Last week US President Barack Obama announced a timetable for withdrawal of 30 000 in Afghanistan.
This has been variously portrayed as defeat or a deliberate move that is part of an overall strategy.
The drawdown is in fact a sign of defeat, but is also part of an overall strategy for the region, much of which goes unsaid, for political reasons. But as such, it exemplifies to the full the Obama doctrine in foreign policy.
This doctrine has three key characteristics. These three qualities have characterised this presidency and are, in part, why some of those who lauded his arrival in the White House are more than a little disappointed.
Firstly, the unashamed pursuit of American interests around the world, as hegemonic as any of his predecessors. Those who had hope in Obama expected something less destructive and unjust than the ruthless pursuit of American interest – so, the escalation of the ‘war on terror’ in Pakistan and Yemen, including the use of extrajudicial assassinations, has shattered their illusions.
Secondly, which distinguishes him from his immediate predecessor, is that he has a far greater awareness of America’s strengths and weakness and hence its capacity to act around the world. Many of his supporters around the world had hoped for a substantial change of policy in the Muslim world, not merely a change in tone and tactics brought about by two military defeats, an economic collapse and the obstacle of anti-American public opinion.
Thirdly, is this regime’s exceptional ability to spin the situation in order to make the best political capital. People in their naïve optimism did not expect that serious decisions on war and peace would be made so cynically, according to the timetable of a presidential election.
Spinning a bad situation
What the White House under Obama lacks in terms of principle, it has surely made up for in terms of the ability to portray a false image and exploit matters for political ends.
Whether Obama’s Cairo speech that promised so much, and delivered so little; or much vaunted the promise to close Guantanamo Bay that has gone unfulfilled till today; or whether it is the statement that America is with the people in the Arab uprisings, made after support for Hosni Mubarak till the eleventh hour, and support for Syria’s Assad and Bahrain’s royal family well beyond that. All of these illustrate a massive gap between rhetoric and substance.
When Obama announced a drawdown of 30 000 troops from Afghanistan, somehow the message came across that the US was withdrawing. It is not. It will still retain 68 000 troops in the region. It is merely withdrawing those used in the ‘surge’. However, the timing of the withdrawal coincides very favourably with next year’s presidential debates. It plays very well with American voters, which most polls suggest significant numbers favour withdrawal of US troop – ranging from 54% [The New York Times / CBS News poll was conducted Feb 2011] to 72% [USA Today / Gallup Jan 2011].
Yet, despite this talk of a ‘position of strength’ America has undoubtedly seen a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan.
Veteran journalist Bob Woodward exposed the admission of defeat, and the subsequent need for an exit strategy in his book ‘Obama Wars’. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding the 30,000 troops in the first place. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”
Woodward quotes Obama as saying “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party“.
US analyst George Friedman wrote in June 2011 “The conventional definition of victory has been the creation of a strong government in Kabul controlling an army and police force able to protect the regime and ultimately impose its will throughout Afghanistan.” By this definition, they are nowhere close.
Those who remember the objectives before ‘mission creep’ started in the Bush era, to disrupt Al Qaeda’s ability to strike at the USA [an absurd idea when one looks at the US’s own analysis of how 9/11 happened, never mind what others thing], can look to Obama’s publicly stated goal that America looks to Kabul running the country and looking after its own security.
This is simply not likely to happen in a way that the administration would have people believe. Karzai is not a master outside his own neighbourhood, and the ‘Afghanisation’ of security is expecting a very basic security force to master what the NATO and ISAF could not.
The administration that has decided on this exit for political reasons has tried hard to put a face-saving spin on the situation. But military leaders in America and Britain, who cried that the ‘job’ had not been done and that victory had not been achieved – but could be, if only they were given the chance and resources – took a shine off this gloss.
Changing tactics to fit the resources
One thing the Obama administration has been swifter than the US military to appraise honestly is America’s current strengths and weaknesses; and the likelihood of creating a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan.
There is no getting away from the fact that the United States was humiliated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if the military leadership were right [and that is a very big ‘if’], it is almost certainly unaffordable politically and financially.
America has still not recovered from the financial crisis of 2008. It has a budget deficit of $1.6 trillion. Credit rating agencies have been sounding warnings about the state of the US economy – though by objective measures other, less powerful States, would have already been downgraded by now.
There is still talk of a dollar crisis on the horizon, which would have monumental consequences of the United States.
What America has done is recalibrate its foreign policy goals within a climate of fewer resources. It has amended its tactics accordingly.
In particular its focus has shifted even away from Afghanistan and onto Pakistan. If Pakistan was the base used to launch its mission in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is now the base to do the reverse.
