In the drama of the runaway general, don’t forget Pakistan

June 23, 2010

mcchrystalOn a visit to Pakistan in April, two comments stayed in my mind, encapsulating the Pakistani view of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.  One was from a political analyst in Islamabad, which stood out for the unusualness of the imagery.  “Obama,” she said, “has tried to put his feet in both boats.”  The other was from a senior serving officer, who appeared to be giving a personal opinion rather than reading from the script prepared for more official briefings.  “The Pashtun areas (of Afghanistan) are slipping out of the hands of ISAF and NATO, and everybody knows it,” he said.

The Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal - the drama aside of firing a top commander in wartime - is remarkable in the extent to which it plays up a similar assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

“Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm,” it says. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” it quotes Major General Bill Mayville, chief of operations for McChrystal, as saying. “This is going to end in an argument.”

In that context, McChrystal’s departure, and the very public washing of dirty linen over the conduct of the war, is unlikely to change the working assumptions Pakistan has about Afghanistan, and in consequence its policy decisions.  And given that Pakistan (nuclear-armed, population 170 million, base for al Qaeda and many other militant groups) is a bigger strategic nightmare for the United States than Afghanistan if it goes wrong, those policy decisions may well count for far more than the fate of a single general.

True, McChrystal had a tendency to say in public what others said in private.  His leaked assessment of the Afghan war last year was one of the first official U.S. documents to note that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.” But him saying that, and indeed for that matter U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke’s insistence that he will never mention the word “Kashmir”, do not change the underlying dynamic.  The Pakistan Army defines its policies according to its perception of a threat from India – and, to keep the time frame in perspective, has done so since 1947 – and that is not going to change overnight. Many analysts, most recently in this RAND Corporation report, argue that Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency will continue to rely on militant proxies it once cultivated to counter India both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan.  Its willingness to help prod the Afghan Taliban into peace talks is seen as at least partly dependent on a reduction of Indian influence in Afghanistan. So this week’s talks between the foreign secretaries and interior ministers of India and Pakistan in Islamabad could ultimately prove to be a more significant turning point – or more precisely, given these things move so slowly, the glimmer of a turning point in the distance.

McChrystal was also one of the first to play up publicly the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban, telling the Financial Times in an interview before the London conference on Afghanistan in January that all Afghans could play a role in the future of the country. But that view has now been echoed by Holbrooke, and the suggestion that the United States might have to negotiate a settlement with its enemies is no longer condemned as heresy in the way it once was.

Arguably the sudden departure of British envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Sherard Cowper-Coles this week  will have a bigger impact on the chances of negotiating a settlement. The British tend to punch above their weight in South Asian diplomacy, and Cowper-Coles, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who was believed to favour talks with the Taliban, was well placed to try to find a way towards a settlement.

But in any case, it is hard to see how McChrystal’s departure could lead to any real change in policy – even if President Barack Obama had wanted to use it as an opportunity to change course. (In the event, Obama said there would be no change in policy and signalled continuity by naming General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, to replace McChrystal.)  Scroll back to last year’s lengthy review of the Afghan war to remember quite how limited the U.S. policy choices were in Afghanistan.  At least one of the arguments put forward was the domino theory – that if Afghanistan were allowed to descend into chaos, Pakistan would follow.  So far there is no real sign of Washington resolving that conundrum – that its troops are in Afghanistan while al Qaeda, and the bigger strategic threat from state collapse, are in Pakistan.

Nor indeed has the Obama administration really resolved the contradictions inherent in the idea of fighting insurgents enough to bring them to the negotiating table.  As Henry Kissinger said of the Vietnam War, “The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory—as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience.”

But none of these many contradictions - from Pakistan’s role as an ambivalent ally to its long-standing rivalry with India to the ground realities of Afghanistan – were ever going to be resolved by bringing in a popular commander.  With McChrystal’s departure, the currents and cross-currents of Pakistan’s own battle with Islamist militants remain.

And as some analysts argued during the strategic review, the United States had to build up its troops in Afghanistan to show it was serious and keep the pressure on Pakistan to tackle militants on its own territory. At the same time, these troops would try to avoid inflaming the situation by following a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy aimed at winning hearts and minds rather than fighting insurgents. In that reading of U.S. policy, the underlying fundamentals of the situation across Afghanistan and Pakistan – far more than the commander on the ground – defined the strategy.

So back to balancing your feet in both boats…


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