Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Obama’s choice: 17,000 extra troops for Afghanistan

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President Barack Obama, in his first major military decision, has authorised the Pentagon to send an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, saying the increase is needed to stabilise a deteriorating situation there.

Obama’s Afghan strategy has been discussed at length, including on this blog (most recently about balancing the need for regional support with the demands of countries like Russia for concessions in return, the military challenges of devising an effective counterinsurgency strategythe views of the Afghan people and Pakistan’s own struggles to contain a Taliban insurgency there.)

But here are a couple of recent articles that are worth reading.

In an article in the Washington Post, headlined “Not Even the Afghans Know How to Fix It”, writer Edward Joseph says that the Afghans cannot agree among themselves what is the best solution for their country. “And there’s the crux of the matter. Because if Afghans don’t know, then neither do we,” he says.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore asks in TomDispatch why there is so little public concern at home about the fate of U.S. troops – many drawn from poorer and immigrant communities in America — sent on repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Holbrooke in Pakistan: a sea change?

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With Richard Holbrooke very much keeping his own counsel about his maiden visit to Pakistan, it’s been hard to assess quite how much change is to be expected from President Barack Obama’s new special envoy.

But a couple of early op-eds suggest that the change might be quite substantial. 

Afghanistan: the Great Name Game

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Afghanistan is beginning to accumulate cliches. If it’s not “Obama’s Vietnam”, then it’s the “graveyard of empires”.  (The British press, never one to be bamboozled by the big picture, says it’s the end of bully beef for the troops.)

It is perhaps a measure of how little people really know about Afghanistan after more than seven years of war that such a complex conflict has to be simplified into labels.  Afghanistan’s history of defeating the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th century certainly lends itself to dramatic comparisons. But they are not entirely accurate. Britain’s failed Afghan campaign in 1838 was not the graveyard of the British empire — it went on to defeat the Sikhs and rule India for another 100 years.  And the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 may simply have accompanied rather than precipitated the collapse of an empire that had been rotting from within years before Soviet troops reached Kabul. 

Of Afghanistan and backpacks

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According to George Friedman from the Stratfor intelligence group the United States should forget the idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan and concentrate instead on covert operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As has become increasingly clear, the administration of President Barack Obama faces a hard time raising its troop presence in Afghanistan without either relying on precarious supply lines through Pakistan or making political compromises with Russia to win its support for using alternative routes through Central Asia.

Afghan supply routes face setbacks in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan

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U.S. efforts to improve supplies for its troops in Afghanistan just had a double setback after militants in northwest Pakistan severed the main supply route for western forces and Kyrgyzstan’s president said the United States must close its military base there.

Militants blew up a bridge on the Khyber Pass, cutting the supply route to western forces in Afghanistan and underscoring the need for the United States to seek alternative supply lines. The U.S. military sends 75 percent of supplies for the Afghan war through Pakistan but has been looking at using other transit routes through Central Asia. Although Washington has been sketchy on the details of its plans, its Manas military airbase near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has so far provided important logistical support for its operations in Afghanistan.  During a visit to Moscow, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the base, opened after the 9/11 attacks.  Bakiyev made the announcement after securing a $2 billion loan and a further $150 million in aid from Russia.

The other Guantanamo

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U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo military prison closed within the year, but what about the detention centre in Bagram, the U.S. military base in Afghanistan, which has an equally murky legal status ?

An estimated 600 detainees are held there, without any charge and many for over six years, rights activists say. That makes it more than twice the number held in Guantanamo, and according to military personnel who know both facilities, it is much more spartan and with lesser privileges as this report in the New York Times says.

Afghanistan and the breakdown of the balance of power

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Keeping track of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan — and the shifting alliances between them — is beginning to feel awfully like one of those school history lessons when you were supposed to understand the complex and tenuous balance of power whose breakdown led to World War One.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the latest to call for a regional solution to Afghanistan when he said this week that the United States and its NATO allies must directly engage with Iran if they are to win the war there. “If we are going to succeed in this game, we need to be playing on the right field,” he said. “And that means a more regional approach. To my mind we need a discussion that brings in all the relevant regional players: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, yes, Iran.”

The scramble for Central Asia

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Central Asia is much in demand these days, whether as a transit route for U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan or for its rich resources, including oil and gas.

So it’s worth noting that India has been hosting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as its guest of honour at its Republic Day celebrations while signing a bunch of trade deals in the process. According to reports in the Indian media, including in the Business Standardthe Week and the Times of India,  India is seeking supplies of uranium for its nuclear plants and access to Kazakhstan’s oil and gas and in return would be expected to support Kakazhstan’s bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation. (India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) said on Saturday it had signed a deal to explore for oil and gas in Kazakhstan.)

U.S. missile strikes on Pakistan : more of the same under Obama or worse to come?

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The first U.S. missiles have struck Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama  took office, dispelling any possibility that he might relent on these raids that have so angered Pakistanis, many of whom think it only engenders reprisal attacks from militants on their cities.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari protested to the U.S. ambassador over Friday’s twin raids in South and North Waziristan and  newspaper editorialists and commentators are worried this is just a foretaste of things to come. The strikes, the first since Jan 2, have led the Dawn newspaper to recall Obama’s statements during the presidential camapaign when he repeatedly said he would “take out high value terrorist targets” inside Pakistan if it was unable or unwilling to do so.

Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

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Earlier this month, I wrote that the brief given to a South Asian envoy by President Barack Obama could prove to be the first test of the success of Indian diplomacy after the Mumbai attacks. At issue was whether the envoy would be asked to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or whether the brief would be extended to India, reflecting comments made by Obama during his election campaign that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would ease tensions across the region.

That question has been resolved – publicly at least — with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of India or Kashmir.

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