international analysis and commentary

Obama, Afghanistan, and the trust deficit

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Trust is a fashionable concept, and a valuable commodity, in these days of financial crisis. Without restoring it, we are told, markets will not start working again.  US foreign policy has been increasingly plagued by similar problems. Compared to the previous administration, Obama has been quick to realize that America cannot go it alone when it comes to its security and has set, in his first 100 days as President, to rebuild trust between the US and the world. By adopting a consultative approach to international problems, reaching out to Muslims, denouncing torture, deciding to close Guantanamo and above all showing the willingness to “listen” rather than “lecture”, President Obama’s efforts to restore confidence in US leadership have been remarkable thus far. Indeed the new strategy for Afghanistan has been devised taking a more “comprehensive” approach to the war. Along with shoring up military might and civilian aid in the country, President Obama has recognized that success will be elusive if he does not engage vigorously with friends and foes alike. While this is indeed a welcomed “change” of direction from the previous administration, using different rhetoric and devising new policy is the easy part. Implementation is where things start to get tough and President Obama will need to figure out sooner rather than later whom he can actually trust, and whom he can count on for help on the ground.

Iraq was America’s war, Afghanistan is not. To his merits President Obama has been quick to understand this. He clearly has realized that, just by pouring in more and better resources both militarily, to hunt down al Qaeda suspects, and aid, to win hearts and minds, will not do much unless the regional, as well as internal, dimensions of the conflict are addressed in parallel. His appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special “AfPak” Envoy has been a recognition that without Islamabad’s cooperation, there is no solution to the festering wound of Afghanistan. Yet can Obama really count on Pakistan to deliver? The relationship between Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, and the Taliban is a longstanding one and difficult to break. Calls have repeatedly been made for the army to suppress the neo-Taliban insurgency on Pakistan’s Western tribal frontiers, but it seems rather reluctant to intervene with the necessary resolve. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is mired in corruption and internal quarrels with his political opponents. The result is a weak government which appears unable to pressure its army into taking decisive action. Mistrust between the US and Pakistan, epitomized by the army’s disinterest in taming the rise of Islamist extremists (terrorists and Taliban alike) in the tribal areas, has forced the US to continue its unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan. With dubious results though, as these do as much to kill al Qaeda suspects as fuelling internal discontent and contributing to the country’s slide towards “talibanization”.

Pakistan is ambivalent about crushing the Taliban insurgency for a further and well-known reason: its rivalry with India reaches right into Afghanistan itself. First, the Pakistani army is not trained for counterinsurgency operations fighting fellow Muslims to the West, having been designed since its establishment to confront the Indian arch rival and its conventional army to the East. Secondly, and most importantly, it still sees the Taliban as a strategic asset against the threat of being encircled by India. Both countries seek control over Kabul as a strategic means to curtailing the other’s regional influence. India’s heavy investments in Afghanistan, highly welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, are seen with suspicion in Islamabad. Given this scenario, the issue for Obama is how long will he be able to keep the Indians at bay in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The attacks were an attempt, and a successful one for that matter, by extremist groups within Pakistan to further shift the army’s attention away from the tribal areas. Both countries have moved troops towards their shared border and tensions have once again dangerously escalated.

Taking less of an ideological posture than his predecessor and injecting into US foreign policy a desperately needed dose of pragmatic realism, important overtures were made during a recent donor conference in the Hague to increase collaboration with Iran. Washington and Teheran share a common interest in a stable, Taliban-free and opium-free Afghanistan. Compared to Pakistani and Indian meddling, so far Iran’s influence has been largely positive. It has funded numerous development projects and has been an active economic investor in the country’s recovery. Its contribution is most visible in the now stable Western provinces of Afghanistan where business is thriving and infrastructure is good. Herat, for example, is said to be the only city with 24-hour electricity. Yet is not clear how much influence Obama is willing to concede to Tehran over its Eastern border given the worrisome growth of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Cooperation may not be free and there is a risk that it will be exploited by Teheran as an important bargaining chip in its nuclear negotiations. While there may be some space for positive engagement, it is unlikely to taper after three decades of mistrust between the two countries.

Surely, at least, the European allies can be counted upon to do more in Afghanistan. Or so the new administration hoped. Following endless meetings with European leaders in April – in London for the G20, Strasburg for NATO, and Prague with the EU – Obama left the Old Continent with a suitcase stacked with laudable words but rather empty in substantial contributions. Finally as resources start pouring into shoring up Kabul, by training and expanding Afghanistan’s army and injecting fresh aid to strengthen the government, doubts persist on whether they will achieve any durable results. Criticism have been endlessly raised over Hamid Karzai’s incompetent and corrupt government and his inability to impose any authority beyond the periphery of Kabul. Facing the prospects of reelection in August, he has also been more than happy to shore up his credentials by playing on anti-American sentiments.

Obama has been ambitious and the net has been cast as wide as possible to include everyone. In these first 100 days, he has gone a long way in restoring international standing and worldwide trust in the US. The new administration has a new and comprehensive strategy to rescue the war in Afghanistan from failure. What is most promising is the understanding that, no matter what, American cannot win alone. It is unlikely though that all the good will that the new President has generated can be translated into results on the ground. As support from allies and cooperation from adversaries will not materialize as hoped, the time will come for tough decisions and hard choices on who America can really trust to deliver. Whether it is the ambiguous Pakistani army, the weak Zardari, the irate Indians, the rival Iranians, the reluctant Europeans, or the corrupt Karzai, coming to grips with this dilemma will be key to America’s success in Afghanistan.