Signs of US Policy Shift in Afghanistan

Shuffling US National Security Shuffles US Policy in Afghanistan

By: Kavita Bapat.

On April 28th President Obama announced a major shuffle of America’s national security team beginning with the upcoming retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, reflecting a shift in America’s policies vis-a-vis Afghanistan. It is interesting to note that the announcement was made on the same day President Obama decided to give US forces the order to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden’s death, paired with the reshuffle, supports the administration’s newer, more relaxed policies concerning Afghanistan. The President officially nominated CIA Director Leon Panetta to succeed Gates and in turn, General David Petraeus was selected to take over Panetta’s position at the helm of the CIA. Obama also announced that Lieutenant General John Allen would be taking over Patraeus’ post as head of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. John Allen will be the first marine to hold the chief post of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan. Allen has been celebrated in the Iraq war for his ability to form meaningful and fruitful alliances with Sunni tribal leaders. The three star general has been described as intellectual and cautious, particularly in his treatment of western Iraq, where he was deployed from 2006 to 2008 and played a key role in salvaging the troubled war effort. Many cite Allen’s achievements in Iraq as a stepping stone for his current promotion in the Afghan war, in which efforts to broker mediation dialogues with high ranking insurgents or to influence Taliban combatants have failed to produce results. Allen’s present role as deputy of US Central Command, where he oversees military operations in Central Asia and the Middle East have led analysts to believe that he is well-versed in the daunting Afghanistan situation he will soon oversee. In his new post as Chief Commander, Allen will be responsible for the gradual handover from NATO-led troops to Afghan security forces and the management of a planned withdrawal of the 100,000 strong US force in Afghanistan.

A Shift in US Policy: Less War, More Peace

The security team shuffle is the most significant of its kind since Obama took office as it will affect all national security issues from counter-insurgency efforts, engagement with Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan, and Alliance operations in general. Obama’s nominations indicate a desire to continue a peaceful policy direction in Afghanistan and efforts to cut military expenditures. The shift from a militaristic to a peaceful US policy in Afghanistan is significant, as there has long been a division on whether or not the US should attempt to negotiate with the Taliban, but the shift is also indicative of the Obama administration’s evolving back-channel discussions with the Taliban following over two years of disputes and rivalries between the two policy perspectives. The current policy on Afghanistan also demonstrates Washington’s acknowledgment that in the current economic and international situation a political, rather than military, strategy is preferable.

Extensive diplomatic initiatives are expected to continue in the summer months, with the beginning of an aggressive Taliban summer offensive, which has already started with a series of inter-linked suicide bombings that have worsened the situation in Afghanistan. Thus, Washington has found itself under increased pressure to push the budding peace process forward. Additionally, the Obama administration has been forced to contend with pressure from both NATO countries and regional countries, namely Britain and Pakistan, who have conveyed their frustrations at the ineffectiveness of the US Government to advance its efforts in ending the war. Upon hearing the comments of many key players involved in US policy concerning Afghanistan, it has become apparent that several major initiatives backed by NATO are ongoing. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that an over-dependence on military efforts is not sustainable in the long-run.

Though it has shocked many political spectators, the shift is not entirely unexpected. The state of the overall international and economic climate has become dire. With a majority of European countries wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible, especially countries such as Britain, Germany, and Canada, that have been leading nations in the conflict, the US is finding itself under increasing international pressure. As far as national economics are concerned, it is impossible for the US to continue the war, which has been indicated by their cuts to the national defense budgets in an effort to grapple with the recession. Likewise, the US has racked up close to 108 billion dollars in spending on Afghanistan in this year alone, which is entirely unsustainable considering the bevy of economic crises plaguing the country at present.

Talking to the Taliban

Negotiating rounds between US officials and the Taliban have also been ongoing, however advancing these talks while NATO forces contend with increasing levels of insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan has proven difficult. However, if current talks result in greater progress towards agreement, there have been rumblings of a possible Taliban office in a neutral zone such as a Gulf state or Turkey. If actualized, the Taliban office will serve as an organized forum for diplomatic engagement with the Taliban on a regional and international level. Most recently, the US has made great concessions at the negotiating table with regards to its preconditions that the Taliban eliminate all links with al-Qaeda and entirely accept the Afghan Constitution. Instead, analysts claim that they have accepted that these preconditions may be met at the end of the peace talks. The Americans have taken a key step in putting aside preconditions and starting peace talks, as preconditions can be viewed as red lines. Interestingly, the Taliban seem to have diluted their preconditions as well, particularly concerning their insistence on stalling talks until all American forces have left Afghanistan.

