a softie on war as his Republican detractors have been painting him. But this gung-ho, trigger-happy, Obama is the antithesis of that peacenik Obama the majority Americans had voted for in November last year.

Obama, no doubt, is straining to still project himself as a man firmly committed to peace by blending the stick of war with the carrots of a projected commencement of withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, starting in July, 2011. He has also not given in entirely to the generals' demand for an additional 45,000 troops, obviously to not ruffle the feathers too much in the peace camp.

But Obama's calibrated nuances are more of a ruse than reality. They are designed to confuse the issues rather than clarifying or elucidating them.

As far as the withdrawal of troops is concerned, there's no deadline of completion for the process. Obama, for the record, is saying that he'd bring all the "troops home" from Afghanistan before the end of his presidency. But that could easily be 7 years hence, given a likely second term for him. His minions are already attaching conditions to it.

As for the troop strength demanded by his generals, Obama is leaning hard on his NATO allies to make up the difference with at least 10,000 more NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. But he's likely to be frustrated by his major allies on that account, such as France and Germany. Italy, not a major player, has offered to send a thousand more troops and Poland an additional 600. Even an ever-obliging Britain has indicated to rake up another 500 soldiers to beef up its ranks in Afghanistan. It's a foregone conclusion that none of the major European allies would be inclined to stick their neck out for him.

Obama's three-pronged strategy on Afghanistan, on the basis of which he is plunging head-long into large scale military offensive is dubious.

The first prong of his strategy hinges on containing the Taliban challenge and " reverse their momentum." But that's deeply flawed, given the ground realities in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in control of far more territory today than they were ever before in the 8 years of American military presence in Afghanistan. With his own 100,000 troops and nearly half of that number from NATO, Obama could, at best, hope to keep them out of major cities, which would still be open to Taliban-inspired sabotage and acts of terror, as so profusely demonstrated in recent months.

Knowing the limits of military performance, Obama's men are already talking, behind the scene, with the Taliban, with some input from the Saudis. The idea is to cull the 'bad Taliban' and do business with the 'good ones.' Taliban like Mullah Zaeef, former ambassador to Pakistan, are being seen as 'kosher' to cut a deal with. However, the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omer, is believed to be reluctant to pay ball as long as the American and their allies are present on the Afghan soil. And if at all he relents to a deal it would be on his terms, not Obama's.

Mullah Omer could well be reflecting the sense of most ordinary Afghans to whom any invader, from Alexander-the-Great to Bush-the-Insignificant, is a trespasser on their land and untrustworthy to do business with.

The second prong of Obama's strategy is equally flawed. He'd want the Afghan army to be trained to a level where it could take on the burden of managing their combat burden. But the Afghan army is already deeply suborned by the Taliban and the annual rate of desertion in it is as high as 25 per cent.

Obama also covets a corruption-free Afghan government under Karzai. But that's asking for the moon. His rhetoric of "no blank cheque" for the Afghan government may have sounded good to his domestic audience but wouldn't win many friends among the Afghan kleptomaniacs.

The third Obama prong concerns Pakistan, to whose leaders and people he is offering the olive branch of a 'partnership' supporting "Pakistan's security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent." Why this largesse for Pakistan? Because he thinks that this war is as much Pakistan's as America's or anybody else's. That may be adrenalin to a beleaguered Zardari but is empty rhetoric to a layman because Obama still expects Pakistan to 'do more.'

One can't be unmindful of the fact that Obama doesn't define the contours of his partnership with Pakistan but expects a Pakistan that has been paying an exorbitant price for its gratuitous 'alliance' with U.S. in Afghanistan to still shoulder a burden far greater than its capacity. The implied threat in Obama's discourse about the 'known sanctuaries and intentions' of the terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border can't be lost on any Pakistani with a sense of national dignity and honour, although the same can't be said about the leaders of Pakistan.

Obama, under the heady influence of his Af-Pak policy, lumping Afghanistan and Pakistan together, is apparently expecting too much from Pakistan. Not only that he is also deliberately trying to paper over the deep differences and fissures in the U.S.-Pakistan relations in which the two 'allies' share little in perception and face yawning gaps, especially on the popular, people's, front in Pakistan.

Obama expects the Pakistan army, already deeply engrossed in its combat mission in the prickly South Waziristan region, to go after the Afghan Taliban, too. But the Pakistani army has its hands full with the Pakistani Taliban, a home grown variety. Besides, dictates of realpolitik give no incentive to Pakistan to make an enemy of the Afghan Taliban who, despite American wishes to contain and thwart them, may come to power, once again, in Afghanistan much sooner than Obama or anybody else may be inclined to comprehend, or admit, at this stage.

Obama is clearly a man-in-hurry, if not in distress. He's fast-forwarding additional troops to Afghanistan because he wants quick results, while his supporters and detractors alike want 'positive' results. Therein is a Catch-22 situation for him because of varying interpretation of 'positive result' for each group. To his supporters, a positive result means a quick end to the war and withdrawal with alacrity. But to his detractors, a positive outcome is outright victory over the Taliban and annihilation of Al Qaeda. Obama is proverbially caught between the rock and a hard place.

Whatever the ultimate denouement of Afghanistan, Obama is risking his presidency and reputation on its horns. In the process he is getting into the familiar mould of a 'war president.' That was a title George W. Bush relished. It's ironic that Obama, even if unwittingly, is walking into those shoes. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo has a lot of new fodder to chew on in regard to this year's winner.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2009 on page no. 26

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