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Obama's 'Fresh Start' In Afghanistan, Pakistan Faces Many Challenges

  • Abubakar Siddique
  • Ron Synovitz

U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama (left) met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul during the campaign in July.

U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama (left) met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul during the campaign in July.

The fight against militant extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is one of the major foreign policy and security challenges facing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, and campaign insiders say his administration plans to reassess U.S. strategy on the region as one of its first priorities.

The conflicting views of U.S. and Afghan officials, regional analysts, and Obama advisers on the issue reveal the difficult decisions that are going to face the new president when he takes office on January 20.

During his campaign, Obama promised to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months and transfer many of those soldiers to the Afghan theater.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author who has followed developments in the region for more than three decades, says an increase in U.S. troops alone will not resolve the complex crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rashid tells RFE/RL that any new strategy developed by Obama's administration should aim for a comprehensive regional settlement.

"I think Obama is much more open to a new strategy and a new policy. And I think that has to take the shape of, first, a regional approach to ending the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Rashid says. "That means bringing in the neighboring countries: Iran, India, and the five Central Asian states, and then resolving some of these regional problems -- like the disputes between India and Pakistan, between Iran and the Americans, between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"[It also means], at the same time, reallocating resources, troops, money, [and] aid in a much better and more comprehensive way than what we have seen so far from the Bush administration."

'Fresh Start Needed'

Washington-based South Asia analyst Marvin Weinbaum, who helped advise Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan during the campaign, says there undoubtedly will be a reassessment of U.S. policy under the Obama administration.

Weinbaum says he is confident that the reassessment will lead to policies that do not follow those of the Bush administration -- policies which he calls the "fresh start needed" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He says he still expects Obama to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But he says a new U.S. approach also will likely include attempts to negotiate and seek compromise where it is possible.

There is a consensus, even in the American military, that there is no, strictly speaking, military solution.
"There is a consensus, even in the American military, that there is no, strictly speaking, military solution. It is one which may involve the military in order to be in a position to negotiate without having to concede surrender to your enemy," Weinbaum says. "What you seek to do by a broader approach -- it's got to include better government in Afghanistan. It's got to include changing for the better people's lives. But it is never going to be enough for some people. And you want to marginalize those people. This is the only way that it can be done."

Rising violence in Afghanistan during the past two years already has compelled the Pentagon to reconsider its strategy.

Eric Edelman, the Bush administration’s undersecretary of defense for policy, told RFE/RL recently that the Pentagon is studying lessons from successful counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.

In particular, Edelman says a key to the success of the so-called "surge" operation in Iraq was the way the U.S. military worked together with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province against Al-Qaeda militants. But he says the insurgency in Afghanistan is far more complex than in Iraq.

"While some of the elements of tribal engagement that were used in Iraq -- like the Anbar Sheiks and the Sons of Iraq -- may be relevant to Afghanistan, it will have to be applied with some care," he says. "But clearly, engaging tribal leaders and making accommodations and bringing over those who can be reconciled from the other side is important. Tribal engagement and local accommodation certainly will be part of the solution. But we will have to figure out exactly how to apply it."

'Outsourcing' Security

But Christine Fair, a senior political analyst at the RAND Corporation who recently toured Iraq, says she has strong doubts about copying the Anbar model in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fair says the arming of Sunni militias in Iraq to fight against Al-Qaeda militants has had unintended consequences. She says some of those empowered by the U.S. policy now want to impose their conservative world view on locals.

"There is a whole lot of discussion [in Washington] about arming [tribal] militias in Afghanistan, for example, [and] arming the [ethnic Pashtun] tribes in [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas]," she says. "My understanding is that the Pakistanis are going to pursue such a strategy and, of course, with American support.

"I am an opponent of this because it never works. In fact, in the case of Afghanistan, we are where we are today because we choose to outsource securing Afghanistan to [people who are] basically warlords. There is no reason to believe that it will be successful, except in a very short-term definition of success."

The body of an Afghan civilian allegedly killed by a coalition air strike is carried away for burial in Helmand Province on October 17.
In Afghanistan, the deaths of hundreds of civilians in U.S. air strikes is an issue that continues to undermine popular support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Hours before Karzai welcomed Obama's victory, a U.S. air strike killed almost 40 civilians in a village in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

Such incidents have piled domestic political pressure on Karzai, who is running for reelection next year. And that has compelled Karzai to demand that the Obama administration review the U.S. military's heavy reliance on air strikes to fight militants in Afghanistan.

"For now, I will demand from the next American president that the war against terrorism should not be fought in the Afghan villages," Karzai said. "Therefore, the use of aerial bombing, which often results in civilian casualties and destruction of Afghan life and property, cannot produce tangible results.

"Going after their sanctuaries, their safe havens, training centers, and stopping those who train them and are funding them and are sending them to [kill the international forces] and Afghans. That is the way to move forward."

'Redefine' War On Terrorism

Such perceptions are widely reflected across Afghanistan's political spectrum.

Shukria Barakzai is an outspoken member of Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament. She says Obama must do more than appraise the U.S. military and political strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She says Obama also must redefine fundamental concepts in the war against terrorism.

"I don't think that America will win the war against terrorism with the ongoing military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Barakzai says. "First, they should define the terms 'terrorism' and 'terrorist.' Then, with the help of governments and nations, they should configure a transparent mechanism to combat it."

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (right) walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during their meeting on July 20.
Still, Obama's election victory has given many Afghans hope for a domestic political transformation.

Wahid Muzda, a Kabul-based Afghan analyst, says the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan so far has been misguided because it has been centered on the notion that military force can bring peace to the war-weary country.

Muzhda says it will be the job of Afghan leaders to convince Obama's administration to take a new approach.

"Now that a new person will occupy the White House, it will be depend on our leaders how to benefit from this situation," Muzhda says. "The war was being fought in Afghanistan. But Pakistan profited from it as it got more aid and resources and turned this whole situation to its advantage. Our leaders were not paying any attention to this and they were only concerned with filling their pockets.

"I hope that the [presidential] elections in Afghanistan [next year] will deliver a leader who is concerned for the Afghans and can exploit the prevailing situation to their advantage."

Weinbaum agrees that there are great expectations in Afghanistan for the Obama administration. The ability to gradually restore political stability in the complex scenario ultimately will define success or failure for Obama's future policies.

"I think the best we can hope for over the next year is that things become stabilized," Weinbaum says. "We see evidence here of a reconciliation process begun. We've got to follow up any kind of military successes with the kind of policies that are going to sustain successes.

"What is important here is that there is a new American administration. There is an opportunity here for people to take a fresh look at the United States and what it stands for and what its objectives are in the region. What President-elect Obama can do is to inspire people to see the United States at its very best. We've lost that moral edge that we had for a long time."

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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