Afghanistan Abyss Awaits Obama

The struggle for influencing Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda has begun in right earnest. The maneuvering by influential establishment figures - including Congressional voices, Obama advisors and even military officials - who are projecting incumbent Robert Gates as secretary of defense in the incoming administration highlights the pressures working on the president-elect.

The focus is on the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in promoting the basic George W Bush policies promoted since the 1990s by nationalist and neo-conservative Republicans. These are policies animated by long-term ambitions for US economic and military hegemony.

A Gates appointment will signal that Obama may turn his back on his campaign pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq in 16 months. Gates, of course, disfavors any set timeline or timetable for a withdrawal plan.

Equally, his accent is on fighting the war in Afghanistan more efficiently while pursuing a containment strategy toward Russia and pressing ahead with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his perspective, Central Command chief General David Petraeus' troop "surge" policy in Afghanistan meets the requirements.

Adjusting at the margins
To use the words of investigative historian and journalist Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, there is a "phalanx of determined military opposition" in the Pentagon to Obama's withdrawal plans in Iraq, which goes all the way up to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and includes Petraeus and General Ray Odierno, the new commander in Iraq.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that a "smooth and productive" equation between the military brass and the incoming president will be possible only "if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins". The newspaper quotes Peter D Feaver, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration who was a strategic planner on the administration's Iraq "surge" policy, to the effect that if Obama presses ahead with his 16-month withdrawal plan, "a civil-military crisis" might arise in Washington.

According to Porter, Obama had a battle of wits with Petraeus when they met in Baghdad in July and the general argued for a "conditions-based" withdrawal rather than the presidential candidate's 16-month deadline. Porter says Obama refused to back down and told Petraeus, "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential commander-in-chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security."

But Gates' appointment could change the equation. The smiling, silver-haired and earnest-looking veteran who has been through it all - the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - proved his awesome capacity to make himself durable in the Byzantine world of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinzki and William Casey. Gates is the very antithesis of the clean break that Obama promised.

Lame duck planting mines
The Russians justifiably claim Gates may have already forced Obama's hand. They see a distinct pattern. In August, cleverly using the Caucasus crisis and the unfriendly public mood in the West about Russia, Gates pressed ahead with the signing of an agreement on the deployment of elements of an American strategic missile shield - 10 interceptor missiles at Wick Morskie between the towns of Ustka and Darlowo on the Baltic coast in Poland and an X-radar in Brdy near Prague, Czech Republic. Of course, Russia has concluded that the US deployments are intended to blunt the thrust of its strategic forces in the European theater.

Again, out of the blue, Washington imposed sanctions two weeks ago against Rosoboronexport, Russia's only arms exporter, for allegedly violating the Iran Proliferation Act of 2000. The sanctions have no "bite" as Rosoboronexport has no dealings with US companies and the Russian company's functioning is not in jeopardy. What the Bush administration has done is in essence create an irritant in US-Russia relations.

Obama will run into resistance from the US military-industrial complex if he attempts to lift the sanctions, as Rosoboronexport is proving to be a plucky competitor in the world's arms market. According to US Congressional reports, Russia is the world's second-largest arms exporter next to the US, with a turnover of US$10.4 billion in exports in 2007, as against $8.1 billion in the previous year, accounting for 17.4% of all weapons sold in the world market. Russia is entering new markets in North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The Rosoboronexport irritant can become yet another factor hindering effective, whole-hearted US-Russia cooperation over Iran, which Obama will seek. A Russian commentator wrote, "The main purpose of this demonstrative move [sanctions] … is not so much to complicate life for Russian exporters as to saddle a new administration with new irritants between the White House and the Kremlin, irritants that will be difficult for Obama to remove. It is like anti-personnel mines planted on the path toward better relations between Moscow and Washington."

Again, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's annual address to the Duma (parliament) on November 5 contained a statement that Russia might be compelled to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad unless a compromise was reached on the US missile defense deployments in Central Europe. There was nothing startlingly new in the statement. The Russians have said this before. Medvedev's speech on the whole also contained positive elements regarding European security and relations with the US.

Yet the US media interpreted that it was the "first serious Russian military threat against the West since the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991]"; that it struck a "discordant note amid an otherwise welcoming global reaction to Obama's election"; that the timing and "anti-American tone of the speech were extraordinary given the widely held belief here [in Moscow] that Obama is less ideological in his approach to Moscow than his Republican rival".

They aimed at generating an impression that Obama ought to rely on experienced hands - such as Gates - to deal with those bad boys in the Kremlin. And all this while the general opinion among Russian politicians and experts is one of cautious optimism that Obama is devoid of Cold War phobias and may incrementally opt out of the "containment strategy" toward Russia.

To be sure, Obama will find himself under great pressure to follow Russia policies inherited from Bush, even though these are what he was elected to change or terminate. The crunch comes in December when NATO holds a crucial ministerial meeting to take a view on the membership of Ukraine and Georgia. While on a visit to Estonia on Wednesday, Gates found it irresistible to taunt Moscow: "Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country's desire to more fully integrate with the West. Doing so is not a threat to Russia's integrity." A lame duck could have kept quiet.

