Iraq Lessons for Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Envoy tasked with the daunting mission to reformulate an effective strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has warned that the insurgency in Afghanistan will be tougher to crack than Iraq.

Afghanistan, under the Obama administration in Washington with a shift in focus from Iraq, has become the main front in the US war on terror. Holbrooke, widely regarded for bringing about the Dayton Peace Accords that helped end the war in the Balkans, bears the burden of added expectation stemming from his past career experiences.

Earlier plans of sending additional 30,000 US troops as part of US commander General David Petraeus’ new surge strategy, successfully implemented in Iraq, are now reportedly stalled as President Obama has rightfully called for a more in-depth review of the Afghanistan strategy before taking drastic measures. This development may have arisen out of need to wait for Ambassador Holbrooke’s return from his 10-day tour starting yesterday, to South West Asia that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and a visit to India. Holbrooke, along with a high-profile delegation from the US that included Vice-President Joe Biden, General Petraeus and General James Jones, attended the 45th Munich Security Conference last weekend. The clear signal from the US at the Munich conference was that the changed US foreign policy would focus on diplomacy and call for broader dialogue and wider international cooperation with its partners.

Holbrooke has emphasised the need for greater regional cooperation between neighbouring countries that would include Iran but was particularly mindful of the importance of Pakistan’s role in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. The use of a carrot and stick policy of the US towards Pakistan in the process is obvious with Holbrooke asking for the international community’s “increased assistance and sympathy towards Pakistan,” that he claimed “was in a dire situation.”

On the other hand, the US has conveyed to Islamabad that it will continue with drone strikes against the so-called high value Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, thus totally ignoring the civilian casualties that already have the tribal belt and Pakistani society on the boil. The need to avoid civilian casualties in operations in Afghanistan was also the main thrust of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s address at the conference. Pakistan has expressed hope that the new strategy would be formulated in keeping with the local tradition in both its military component and for the reconstruction efforts aimed at stabilisation and control of restive pockets in conflict areas.

Holbrooke faces a mammoth task in Afghanistan, having to contend with the insurgency, a broader political participation, narcotics production, endemic corruption and lack of good governance. It would be interesting to study the development of the reformulated strategy for the region, especially in view of Holbrooke’s apparent understanding of the ground realities and subsequent commitments needed from the international community to bring peace and stability to the region.

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