Where Obama faltered in the Afghan war

President Barack Obama is quintessentially a man of peace. Where he allowed his own instincts to prevail, he fared well. Iran is the most celebrated case.

As the Obama presidency draws to a close, US military-intelligence offerings of swift, dynamic camera-ready action continue to captivate him, the latest evidence being the drone killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour

As the Obama presidency draws to a close, US military-intelligence offerings of swift, dynamic camera-ready action continue to captivate him, the latest evidence being the drone killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour

Obama understood that a military attack on Iran – although he had ‘all options on the table’ – would have been a historic blunder. Obama was lucky in Iraq, since the Iraqi parliament demanded an end to the occupation.

In Libya, he made the mistake of allowing the war party led by secretary of state Hillary Clinton to have their way. But the bitter lesson from that experience probably helped him later in Syria. Importantly, in both Libya and Syria, the military had disfavored US intervention.

Ukraine falls into a unique category. It was war by other means. Obama refrained from following through the successful regime change in Kiev with outright military intervention – although, alibi was not lacking – because the game plan was three-fold, namely, to exploit the standoff with Russia on the political and diplomatic plane in order to reinforce the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership, to impart a new sense of purpose to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to atrophy Russia’s ties with the West.

So the balance sheet does not really hurt Obama’s reputation as a man of peace – that is, until when his Afghan legacy is taken into account.

Obama’s most recent decision that the US military will use air power and also play a bigger role in directly battling the Taliban in Afghanistan in certain circumstances effectively means a return to combat mission.

It epitomises the zig zag – jaw, jaw, war, war – that has come to be his trademark in Afghanistan.

Obama faltered right at the outset of his presidency in 2009 and he never quite recovered after that. His cardinal mistake was to allow the neoconservatives to retain their influence over the war policies in Afghanistan.

Bob Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars chronicles that the holdovers from the George W. Bush administration with the help of the neoconservatives made sure that Obama was given no option other than to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan.

Woodward named the troika – Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and chief of Central Command Gen. David Petraeus – who even refused to prepare an early-exit option that Obama had demanded no sooner than he took over as president. In Woodward’s words,

  • For two exhausting months, (Obama) had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan. He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were ‘really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted.’

Woodward calls Gates, Mullen and Petraeus “unrelenting advocates of 40,000 more troops and an expanded (military) mission that seemed to have no clear end.”

Obama was too willing to listen to the military and he agreed to the ‘surge’ and to hold off on peace talks with the Taliban until they were weakened militarily – even as the late Richard Holbrooke was on another track working on plans to reach a deal with the Taliban and strike a ‘grand bargain’ with Afghanistan’s neighbors (Pakistan, Iran and India.)

The ‘surge’ failed to have the desired result of an end of the war, and the Taliban was not weakened militarily. Ironically, while the White House was blindly backing Petraeus’ desire to wait on talks, it also kept saying that a negotiated settlement was ultimately needed to end the war.

One way of looking at this contradiction would be that domestic political calculations trumped strategic thinking. At any rate, by the middle of 2011, the policy had become rudderless – Holbrooke had died; surge had failed; Petraeus had left for the CIA; Taliban was recouping; Obama had announced troop withdrawal – and the effort to open peace talks ultimately stalled.

The second factor that complicated matters infinitely was Obama’s failure to win the trust of the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The 2009 Afghan presidential election was a watershed event.

Karzai lost faith in the Obama administration as a genuine partner. Carlotta Gall of the New York Times wrote in her book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014,

  • He (Karzai) had watched American officials court his rivals (in the 2009 election), and he felt betrayed. He was convinced that the accusations of fraud … had been engineered to remove him from power… Afghans could take losing. It was public humiliation they could not stand. As I watched Karzai’s face that day (October 2009) in the palace with (Secretary of State John) Kerry, I knew he would not forgive America for the humiliation. Karzai’s honeymoon with the United States had been over for a while, but this was the moment that broke the relationship. It would never be the same.

Indeed, things went from bad to worse. By February 2014, Obama telephoned Karzai to threaten that he would order the complete withdrawal of US troops and leave the latter to his fate.

By May 25, personal equations had become so bad that Karzai refused to visit the Bagram military base when Obama made a surprise visit there to meet troops, and Obama on his part turned down a proposal for talks at Karzai’s palace in downtown Kabul.

Karzai hit back, refusing to sign the US-Afghan pact regarding American military bases (which he only had negotiated), and when he left office in September 2014, he did not even have a phone conversation with Obama to say goodbye.

In the current discourses, the focus is, understandably enough, almost exclusively on the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan as the main reason behind the impasse in the peace process.

But the root problem was that at the defining moment in 2009 when Obama was holding a mandate from the American people to end the war, instead of giving a free hand to Holbrooke to kick start a peace process, he allowed himself to be led by the neoconservative war hawks in escalating the Afghan War.

Imagine a scenario where Holbrooke, ably aided by the veteran ‘Afghan hand’ Barnett Rubin, had stuck a ‘grand bargain’ with the Taliban and Pakistan; imagine a working partnership between Obama and Karzai providing the much-needed political umbrella for the peace process; imagine Pakistan getting used to the idea that there was no daylight possible between Obama and Karzai – things might have turned out differently.

The Taliban were ready for talks as early as April 2009. Holbrooke and Rubin were certain that Taliban would come to the table and Karzai favored talking with them.

Holbrooke wanted a $50 billion Marshal Plan for Pakistan as incentive to that country to make a clean break from the past. (Beijing’s offer of $46 billion for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor eerily matches Holbrooke’s package.)

But instead came the ‘surge’ and the militarized policy from the White House. The Afghans and Pakistan were confused.

As the Obama presidency draws to a close, it is, again, the military-intelligence complex that is in the driving seat.

Its offerings of swift, dynamic camera-ready action – drone killing of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour is the latest evidence – continue to captivate Obama.

Perhaps, his primary concern would have been how the drone killing would play on the nightly news. Obama did not seem to realize that the drone also killed the Quadripartite Consultative Group that was working on the reconciliation process.

Obama has marketed the exit from Afghan war as a foreign-policy coup, but in reality it is an illusion. The rhetoric of troop withdrawal is hardly more than rhetoric. The Predators and Special Forces – and the war contractors in their thousands – are still there in Afghanistan.

The military wants to stay in charge, and Obama has agreed. The door has been shut conclusively on discussions of diplomacy and a political settlement. Perhaps, it is politically safe option right now in the middle of a presidential race – to give the military what it asks for.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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