Themes of Obama’s terror policy in Afghanistan

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by Rajkumar Singh 25 July 2019

Keeping in view a variety of factors President Barack Obama in an interview in February 2009, admitted that the US had lost focus of its goals in Afghanistan and therefore, needed a set clear policy objectives before coming up with a plan to bring American troops home. The new strategy was unveiled on 27 March 2009, amid growing concerns about a strong and resurgent Taliban and a faltering war on terror. As per an estimate,  the Taliban holds a permanent presence in 72 per cent of Afghanistan, up from 54 per cent until a year ago. The President has described the border region on the most dangerous place in the world; his new strategy identifies as the core goal of the United States–the dismantling, disruption, and defeat of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and prevent their return to either country in the future.

New assertive policy of Obama

The new strategy has admitted a failure on the part of the US of having diverted vital resources from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq. To counter the situation, the US administration had proposed to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to bolster counter–insurgency operations especially in the south and east of Afghanistan where the Taliban were the strongest. But many officials believed that simply sending in more troops to Afghanistan is likely to achieve little unless there were concomitant attempts to capture the Taliban leadership operating out of Pakistani territory, freeze the  group’s funding sources and blockade the Taliban’s supply routes into Afghanistan.

Earlier, as a part of its new strategy in Afghanistan, the US appointed the former US Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke as its special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan to draw up and discuss the implementation of a ‘comprehensive strategy’ to neutralise militancy and extremism in South Asia through a broader regional engagement. The envoy after a visit to the region, in an interview, described the tour as part of a ‘new, intense, engaged diplomacy’ aimed at looking at the challenge of Afghanistan and Pakistan within a larger regional context and moving towards an involvement of other countries to ‘stabilise an incredibly volatile region. But on war against terror the Obama Administration remained active and assertive. It employed an additional 17,000 troops committed to Afghanistan and greater air strikes against alleged terrorist enclaves in Pakistan, which in turn, will continue to produce further retaliatory attacks in Pakistan. The CIA’s predator drone programme was expanded in the new regime which has also decided to reach of the war on terror by striking deeper. In addition with a view to larger strategic design an additional 4,000 troops were sent to Afghanistan to train Afghanistan’s Army and police force in order that they may be able to gradually take on the responsibility for Afghanistan’s security.  The US aimed to build up the strength of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to 1,34,000 and that of its police force to 82,000 by 2011.

Apprehensions  about Pakistan

However, several policy–makers and experts were still doubtful about the attacking capability of terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and warned the US administration of the menace posed by its rise in Pakistan and the role it could play in threatening the world with terror attacks. The US law makers on 11 March 2010, urged the Obama Administration to press Pakistan to crush LeT-a Pakistan-based militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and more recently suspected in a deadly attack against Indians in Afghanistan. Gary Ackerman, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia said, ‘The LeT is a deadly serious group of fanatics. They are well financed, ambitious and, most disturbingly both tolerated by and connected to the Pakistani military’. Apart from this senior Republican law maker Dan Burton, Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation and Martin G. Weinbaum, noted scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute have equally considered the LeT as a growing clout and stressed for its dismantling and elimination.They felt that either the US will have to compel Pakistan to initiate action against LeT or hold Pakistan responsible for the actions of its proxies. However, after the death of Osama bin Laden the US President announced the withdrawal of US and allies forces in a phase-wise manner that also changed American attitude towards the war against terror in Afghanistan.

Changed US attitude

From all accounts from President Obama’s declaration it was clear that the US has accepted the Taliban as being a part of the Afghan nation and concluded that it does not threaten America’s homeland security. According to Obama’s time-line for drawdown-10,000 troops by end-2011, 33,000 by mid-2012 and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 troops at a “steady pace” through 2013-14. With the announcement Obama hoped optimism about the peace process. He estimated that Al-Qaeda is a spent force and any residual war on terror will be by way of exercising vigilance that it does not rear its head again. Besides this, the biggest challenge in Afghanistan is to end 35 years of civil war and no peace deal in Afghanistan will stick unless the era of outside interference by its neighbours comes to an end. Only talks among all the Afghan stakeholders and parties including the Taliban, can do that. The Americans cannot control the outcome but they should not impede it either. Therefore, Obama’s support for a ceasefire and negotiations on a full withdrawal of US and other foreign troops would be his best contribution to getting the comprehensive settlement that Afghans desperately need and want.