The announcement of the Obama Administration’s "new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" was greeted with much fanfare last Friday. Over the past eight years, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been centre stage in US foreign policy, and although there were Bush-esque moments of "war on terror" rhetoric during Obama’s speech, the policy has bolstered hopes of a more nuanced approach to the conflict.
The most obvious change is the physical shift from Iraq to Afghanistan. Under Bush, Afghanistan policy meandered, with the devastating consequence that the Taliban — badly routed in 2001 and 2002 — re-emerged from 2004 onwards and began sweeping into large areas of southern, eastern and some parts of northern Afghanistan in a series of annual Spring and Summer offensives. While Iraq was the focus of the US war machine under Bush, the roles have now been reversed.
However, it is worth sparing a thought for the hapless population of Iraq — their country is far from stable. A suicide bomb tore through a central Baghdad market last Wednesday killing 16 and wounding many others.
On Sunday, the predominantly Shia Iraqi National Army clashed with a Sunni militia in a Baghdad slum. And yet Sunni militias such as this have been touted as part of the solution to Iraq’s security problems. The idea of negotiating with so-called "moderate Taliban" in Afghanistan was modelled on the American and British experience with such groups in Iraq.
But the quandaries of Iraq are fast becoming a distant memory for planners in Washington, London and Brussels, who are now transfixed on the rugged hills of Afghanistan.
For the first time, a distinction has been formally made between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Had the US made this distinction back in 2001, Afghanistan’s present carnage may have been greatly avoided. When US forces invaded in October 2001, al Qaeda and Taliban members who were captured — as well a large number of innocent civilians not affiliated with either group — were bundled together under the collective acronym AQT.
America’s forced marriage led the two movements into a tactical trade. Al Qaeda gained access to some of the most isolated regions in the planet, such as Waziristan in Pakistan, and the Taliban learnt how to become insurgents. Prior to that, the Taliban had little or no experience in guerrilla warfare, nor had they ever relied on suicide attacks.
The Obama Administration’s decision to differentiate between the two groups reflects a shift towards recognising that the enemy America faces in Afghanistan is not homogenous. However, the militants that the new policy proposes to negotiate with aren’t particularly "moderate" in the sense that you or I might understand the word. They are unlikely to accept anything close to an equal role for women or minorities in Afghan society. Their moderation instead reflects a willingness to play politics with the Americans and their foreign and local allies in Afghanistan.
In contrast "hardcore" Taliban are those who are considered too ideologically attached to al Qaeda and its global jihad project to be bargained with. For them, missile strikes from pilotless drones will continue to be the only form of dialogue the US will extend.
On that score, Obama’s new "AfPak" policy remains alarmingly similar to that used by the previous administration. Indeed, missile strikes will likely expand in Pakistan where al Qaeda and the local militants aligned with it have their sanctuaries. Obama has promised that future operations into Pakistan’s territory will be conducted with its permission, implying past actions were not. But given Pakistan’s heavy reliance on the United States, it is hard to see this in any way other than as a public relations stunt — Pakistanis resent America’s unilateral strikes but it is important for America that Pakistan appears to be cooperating with them.
But the fundamental reality of continued strikes by the US into Pakistan are unlikely to change.
"It is one thing to die when fighting your enemy face-to-face," said Shakir (not his real name), a businessman from Waziristan I met in Islamabad recently. "When you are killed like this [by missiles], this is a great insult."
The Taliban are not universally liked by the tribal Pashtun populations along the North Western Frontier Province and northern Balochistan border with Afghanistan. But when news spreads that women and children have been killed by powerful bombs from the sky, any antipathy gives way to solidarity.
Obama should nevertheless be praised for recognising the importance of developing Afghanistan and Pakistan’s civil institutions, and for acknowledging the vices of investing too much in individual leaders like Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf. In what many have described as a "civilian surge", both countries are to receive massive injections of cash, projects and experts.
According to The Guardian last month, the US is also preparing to plant a high profile figure in a newly created chief executive or prime ministerial role within the Karzai Government to help manage governance responsibilities in a manner that is acceptable to Washington.
Afghanistan’s governors will likely be empowered at the expense of the increasingly despised Karzai, although Obama only indirectly referred to this in his speech when speaking of the need to end corruption and the drugs trade — two vices Karzai’s Administration has been indelibly associated with over the past few years.
Obama also spoke of his support for Bills previously brought before the US Congress which would see an increase in development aid for Pakistan, including an "opportunity zone" in the tribal areas most afflicted by "Talibanisation", which would be tied to that Government’s performance against militants.
There was also talk of a new multilateral body for all of the region’s powers to discuss ways to stabilise Afghanistan. That is effectively a way of extending the olive branch to Iran and rivals Russia and China.
Hopes are high, and many of the promises contained in Obama’s new strategy are equally steep. Of course, matching rhetoric with reality will be the real challenge.
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