Limits of military strategy

Winston Churchill once said that the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing – once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Published: Thu 23 Dec 2010, 10:30 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:18 AM

The outcome of the Obama administration’s latest review of Afghan strategy seems to support that acute observation. The review marked an effort to continue with a military option rather than face up to the only viable way to end America’s longest war – by seeking a negotiated settlement.

The conclusion of the much-awaited review announced by President Barack Obama deferred, for later, the strategic decision about how to bring the conflict to closure choosing instead a course that promises intensification of the war effort and expansion of drone strikes in Pakistani territory.

The review did not resolve the tension at the heart of present US strategy – between acknowledging there is no military solution and pursuing an overwhelmingly kinetic approach to secure its goals.

Even though the summary of the review’s findings indicated that present “civilian and military efforts must support a durable and favourable political resolution of the conflict” including Afghan-led reconciliation, no strategy to achieve this was spelt out. Nor was it explained how military escalation would lead to that goal.

President Obama said that the military surge he ordered a year ago to fight the Taleban and defeat Al Qaeda was making progress. Al Qaeda had been weakened and the Taleban momentum arrested in much of Afghanistan. While these gains were “fragile” and “reversible”, the US was “on track” to meet its goals and “setting the conditions” for a “responsible reduction” of military forces from Afghanistan next July. The scope and pace of the troop pullout were left vague. President Obama reaffirmed the timetable to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014 announced at last month’s Nato summit in Lisbon.

The review’s upbeat assessment was at odds with two classified US intelligence reports by the CIA and 15 other agencies that offered a grimmer outlook and cast doubt on the effectiveness of military action in southern Afghanistan. It also conflicted with ground realities reported by independent observers.

Presenting what seemed at best isolated, tactical gains as proof of the strategy being “on track” raised the all-important question: on track to what? The review sidestepped whether progress was being made on governance and how military gains could endure or extend beyond where Nato forces are concentrated without a political settlement.

The review raised more questions than offered answers. Its findings seemed aimed at fashioning a narrative of progress to both convince a war-weary American nation that Washington was not losing the war as well as to offer the justification for the drawdown to begin in July 2011.

The review endorsed a course of military escalation which does not square with Washington’s aim of creating conditions that would urge the Taleban to the negotiating table. It is not military but political conditions that need to be created to provide diplomatic space for dialogue in pursuit of a settlement. The military campaign underway in Afghanistan is further alienating the civilian population, exacerbating tensions with President Hamid Karzai and providing a recruiting tool to the Taleban. Persisting with this strategy undermines rather than enhances the chances of “a durable and favourable political resolution”, given that the war cannot be militarily won.

The prospect of escalating violence in Afghanistan held out by President Obama’s reaffirmation of his surge strategy will increase Islamabad’s unease with the US approach as also with the rising demands that flow from it. Pakistan wants to see an early end to the Afghan conflict whose spillover has had such destabilising consequences for the country.

That is why Pakistani officials have urged a different approach during consultations between the two countries ahead of the review. Pakistan’s preferred option is for the US to throw its weight behind President Karzai’s reconciliation plan and embrace the idea of a negotiated settlement.

Pakistan has advocated a three-phase, sequenced Afghan-led process to secure a political resolution of the conflict. The first phase should aim at a reduction or de-escalation in violence to create the space for peace efforts. This should set the stage to persuade the Taleban to renounce or disavow Al Qaeda, which is deemed to be the most important strategic goal. The objective of securing acceptance of the Afghan Constitution can follow later in a process that allows the Afghan parties to discuss modifications.

There continue to be differences among various stakeholders about the modalities for a peace process. But Pakistan’s desire for a political resolution is consistent with President Karzai’s publicly stated preference. Most Afghans have come to believe that only a diplomatic resolution can end the war.

During the recent visit of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani to Kabul, the Afghan President was told that Islamabad was willing to play a role in his reconciliation effort but only when asked to do so and once there was clarity on this from both Kabul and Washington. Many Nato countries too would like to see moves toward a peace process.

It remains open to question whether Washington can be persuaded that slowing the tempo of military actions will accelerate a political settlement and not the other way around. For now it appears set to pursue a military-centered approach rather than forge a political strategy designed to achieve a negotiated peace.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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