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Interpretation Of 'War On Terror' Poses Challenge To Obama

  • Abubakar Siddique

U.S. military vehicles on the streets of western Afghanistan

U.S. military vehicles on the streets of western Afghanistan

With a new administration in Washington, changes in the way the United States and its allies conduct the "war on terror" appear to be on the horizon. Even the term itself may be on the way out.

Influential voices within Barack Obama's administration have hinted at a doctrine of "smart power" as a means of furthering U.S. interests abroad, while Britain's foreign secretary has entirely disowned the phrase "war on terror" and the policies it has come to symbolize.

But beyond the semantics, there is growing debate on past mistakes, how to correct them, and even whether a change in course is needed at all.

Afghanistan, which has been at the center of the "war on terror" since the attacks on the United States that provoked it in 2001, is poised to be the litmus test for any new approach the Obama administration may employ.

In his annual address to the Afghan parliament on January 20 -- just hours before Obama's inauguration -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai shed light on how Afghans now view the effort.

Afghan President Karzai (left, with then-President George W. Bush in December) has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of U.S. operations.
"We welcomed the international community to our soil, we united with them, and we participated in the 'war on terror' for the benefit of Afghanistan and humanity," he told a gathering of lawmakers, foreign diplomats, and representatives of international forces.

Karzai questioned hard the logic of using air strikes and other assertive military tactics to kill or capture insurgents embedded in civilian populations.

"We never complained about the killing of our solders. We did not complained about the killing of our governors. We did not complain about the killing of our ministers. We never complained about the killing of our parliamentarians and senators," Karzai said. "But we do not accept civilian casualties in the war on terror."

Domino Effect

In the recent past, Karzai has frequently urged the West to change its strategies and tactics in the counterterrorism effort so his country does not remain a perpetual war zone.

Seven years ago, there was much hope among Afghans that the U.S.-led international coalition would finally bring peace, stability, and perhaps economic development to their country.

But according to some observers, such optimism was almost immediately tainted when George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" opted to ally itself with anti-Taliban warlords while ignoring Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements that were regrouping in neighboring Pakistan.

Afghan lawmaker Nader Khan Katawazai, whose constituency in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika has been hard-hit by the resurgent Taliban, says aggressive military tactics led the West away from what he believes should have been a greater objective: building a stable political system in the country.

"When [Western forces] first arrived here, they paid little attention to our cultural and religious values," Katawazai tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "They conducted search raids and arrested innocent people."

Katawazi says such tactics have had a domino effect.

Civilian deaths blamed on coalition forces, like this casualty in Helmand in October, have taken a toll on international efforts in Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, they were looking for [terrorists] inside Afghanistan and were bombing villages," he says. "This is a tribal society and those air strikes had [negative] consequences. When a village is bombed, it alienates a tribe. And when a tribe is estranged, you lose a district and even a province."

The Obama administration is publicly aware of such challenge and has made no secret of its plans to make Afghanistan a key piece in its foreign-policy puzzle. Washington insiders tell RFE/RL that Obama has in recent weeks consulted independent Afghan experts to get himself up to speed.

The United States' top military commander in the region, General David Petraeus, has been touring Central Asia and the Middle East as he prepares an Afghan strategy report to be issued in February. In the hours before Obama's inauguration, the commander of U.S. Central Command was holding talks with senior officials in Pakistan, which he views as a "single problem set" with Afghanistan.

Need To Succeed

For Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, the question is not whether policy will change in Afghanistan, but to what extent.

"There is a sense in Washington that [this] might be the time to change the strategy," Tarzi says. "I think one thing we can say for sure is that Afghanistan is becoming more important -- not less -- both in terms of U.S. attention and also commitment; in terms of forces; and also in terms of political engagement."

Tarzi says the debate continues over whether strategy should change or the same strategy should be pursued more emphatically.

"I think, on Afghanistan, we should expect at least an announcement of a direction very, very soon," he adds.

In looking at past failures in the "war on terror," former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali cites the failure of state-building efforts in Afghanistan as a major setback.

Jalali, who is currently a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, says that too few Western troops, an underfunded and poorly coordinated reconstruction effort, and a lack of strategic vision all contributed to letting Afghanistan slip into a downward spiral.

"In fact, the transition of Afghanistan from conflict to peace and stability is a state-building challenge," Jalali tells RFE/RL, adding that "despite the fact that there is a war against terrorism, there is a war against insurgency. But these [efforts] actually should be part of the state-building."

In response to the rapidly deteriorating security situation, a significant increase in Western troop numbers began in 2006, to bring the figure to about 65,000 now, nearly half of them provided by the United States. Nearly half of those U.S. soldiers are under NATO command and engage in limited counterinsurgency battles, but some 18,000 of them operate under a separate command, with the primary responsibility of hunting terrorists.

'Counterinsurgency' Effort

The deployment of even more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is widely expected to be among the first decisions announced by President Obama. Pentagon officials have already indicated that the number of U.S. troops will be doubled with the deployment of 30,000 more troops.

Tarzi of the Marine Corps University says the fight in Afghanistan has evolved into a "counterinsurgency" focused on staving off a resurgent Taliban whose ranks are filled mostly by Afghan and Pakistani fighters drawing their ideological inspiration from Al-Qaeda's global jihadist networks.

That reality, Tarzi predicts, is what the Obama administration will be looking to counter.

But many Afghans think much more is needed to get Afghanistan right. Former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani sees great potential in his country and says the Obama administration will have to reevaluate its priorities and implement new ideas to save Afghanistan from fragmentation and anarchy.

To drive his point home, Ghani says what the U.S. military spends in Afghanistan in a single month could change the destinies of five Afghan generations. "One month of military expenditure from the U.S. side alone is about $20 billion," Ghani tells RFE/RL. "Twenty billion dollars -- spent to build Afghan institutions -- could change the lives of five generations because we could use the money to create the institutions, the capabilities, and the economic dynamism that our people have."

But in times of economic hardship, transforming a distant country might be a lot to expect from a U.S. administration facing enormous foreign and domestic challenges.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghan correspondent Ahmadullah Takal contributed to this report

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