New US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan

March 31, 2009

The new US strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan has inextricably linked future of both the countries and yoked them together in its official jargon as AfPak. The policy which came during “increasingly perilous” situation in Afghanistan has dragged Pakistan under the close watch of US government. Obama in his speech spilled out the outline of US policy in the region and his fears about the deteriorating situation in the lawless country, and admitted that “2008 was the deadliest year of the war for the American forces.”

The policy is three pronged to avert a defeat in Afghanistan, which Imperial Britain and Soviet Union had to face at the hands of Afghans and it entails military, political and economic approaches to tackle crisis.

Militarily, US is increasing its presence in Afghanistan by 17,000 more troops that would take the war to the Taliban in south and east of the country. The aim is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in AfPak. The militants have safe havens in the border areas of Pakistan, so this area has become the most dangerous for Americans in the world. At the same time any major terrorist attack anywhere in the world, is, too likely to have its ties with the Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and it also hints at the pursuing terrorist targets “one way or another,” a reference towards the drone attacks, which have generated quite heat over the months. The policy maintains that Pakistan will no more have the blank cheque. The US would also send 4000 personnel to train the Afghan army, police and to provide support to civilian development. A day ahead of policy announcement State department announced US$ 5 million head money on Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsood, which was followed by two US generals who accused Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of supporting Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.

Politically, the strategy envisions dialogue with the moderate Taliban to isolate the hardliners. Similarly, US has also hinted at recasting war as regional conflict and said that he wanted to form a new contact group of Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India, China and Central Asian Republics (CARs).

Economically, the strategy offers US $ 1.5 billion aid to Pakistani people over the next five years and setting up Reconstruction Opportunity Zone (ROZs) in the insurgency hit areas.

Echoes from the past

Though, the policy is a carrot and stick at better, the question is that could it solve the American problems in Afghanistan. The British experience in Afghanistan in nineteenth century offers useful insights into the American predicament.

In 1838, British deposed Afghan king Dost Mohammad in a ‘regime change’ fearing a possible Russian advance on British India and crowned Shah Shuja as new king of the country.

In 1841 Robert Peel’s Tory government took over from Whigs, and England was facing economic recession following a global trade slump at that time. Peel administration tried to adopt stringent economic policy, which was based on the assumption that the military presence in Afghanistan was costing British exchequer too heavily and it postulated an exit strategy for the military through building Afghan forces. In Afghanistan a Kabul mob had murdered the British diplomat Sir Alexander Burnes and British forces were heading towards a disaster. Unaware of real situation London dispatched Sir Ellenborough to India to implement strict economic policy, before his arrival two more forces had moved for Afghanistan to the rescue of those trapped in Kabul. The Afghan problem was out of hand amid the quarrelling of British envoy Sir William Macnaghten and Genera Elphinstone and it resulted into annihilation of 16,000 strong British force.

The British in the first place misunderstood the public opinion and its top envoy to the court of Kabul Macnaghten even described the situation as “all quite from Dan to Beersheba,” while the conflict was conflagrating.

Secondly, during the crucial days instead of proper planning to avert the disaster Macnaghten tried to buy the loyalties of Afghan notables, which historian John Kaye mocked by saying, “The jingling of the coins could not drown the voice of an outraged and incensed nation.” The British envoy in utter confusion announced blood money of 10000 rupees for the ringleaders of mutiny, which neither weakened the Afghans nor allured people to kill them.

Thirdly, Macnaghten started plotting and win over some notables and when Afghans became aware of the plot, it resulted into his death. The British destroyed Kabul old bazaar and Shah Shauja’s son was crowned as new king as his father was killed by Afghans. Barely three months after British forces departure Shauja’s son was murdered and fearing anarchy British released Dost Mohammad unconditionally, whom they had deposed on such a heavy cost.

Back to the American strategy, Thomas L. Friedman wrote in New York Times on November 9, 2001, “Is America the Titanic and Pakistan the iceberg we’re about to hit while searching for Osama Bin Laden in the fog of Afghanistan? Or is Pakistan the Titanic; its President Pervez Musharraf [Zardari] the captain; America the only passenger; and Afghanistan the iceberg we are about to hit? Every spring brings new miseries to Afghans as fighting renews in the country and given the realignment and positioning of militants one could say this year is going to one of the worst.