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Some Strategists Cast Doubt on Afghan War Rationale

Some analysts argue that the Obama administration’s battle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is misplaced and will spur the group to become further entrenched in Pakistan.

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(Inter Press Service)

The argument for deeper U.S. military commitment to the Afghan War invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27—that Al Qaeda must be denied a safe haven in Afghanistan—has not been subjected to public debate in Washington.

A few influential U.S. strategists  have been arguing, however, that this official rationale misstates the Al Qaeda problem and ignores the serious risk that an escalating U.S. war poses to Pakistan.

Those strategists doubt that Al Qaeda would seek to move into Afghanistan as long as they are ensconced in Pakistan, and argue that escalating U.S. drone airstrikes or Special Operations raids on Taliban targets in Pakistan will actually strengthen radical jihadi groups in the country and weaken the Pakistani government’s ability to resist them.

The first military strategist to go on record with such a dissenting view on Afghanistan and Pakistan was Col. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine officer and author of the 2004 book The Sling and the Stone, which argued that the U.S. military faces a new type of warfare, which it will be unable to wage  unless it radically reorients its thinking. Hammes  became widely known as one of the first officers to call in September 2006 for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation over failures in Iraq.

Hammes dissected the rationale for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in an article last September on the website of the Small Wars Journal, which specializes in counterinsurgency issues. He questioned the argument that Afghanistan had to be stabilized in order to deny Al Qaeda a terrorist base there, because, "unfortunately, Al Qaeda has moved its forces and its bases into Pakistan."

Hammes suggested that the Afghan War might actually undermine the tenuous stability of a Pakistani regime, thus making the Al Qaeda threat far more serious. He complained that neither presidential candidate “has even commented on how our actions [in Afghanistan] may be feeding Pakistan’s instability."

Hammes, who has since joined the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon contractor, declined to comment on the Obama administration’s rationale for the Afghan War for this article.

Kenneth Pollack, the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, has also expressed doubt about the official argument for escalation in Afghanistan. Pollack’s 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, was important in persuading Washington opinion-makers to support the Bush administration’s use of U.S. military force against the Saddam Hussein regime. Although still an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, at a December 16 Brookings forum, Pollack expressed serious doubts about the strategic rationale for committing the U.S. military to Afghanistan. Contrasting the case for war in Afghanistan with the one for war in Iraq in 2003, he said, it is "much harder to see the tie between Afghanistan and our vital interests."

Like Hammes, Pollack argued that it is Pakistan, where Al Qaeda’s leadership has flourished since being ejected from Afghanistan, which could clearly affect those vital interests. And additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pollack pointed out, "are not going to solve the problems of Pakistan."

Responding to a question about whether U.S. attacks against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan might parallel U.S. efforts during the Vietnam War to clean out the communist "sanctuaries" in Cambodia, Pollack expressed concern about the possibility. "The more we put the troops into Afghanistan," said Pollack, "the more we are tempted to mount cross-border operations into Pakistan, exactly as we did in Vietnam."

Pollack cast doubt on the use of either drone bombing attacks or Special Operations commando raids into Pakistan as an approach to dealing with the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. "The only way to do it is to mount a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign," said Pollack, "which seems unlikely in the case of Pakistan."

Hammes’ and Pollack’s concerns about the war in Afghanistan spilling over into Pakistan parallel concerns in the U.S. intelligence community about the effect of commando raids by Afghanistan-based U.S. Special Operations forces against targets inside Pakistan. As IPS reported on September 9, 2008,
in mid-August 2008, the National Intelligence Council presented to the White House the consensus view of the intelligence community that such Special Forces raids, which were then under consideration, could threaten the unity of the Pakistani military if continued long enough,
Despite that warning, a commando raid was carried out on a target in South Waziristan September 3, reportedly killing as many as 20 people, mostly apparently civilians. A Pentagon official told Army Times reporter Sean D. Naylor that the raid was in response to cross-border activities by Taliban allies with the complicity of the Pakistani military’s Frontier Corps.

Although that raid was supposed to be the beginning of a longer campaign, it was halted because of the virulent political backlash that followed in Pakistan, according to Naylor’s September 29 report. The raid represented "a strategic miscalculation," one U.S. official told Naylor. "We did not fully appreciate the vehemence of the Pakistani response."

The Pakistani military sent a strong message to Washington by demonstrating that they were willing to close down U.S. supply routes through the Khyber Pass .

The commando raids  have been put on hold for the time being, but the issue of resuming them was part of the Obama administration’s policy review. That aspect of the review has not been revealed.

Meanwhile airstrikes by drone aircraft in Pakistan have sharply increased in recent months, increasingly targeting Pashtun allies of the Taliban.

Last week, apparently anticipating one result of the policy review, the New York Times reported Obama and his national security advisors were considering expanding the strikes by drone aircraft from the Tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan to Quetta, Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are known to be located.

But Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism policy specialist at Georgetown University, told the Times that, if drone attacks were expanded as is now being contemplated, Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations might move "farther and farther into Pakistan, into cities".

Byman, who is also the RAND Corporation’s research director on the Middle East, believes that would risk "weakening the government we want to bolster," which he says is "already to some degree a house of cards." The Times report suggested that some officials in the administration agree with Byman’s assessment.

U.S. officials admit that the drone strikes are so unpopular with the Pakistani public that no Pakistani government can afford to appear to tolerate them, the Times reported.

But dissenting views  like those voiced by Hammes, Pollack and Byman are unknown on Capitol Hill. At a hearing on Afghanistan before a subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee Thursday, all four witnesses were enthusiastic supporters of escalation, and the argument that U.S. troops must fight to prevent Al Qaeda from getting a new sanctuary in Afghanistan never even came up.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.


By Gareth Porter, "Some Strategists Cast Doubt on Afghan War Rationale" Right Web with permission from Inter Press Service (Somerville, MA: PRA, 2009). Web location:
http://rightweb.irc-online.org/rw/4996.html Production Information:
Author(s): Right Web
Editor(s): Right Web
Production: Political Research Associates   IRC logo 1310 Broadway, #201, Somerville, MA   02144 | pra@publiceye.org

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