Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010: the year of living incrementally?

December 31, 2009

another barack obamaOne of the labels being attached to President Barack Obama is that he is a committed incrementalist - an insult or a compliment depending on which side of the political fence you sit, or indeed whether you believe it to be true.

A couple of articles on U.S.-led strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan fill out what that could mean going into the new year.

Rory Stewart writes in The New York Review of Books that a measured, long-term strategy for Afghanistan could be more effective than either extremes of a drive for victory at all costs and precipitate withdrawal. Here’s an excerpt:

“Obama’s central – and revolutionary – claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, “we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.” Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons—doing “whatever it takes” and “whatever it costs”—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don’t have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

“The US must husband its resources to meet other strategic challenges. Obama’s description of these is still narrowly focused on failed states and terrorism: it does not include the threats posed by states such as China or Russia, still less Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, or Kashmir, and it does not attempt to compare the conflict in Afghanistan to the risks posed by climate change or threats to the supply of food in poor nations. But he names Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as posing challenges. The US responsibility to the Afghan people is only one responsibility among many and “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

 The Boston Review carries a series of articles from experts debating the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Among them, Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point about the need for the United States to juggle competing challenges and demands on its resources, among them climate change and the economy:

“Violent anti-Western jihadism—a cause that has about as much prospect of conquering the planet as Soviet-style communism—is not going to define the 21st century. Far more likely to do so is the transfer of power—first economic, then political—from the West to the East, from the Atlantic basin to the heartland of Asia. In that regard, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops shipped to Afghanistan matter less than the hundreds of billions of American dollars shipped each year to China.

“Complicating this transfer of power and creating conditions from which a new era of violent conflict may emerge is the challenge of dealing with the detritus created during the age of Western dominance now ending: weapons of mass destruction; vast disparities of wealth; the depletion of essential natural resources; massive and potentially irreversible environmental devastation; and a culture ravaged by the pursuit of “freedom” defined in terms of conspicuous consumption and unbridled individual autonomy.

“The Long War that President Bush began and that President Obama has now made his own provides an excuse for Americans to avoid confronting these larger matters. A policy of avoidance will not make the problems go away, of course. It will merely advance the day of reckoning that awaits.”

So will 2010 turn out to be a year of “committed incrementalism”? Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies are not exactly known for their incrementalism so such an approach could either empower or marginalise them.  And as Peter Marton at the Ministry of State Failure blog suggests here, they are likely to try to fight against such a shift in the ground rules by provoking, for example, the opening of a new front in Yemen in response to the failed Christmas Day airline attack

An equally intriguing question - and one to be answered in the new year – is how countries in the region will respond to such committed incrementalism. Pakistan has for decades defined its often tortuous relationship with the United States in the framework of a “with us or against us” model, whether it was supporting Washington against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or joining the battle against al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks.   It is a model that many argue has been unhealthy for Pakistan, making it overly dependent on U.S. aid and protection.  Will that change?

Finally, best wishes for the new year to all our readers.

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