Do Obama’s Afghan plans still make sense post-Mumbai?

December 21, 2008

The United States is aiming to send 20,000 to 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan by the beginning of next summer, according to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The plan is not unexpected, and from a military point of view is meant to allow U.S. and NATO troops not just to clear out Taliban insurgents but also to bring enough stability to allow economic development, as highlighted in this analysis by Reuters Kabul correspondent Jon Hemming.

But does it still make sense after the Mumbai attacks — intentionally or otherwise – sabotaged the peace process between India and Pakistan?

As discussed many times on this blog, most recently here, a crucial element of President-elect Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy was to combine sending extra troops with a new diplomatic approach looking at the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region as a whole. The argument was that Pakistan would never fully turn its back on Islamist militants as long as it felt threatened by India on its eastern border and by growing Indian influence in Afghanistan on its western border.  India and Pakistan, so the argument went, should therefore be encouraged to make peace over Kashmir, to reduce tensions in Afghanistan and pave the way for a successful operation by the extra U.S. troops.

Where does that plan stand now? India-Pakistan relations are extremely strained and vulnerable to any second militant attack on India. It’s hard to imagine the two countries sitting down any time soon for serious peace talks, and certainly not at the United States’ behest, given that outside interference on Kashmir has always been anathema to India.

Yet as the Soviet Union discovered during its failed occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, no matter how many troops you send in, you can’t win there as long as the Islamist mujahideen have sanctuary in Pakistan.  The United States knows this too having backed the mujahideen against the Soviets (this being a war that America has fought on both sides), which is presumably why it had begun to look at Afghanistan in a broader regional context.

So have the Americans reverted to a piecemeal approach with this plan to send in the extra troops? Are they just pushing on regardless and hoping for the best, perhaps thinking they have no other choice? Or should they have gone back to the drawing-board post-Mumbai and come up with a different plan?


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