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American strategy

December 05, 2012

THE debate in the American media about the pace of the withdrawal of US and Nato forces has intensified in recent days prompted in part by the non-binding resolution in the Senate calling for speeding up the pullout of US forces.

This 62-33 vote was in contrast to the house vote in May which called for maintaining a force of 68,000 or roughly the number present today but according to the American media the mood is changing in the house suggesting that most congressmen would now vote for a faster withdrawal of the majority of the forces. The public mood has also changed over the years.

In September 2008, a Pew poll showed that 61 per cent wanted the troops to stay until the country had been stabilised while 33 per cent wanted the troops out as early as possible. In October, the same poll showed 60 per cent wanted troops out as soon as possible while 35 per cent wanted troops to stay until the country was stabilised.

There are old South Asia hands in Washington who have argued that troop levels should be kept high throughout 2013 and that as withdrawal proceeds in 2014 the Americans should plan on keeping a 30,000-strong residual presence.

But the view that is more reflective of the dominant sentiment is the one expressed by Gen David Barno, a former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan who argues that maintaining a large force up to 2014 and 30,000 thereafter will have little effect “on the combat-readiness of Afghan forces, Taliban capabilities or terrorist havens in the region”. He believes that a force of 10,000 or fewer is enough so long as there is assured access to bases and a robust intelligence network since the Americans would always have the capacity to reinforce this force whenever needed.

Gen Allen may make different recommendations but these would have little resonance in a Washington where there is a growing sentiment for using drones and other technology for combating the terrorist threat rather than retaining American ‘boots on the ground’.

The attack by the Taliban on the US base in Jalalabad on Monday would have reinforced this view. This attack could be termed a failure because the Taliban were not able to go beyond the perimeter and all the nine attackers were killed. Only four Afghan soldiers were killed and a few Americans were wounded.

What was important, however, was that none of those at Afghan check posts en route to the base stopped them. This suggests connivance and could therefore be termed a ‘green on blue’ incident adding to the large number of such attacks that have taken place this year and which to my mind have done more to change the American mood than anything else.

Looking at this from another angle, it would appear from media reports that the sort of residual presence the Americans want to maintain after 2014 — brigades of 1,500 men instead of the traditional 3,500-4,000 and completely self-contained — would have to come from America after suitable equipping and training.

This would mean that all the troops now in Afghanistan and their equipment would have to be withdrawn. Given the formidable logistic problems — the nightmarish situation in the Salang tunnel and the difficulties on the Pakistan route — American logistics experts will insist that thinning out must start in 2013 if total withdrawal is to be completed by 2014.

One would like to believe that America is still serious in pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban. Obama has asked Congress to reverse the present congressional restriction on the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the American mainland or to other countries.

This would seem to suggest that his administration would like to renew contacts in Qatar and meet the Taliban demand for the release of five or more of the Taliban from Guantanamo as a confidence-building measure.

On the other hand, the departure of special envoy Marc Grossman later this month without a successor having been chosen and without, seemingly, any serious effort having been made to persuade him not to leave suggests that this is no longer a high priority.

For some time now, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that reconciliation, if it ever comes about, will take time and will certainly not happen before the completion of the Nato withdrawal.

As I am writing this the meeting of our foreign minister and Gen Ashfaq Kayani with Secretary Hillary Clinton has not yet taken place in Brussels but one thing emerged clearly in a State Department briefing while Clinton was en route to Brussels. That was that there has been no direct American contact with the Taliban since the talks were suspended by the Taliban in March.

The Americans are now highlighting only the successful visit of Salahuddin Rabbani and Zalmay Rassoul to Pakistan, the release of Taliban prisoners by Pakistan and the progress made in the meetings of the core group — Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US — on safe passage for potential Taliban participants in the peace talks. I would read this as meaning that the ball on reconciliation is now squarely in Pakistan’s court.

This is not to say, however, that American interest in pursuing its counterterrorism campaign will decline. On the contrary, media reports make it clear that the plans drawn up before the American elections had laid out the path that was to be followed around the world over the next decade to ensure that terrorists were kept off balance if not eliminated.

The centrepiece of this strategy was to use drones, intelligence gathering and agreements with governments in Yemen, Somalia etc. while eschewing as far as possible the placing of American troops in danger’s way.

Any such campaign would certainly be targeting Pakistan’s tribal areas where the Americans firmly believe the Haqqanis and other like-minded groups are providing shelter and assistance to the Al Qaeda leadership. Whether they will do so from bases in Afghanistan or Central Asia or from ships in the Arabian Sea is not yet known but there should be no doubt that this will be done.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.