But the mission is not an overtly military one. It is a covert and altogether more sinister one. Writing in Foreign Policy this month, Senator John Kerry, of the powerful Foreign Affairs Senate Committee said: ‘Now it’s time to focus on the real threat in the neighborhood: the one coming from Pakistan’. He said ‘as our troops shift from the south to the east, their mission should shift accordingly from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism.’
This will rightly alarm people in Pakistan. As CIA chief Leon Panetta moves to the Pentagon and General Petraeus goes to the CIA, America plans to focus even more on Pakistan. It all suggests that the forces destabilising will increase but in a more covert way, and less obvious to the outsider that the United States is engaged in a war within Pakistan.
The commentator Peter Oborne, who has visited both Pakistan and Afghanistan, wrote in the Daily Telegraph saying ‘Incoming defence secretary Leon Panetta’s solution, expounded at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month – to place US military personnel under CIA direction, so their operations can be made secret and unaccountable – is sinister and unconstitutional.’
This is true. But it is also a less costly way to pursue policy interests in Pakistan; and will be less unpopular with the American voter, who will be even less well informed of its government’s actions in the region.
Yet it is not pursuing any fundamentally different strategic objectives than before.
The interests remain unchanged
Afghanistan and Central Asia has long been seen as strategically important for America in controlling World affairs – a matter summarised by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor and an advisor to Obama in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine 15 years ago: “Eurasia is home to most of the world’s politically assertive and dynamic states. All the historical pretenders to global power originated in Eurasia… A power that dominated Eurasia would exercise decisive influence over two of the World’s three most economically productive regions, Western Europe and East Asia…almost automatically control the Middle East and Africa. What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy.” [A Geo-strategy for Eurasia, Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997]
Others have pointed out that the US geological survey of 2007 confirmed untold mineral and energy resources in the region, making this prize more significant than its geostrategic worth.
Yet geology and geo-strategy are in no way mutually exclusive. Brzezinski highlighted as far back as 1997 that America’s future rivals for economic supremacy included China and India who were in this region: ‘The world’s most populous aspirants to regional hegemony, China and India, are in Eurasia, as are all the potential political or economic challengers to American primacy. After the United States, the next six largest economies and military spenders are there, as are all but one of the world’s overt nuclear powers, and all but one of the covert ones.’ Back then, he omitted a resurgent Russia, which he would surely have to include as a regional player now, and one capable of making more than a little mischief.
Add to this that the resources which add to the growth potential of manufacturing countries and growing economies lie on their doorstep. Moreover, Pakistan is a crucial piece in this jigsaw in respect of its relationship with India and China. Cooperation with China in the development of the deep-sea port at Gwadar gives China access to the Arabian Sea, saving a fortune on shipping costs.
The United States sees China as a potential rival but one with whom its own trade relations are dependently intertwined. And although the rising economic giant has in no way shown any proportionate signs of political strength, America has long viewed a strong India as a regional buffer to check China’s political pretensions. This has been one of the reasons America has put huge pressures on the Pakistani government to mend relations with India – in order to create a more stable environment for India; since India’s hostility with Pakistan jeopardises its ability to exploit transport routes for essential energy supplies
Add to this that Pakistan is the only Muslim country with a nuclear defence capability; and that it is a country with growing Islamic sentiments.
A Gallup poll in January 2011 found that a majority of Pakistanis want the government to take steps for the Islamisation of society. The poll found that 67% of Pakistanis want the government to take steps to Islamise society, as compared with 13% responded by saying Pakistan did not need Islamisation (and 20% gave no response).
I will discuss the full significance of this point later – suffice to say, the Islamisation of Pakistan would present America with a series of serious obstacles to its strategy in the region. The likelihood of Pakistan becoming submissive towards a more powerful India would vanish. The use of energy and other resources for its own population – as well as for economic and political strength – would mean a third rival in this most important of regions.
Consequently, for these reasons alone maintaining a strong hold on events in Pakistan is essential for the United States – whether that is by sustaining unpopular governments like those of Musharraf and Zardari; or by making aid ever more conditional on following American policies (for example through the so-called Kerry-Lugar Act); or by putting pressure on the Pakistani military to cooperate in Afghanistan against the wishes of its own population.
Expecting the people of Pakistan to accept unpopular military policies, as well as to change their Islamic sentiments has been destabilising to say the least.
In regards to this last point George Friedman of Stratfor illustrates how serious a dilemma this has been. Describing the tensions that have vexed the Pakistani regime for a decade he writes that back in 2001 ‘they did as much as they could for the United States without completely destabilizing Pakistan while making it appear that they were being far more cooperative with the Americans and far less cooperative with their public. As in any such strategy, the ISI and Islamabad found themselves engaged in a massive balancing act.’