It is now evident that the withdrawal of US forces has begun. In a speech to be given by President Obama in July, the new Afghanistan strategy will be formally addressed and the speech will signify the first stage in US troop drawdown. Political commentators claim that the speech is likely to include Obama’s first official admission that the US is engaging in talks with the Taliban.

The US is still far from formalizing any kind of sustainable agreement with the Taliban, largely due to complicated issues such as the dynamics of power-sharing, legal issues and the Constitution, and perhaps most importantly, how and if to incorporate Islamic law in Afghanistan’s official documents.

The New US Strategy and Regional Actors

The new US strategy regarding Afghanistan is good news for most countries in the region, especially Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran that have objected to an indefinite presence of the US military. The US has also shown an increased willingness to begin talks with influential regional actors such as Pakistan, that will ensure stability in the region as the US and NATO prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. A crucial part in the US brokering of a peaceful settlement of the conflict and ensuring stability in the region necessarily involves greater cooperation between India and Pakistan concerning Afghanistan. The US should attempt to exert greater influence on both countries towards negotiation and cooperation, as both Pakistan and India are fighting for influence within Afghanistan. If the two countries are not brought together at the negotiating table by the US, Afghanistan could well turn into another Kashmir. The more advancement of US withdrawal from Afghanistan and pursuant negotiations will proceed, the more it becomes internationally accepted that the Americans are engaging in discussions with the Taliban and that a negotiated solution is possible. Thus, it is of utmost importance for the Governments of India and Pakistan to accept that if either wishes to be involved in the equation, they must prioritize cooperation with one another. This is especially important for Pakistan, a country that is very keen to see stability in Afghanistan, as an end to the war could have positive ripple effects on containing and deterring terrorism inside Pakistan.

It is clear that in initiating the peace process in Afghanistan, the US has a prominent role in bringing together all neighbouring countries, of which Pakistan is likely to be the most important as it holds the key to regional stability. However, all neighbouring countries should be influenced to agree to a form of non-interference in Afghanistan’s state affairs. In this regard, Iran and Saudi Arabia certainly factor predominantly into the equation. For the past thirty years both countries have been staunch rivals with regard to Afghanistan, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Taliban in the 1990s while Iran strongly opposed it. At present, tensions in the Gulf have resulted in Saudis faulting the Iranians for destabilizing Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, this issue has both the Iranians and the Saudis searching desperately for allies. To that end, the Saudis have recently been initiating discussion with the Afghans and Pakistanis to ally with them against Iran, which is something neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can afford right now. Moreover, agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is necessary for a sustainable and peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict. Thus, the US must also consider that taking sides on the Iran-Saudi issue will not be helpful in the long-run, especially as agreement of the two countries is so crucial to Afghan and regional peace.

So, What’s Next?

However, in withdrawing from Afghanistan the US should be advised to proceed with caution. Though the end game has begun in Afghanistan, the country still remains in a precarious security position and the US and NATO must manage the situation with care, as a rush to pull out by some NATO countries may prove catastrophic. Additionally, the Taliban remain a largely unknown quantity and negotiating with them must be pursued delicately. Yet the White House is keen on a political strategy rather than a military one, which is certainly a dynamic shift. The Obama administration has been wise in intensifying its peaceful engagement with the Afghan Taliban, as this has created more possibilities for a sustainable negotiated solution to the decade-long conflict. Be that as it may, the administration would be wise to publicly announce negotiation efforts and attempt to influence Afghanistan’s regional neighbours to lend their support to the country as well.

Additionally, the recent death of Osama bin Laden adds further complication to this issue, as the US must be weary of the repercussions of Bin Laden’s death. Though there is no doubt that Bin Laden’s death is extremely detrimental to al-Qaeda and will greatly aid the CIA in capturing more high-ranking insurgents, it is clear that jihadis will want to avenge Bin Laden’s death at the hands of the US. This adds yet another consideration in US Foreign Policy as it relates to Afghanistan and will certainly influence ongoing discussions and efforts at mediation with the Taliban and other regional actors.

It is evident that a huge diplomatic effort is needed on all sides including a big push from the US, NATO, and European countries. It is imperative that the US make greater efforts towards public diplomacy, so that movement on the Afghan issue can be seen and publicly acknowledged by its critics. Equally important, private diplomacy is required concerning the Iran-Saudi Arabia issue and bringing together India and Pakistan so that regional stability will eventually be realized. Thus the quicker that the US gets on with a mixture of public and private diplomacy the faster the peace process will move.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.

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