Hard choices of peace

Meanwhile, Moscow hopes Obama will be less supportive of spending on missile defense than the Bush administration. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Obama's positions "instill hope that we shall be able to more constructively examine this theme in the upcoming period". A similar restraint is apparent in the Russian statement read out on behalf of the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the UN General Assembly debate on Afghanistan on Monday. It abandoned the recent high pitch of criticism of the US-led war.

Russia seems to weigh that the war in Afghanistan presents a dilemma of a different kind to Obama and Moscow should not make things harder. Indeed, the Afghan war will be the number one foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. Here too, a struggle has commenced for influencing Obama's policy. Two Pentagon consultants - Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin - did some kite-flying recently. In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine titled "From Great Game to Grand Bargain", they argued that the US strategy should be to seek compromise with insurgents while addressing regional rivalries and insecurities.

Their recommendation was to offer "political inclusion" to the insurgents "in return for cooperation against al-Qaeda" and to launch a major diplomatic initiative addressing the "vast array of regional and global issues that have become intertwined with the


crisis". Furthermore, they suggested that a "contact group" of select countries mandated by the UN Security Council must work to put an end to the "increasingly destructive dynamics of the great game in the region". They recommended that a "regional diplomatic initiative" ought to replace the international presence under NATO.

Their buzzword is "regional security". Britain has also echoed it by coming up with a parallel idea of regional security, whereby regional players such as Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia along with the US and Britain will be brought into a structure, a consultative mechanism, as "stakeholders". The British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, visited Tehran a fortnight ago to sound out the Iranians. He visited Delhi over the weekend, and told the media, "Our strategy is of a politically-driven, security-led counter-insurgency strategy and more coherent, sustained international support for Afghanistan and its government. What we want to do, for good counter-insurgency reasons, is to get our troops out of direct combat operations. So it is Afghans doing the fighting, not foreign forces."

The Foreign Affairs article charters a breathtaking landscape that all but ensures that Obama will lose his way and will never get anywhere near an Afghan settlement in the four years ahead of his presidency. Britain, while setting the tempo for Obama, focuses on itself as remaining a key player. But Sir Sherard's play of words apart, the ground situation is grim for Obama.

On Tuesday, Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Berlin would resist any US pressure to send troops to strife-ridden southern Afghanistan. Spain openly called for changes to the Western strategy after the killing of two Spanish soldiers in a suicide attack in the western city of Herat on Sunday. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has been quoted as saying, "The debate must not be about sending more troops, but about how to carry out a political and military strategy that will put an end to the situation of instability."

Canada has reiterated its decision to pull out its troops by 2011. In Britain, according to an opinion poll released on Wednesday, 68% said British troops should be taken out of Afghanistan by 2010. The head of the British armed forces, Air marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, warned against Obama's idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan, similar to the "surge" in Iraq in 2007. He told the BBC, "Even if the situation demanded it, it cannot be just a one for one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan, we have to reduce that tempo … I am a little nervous when people use the word 'surge' as if this were some sort of panacea."

Tehran has lost little time to rubbish Sir Sherard's proposal. At an international conference on Afghanistan at Dushanbe on Tuesday, attended by a senior US State Department official, the Iranian delegate ambassador Ali Ashar Sherdoust said Western countries and mediators should leave the issue to the Afghans and let them decide their fate. He stressed that Iran opposed the continued presence of foreign forces and their interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Sherdoust ridiculed the "countries thousands of kilometers away" from Afghanistan which are insisting on running the country's affairs while "ignoring the interests" of Afghanistan's neighbors.

The British game plan is partly at least to spike the parallel initiative by the SCO to hold a special conference on Afghanistan. The US and Britain have been resisting repeated attempts by the SCO and the Collective Security Organization to play a role in Afghanistan. They have so far ensured that NATO's role has remained exclusive. The ideas floated by the Foreign Affairs article as well as by Sir Sherard will more or less keep the initiative over the Afghan problem in the US-British clasp, which has been the Bush administration's bottom line and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's objective.

The million dollar question is: Will Obama also play the great game in Afghanistan? Or is he capable of showing the compassion to let go that hapless country and allow it to wander towards a rediscovery of its traditional modes of life?

It is obvious he has to walk through a veritable minefield and reconcile various elements. Indeed, an intra-Afghan dialogue is needed and reconciliation with the Taliban becomes a central issue in such a dialogue. For that to happen, a regional climate needs to be prepared, which primarily involves engaging Pakistan, Russia and Iran and also addressing larger concerns in their relations with the US. Fortunately, Obama possesses the immense moral stature needed to convene a regional summit on Afghanistan.

Least of all, it may become necessary at some point to spell out a timeline on the troop withdrawal. Every challenge also offers an opportunity. The upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan offers an opportunity for Obama to resist the temptation to impose another US proxy in Kabul like President Hamid Karzai. Let Afghan people genuinely choose their leader. Let a new president emerge out of the complex deal-making that is part of the Afghan way of life. It is a difficult decision for Obama to take, but it needs to be taken. It will signify the beginning of a US "withdrawal".

As a recent commentary in the Chinese People's Daily noted, "Since it is absolutely not easy to carry on the war, then, the 'peace' solution poses a wise option … War and peace are horns of a dilemma in Afghanistan at present, and this has once again exposed the helplessness of Western nations in a predicament." The recent Chinese commentaries seem to underscore that the Obama administration runs the real risk of a quagmire in Afghanistan unless a political solution is quickly found.

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