This balancing act has continued until today. US Drone attacks on Pakistan are condemned by the government, but tolerated; US security operatives (private contractors and CIA) seem to have a free license to operate in Pakistan, but this is denied by the regime (the case of Raymond Davies, who killed two Pakistanis and was exposed as an illegal operative yet escaped prosecution, is not an isolated one); the raid that killed Osama bin Laden violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, yet the debate goes on about ‘who knew what and when’.
The pressures on governments and leadership of armed forces of Pakistan to cooperate have been enormous: from Colin Powell’s alleged threat to bomb Pakistan to the stone age and the hard talk of the late Richard Holbrooke – to the conviction within Pakistan that American black-ops are behind a significant proportion of the bombing of civilian areas in the country attributed to ‘terrorism’, in order to manufacture an environment where people accept ‘more’ to be done to deal with ‘extremism’. This ‘more’ has been a mix of de-Islamisation policies, as well as military actions in the FATA region [Federally Administered Tribal Areas].
The idea, commonly held in Pakistan, that this destabilisation is not accidental is not as conspiratorial or paranoid as it seems.
The aforementioned analyst, George Friedman of Stratfor, summarised all of this in his 2009-book ‘The next 100 years, a forecast for the 21st Century’: “The US has had the ultimate aim of preventing the emergence of any major power in Eurasia. The paradox however is as follows – the goals of these interventions was never to achieve something – whatever the political rhetoric might have said – but to prevent something. The United States wanted to prevent stability in areas where another power might emerge. Its goal was not to stabilize but to destabilize, and this explains how the United States responded to the Islamic earthquake. It wanted to prevent a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging. Rhetoric aside the United States has no overriding interest in peace in Eurasia. The United States also has no interest in winning the war outright…the purpose of these conflicts is simply to block a power or destabilize the region, not to impose order.”
This has been the aim of policy under the Obama administration as it was under the Bush administration.
Beyond the liberal world order
All of this could appear extremely bleak for the people of Pakistan. Indeed, if the policies continue thus, unchanged, the future is bleak.
Yet, there is one way out – and it is via the route that every signpost erected by the West and its allies in the region is saying not to go near.
That is the Islamic route.
In his speech in Westminster Hall, Barack Obama acknowledged that emerging economies were fast gaining ground on the United States, and would want more of a say in a world currently dominated by America and Europe. But he made one thing very clear. Even if America is in decline, or if the European project is collapsing, the world order has been made in the image of the West.
The nation state is the accepted model for all countries. The United Nations Security Council decides the law for most of the world [except for its permanent members]. The global capitalist economy is the route by which China, India, Turkey, Russia and Brazil have grown in wealth.
Any new emerging power, however, distant they are from America in terms of a political challenger [which is a very different thing from having economic growth], must develop and grow according to the rules set by America and Europe.
This means that one day, the world looks more to the Lakshmi Mittal’s and Oleg Deripaska’s, than it does to the Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’s for an example of success. It means Muslim countries can improve their lot – for their wealthy and elites, like India, Russia and China have done – and hope that some trickles down to the ordinary citizens. It means that some states – states that have large populations, growing economies and political muscle – will compete over smaller, divided, failing regions in Asia and Africa.
America sees China as a rival, but not yet a threat. China has the largest growing economy of the world – but it is the largest direct investor in the US and as such is helping to support a weakening US economy. It holds over 2 trillion dollars of foreign exchange, and could theoretically cause the US economy to collapse overnight. But its relationship with America – as one of provider and purchaser, as well as debtor and indebted -means that it would be shooting itself in the foot if it did so.
But if, as is feared a powerful Islamic state emerged, it would offer a system that sits outside this cosy, liberal, capitalist order. That is its real power.
It would offer an economy that was built on real commodities and not virtual currency. It would offer a market in trade, with clear rules so that within that framework free trade could emerge – but would prohibit the speculative and casino markets that have caused so much instability. Islamic law would force it to use energy and material resources for its citizens, clashing with the interests of Western energy giants and others. Moreover, it would work to end a foreign military presence in the region.
It is for these reasons the Islamic system is the one they all want to stop emerging. It has little to do with terrorism, extremism etc. but is about controlling what they can, for their interests.
There are those in America who feel they are fighting for religious reasons. But this is not the reason that Friedman says America wants to ‘to prevent a large, powerful Islamic state from emerging’. It is also not the reason that Bush launched the ‘war on terror’; and it is not the reason why Obama’s focus is on Pakistan.
Strangely enough, viewed from this perspective, it is the people of Pakistan and the Muslim world who have the upper hand, if only they realised it, and seized the opportunity for a real change.