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    South Asia
     Jun 29, 2011

Push and pull in Obama's withdrawal
By Dinesh Sharma

United States President Barack Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending in 33,000 surge troops in late 2009 was a brave and calculated move. The once anti-war candidate and Noble Peace Prize winner transformed himself into a wartime president after much deliberation. This was vintage Obama, slow, studied and a measured decision-maker, with input from everyone on his team, as Bob Woodward described in Obama's War.

This was one of the most critical decisions of his presidency, many political pundits declared. "Obama now faces a challenge that has confronted other transformative leaders in previous generations. To paraphrase Robert Frost, is Obama going to take the path less traveled? Will he succeed in bringing peace to the Afghan valley? Or, will he be mired by the same obstacles that crippled Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria's loyal soldiers, and

Leonid Brezhnev's comrades? The AfPak strategy may cast a long shadow on Obama's leadership and presidency," I blogged on the Daily Kos. [1]

Now, his decision to bring the troops back home, with the explicitly defined mission already achieved, is indeed another major milestone. A noble retreat or a calculated gamble to please every voting block for the 2012 election pundits are asking on both sides of the political divide?

"When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban's momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country," Obama said on June 22. Now, we may be moving from a counter-terrorism mission to a counter-insurgency mission, although the messaging on this point may not be very clear; to be sure, it is a well thought out decision, as Arturo Munoz of the Rand Corporation suggested to this correspondent in a recent interview.

Afghanistan has been "the graveyard of empires", as Seth Jones at Rand, a Santa Monica-based think-tank, has described in great detail. Obama is aware of history from Alexander the Great to George W Bush. Most of all, America does not want to get mired inside a country that is by all accounts hard to govern and even harder to occupy for long; it is politically decentralized, tribal, fractious, and full of difficult rugged terrain. The political and economic will for the Afghan war has been falling not just in the US but all across Europe.

If you are looking for a catchy headline, here it is: "You could say that the West is retreating from Afghanistan," said Munoz. This is what will happen effectively with the 2014 deadline when US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces pull out.

"Even in the estimate of the West's own specialists and institutions, 'nation-building' in Afghanistan has been flawed in its very conception. It has so far produced a puppet president dependent for his survival on foreign mercenaries, a corrupt and abusive police force, a 'non-functioning' judiciary, a thriving criminal layer, and a deepening social and economic crisis," according to Tariq Ali of the New Left Review in London.

Ali, who sits politically to the left of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has been part of the "professional left" for many years; recall, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs chiding the left before the 2010 mid-term elections. Will the progressive left feel sufficiently empowered now that Obama has finally delivered what he promised in Afghanistan? Unfortunately, Obama could not have pulled out of Afghanistan fast enough for the progressives to be happy.

However, Obama has burnished his foreign policy credentials significantly during the Afghan mission: He has surged, pushed the enemy back, killed the public enemy number one (Osama bin Laden), and is now bringing the troops back home. After 10 years, the battle has seemingly been won, even while "the Great Game" continues.

To the consternation and dismay of many of his opponents on the right, who still accuse him of bowing to foreign kings and hanging around with dictators, Obama could not have done better by executing what Ali and others accused him of in the book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, that is, following Bush's war policies except with more precision, exactness and rapidity.

As Stephen Carter has accurately documented in The Violence of Peace, while Obama's foreign policy may have changed towards Afghanistan, to the disappointment of many of his supporters he did not alter the American way of war.

What has not been demonstrated at least thus far is whether America's Armed Humanitarians, as Nathan Hodge calls them in a book with the same name, can hold down peace in the region. This is the other half of the mission not yet accomplished; that is, planting the rosebuds of peace in a region that has been ravaged by decades of war.

Many of Obama's critics claim that he is bringing the troops home for political gains. Is Obama a "pragmatic idealist" or a "naive realist"? The debate will continue. It is clear that Obama can think from both sides of his brain; even US statesman Henry Kissinger conceded this to CNN's Fareed Zakaria when asked about Obama's leadership style.

Kissinger said, "He believes that you can sweep the world with the power of ideas, but he actually looks at the world and sees what is actually happening," a pragmatic public thinker walking in the shoes of an American president, as historian James Kloppenberg has described Obama [2].

We don't know how Obama's calculated, yet noble gamble to bring about peace in the AfPak region will pay off. Here is the timeline of how it should happen in the coming years, according to Munoz: 5,000 to 10,000 of the estimated 100,000 troops should begin coming home immediately; these are essentially the non-combative "support units". Theoretically, this will not have a huge impact on the fighting during the 2011 season.

Then, 33,000 will return home in 2012 by the end of the summer, which means they have essentially one-and-a-half seasons to fight in the field until May or June of 2012; this may have an impact on the fighting next year. An estimated 67,000 to 70,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan until 2014, at which point according to the NATO deadline, all troops except an "advisory mission" consisting of estimated 30,000 troops will stay in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is wagering that by 2012 and no later than 2014 the Afghan National Army can effectively patrol its own security, maintain a semblance of law and order, and hold a functioning government in place.

There is no predictive model that can determine the future with certainty, but with adequate advisory resources, manpower and guidance we can shape a new destiny for the Afghan people.

As Bing West, a former US Marine and president Ronald Reagan adviser in his book The Wrong War has suggested, as long as Americans do the fighting the Afghans will hold back. We need to let the Afghans fight their own battles; they are good at it.

The evidence on the development aid spent during the past 10 years is also encouraging, according to Rand's Munoz, with clear signs of improvement in education and health when compared with internal benchmarks or those from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
After the 2014 deadline, there will certainly be a power vacuum in the AfPak region, with all of the neighboring countries vying for geopolitical and strategic advantage; China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia and Uzbekistan are already jockeying for position.

Another chapter in the Great Game will commence, this time not just with oil pipelines and open seaports in mind, but about the recently discovered vast mineral riches worth an estimated $1 trillion to be mined; perhaps, these new-found treasures will be sufficient enough to transform Afghanistan's economy from within rather than relying on development aid or the illicit drug trade to jump-start growth.

1. Obama’s AfPak Dilemma: The Man Who Would Be King Or A Noble Peacemaker?
2. The president as a public intellectual Asia Times Online, April 22, 2011.

Dinesh Sharma is a regular contributor to Asia Times Online and author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President (ABC-CLIO/Praeger, 2011).

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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