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John Metzler Archive
Friday, April 3, 2009

Obama's challenge: The looming AfPak Pandora’s box

UNITED NATIONS — The International Conference on Afghanistan held in the Hague had all the trappings. The UN officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a score of Foreign Ministers, the green-robed Afghan President Hamid Karzai were all there. And indeed the Conference-speak had the rights words too; partnership, rule of law, political accountability, transparency, etc. The UN’s Special Representative Kai Eide candidly stated, “We must push aside the atmosphere of doom and gloom which sometimes overshadows the important progress we are now seeing.”

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The Afghan crisis is fast evolving into a regional threat not just for beleaguered Afghanistan but for neighboring Pakistan as well. And there’s little doubt that Pakistan, through its longtime and shadowy support to Islamic fundamentalists, has been part and parcel of the problem. U.S. General David Petraus recently commented, “Many Pakistani leaders remain focused on India as Pakistan’s principal threat, and some may even continue to regard Islamic extremists groups as a potential strategic asset.”

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) group, has long been the puppet master for a gaggle of Islamic fundamentalist groups, ranging from the Taliban inside Afghanistan, to jihadis in Indian-administered Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier, to the very core of the Pakistan nuclear-armed military establishment. ISI has often been a shadow force inside the Pakistani military.

While it’s a truism to say that throughout history, the Afghans have defeated invaders from the British to the Soviets, that does not mean the future is predestined. The country does have a genuinely elected government and new elections are slated for August .Nor does it mean that the Administration’s new Afghan strategy, despite its fanfare and its wowing of Washington circles, is destined to succeed despite the heroism and combat-effectiveness of the U.S. military.

AfPakia as the Administration likes to call this rough and untamed mountainous region, remains a witches brew confronting the USA and the international community. But by treating the area regionally we are figuratively adding a new piece to the puzzle, and realistically deploying more American and presumably European troops to the zone. By ramping up U.S. military forces from 38,000 at the start of his Administration to nearly 60,000 in the next months, Barack Obama is taking a calculated risk that he can turn the tide from recent Taliban gains. There’s a probability that the American numbers will be ramped up to 70,000 by next year. Training the Afghan national army remains a priority.

The American troops are part of a NATO force in country under an original 2001 mandate. There are forty Ýone contingents with major units from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. European enthusiasm for sending more troops to Afghanistan is lukewarm at best though.

Pakistan’s restive Northwest Frontier provinces remain a lawless region where tribalism, a gun-culture, and minimal government control have created a safe-haven for Taliban, and Al-Qaida terrorists. The area moreover has long hosted millions of Afghan refugees who fled their land during the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s. Following the fall of the Taliban fundamentalist regime, over 4.4 million Afghans returned home; the UN estimates that 2.7 million Afghans still remain refugees in both Pakistan and Iran. In 2008, some 280,000 returned home, but such numbers in a poor region remain destabilizing.

UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon asserted, “We committed ourselves to clear priorities and well-defined principles of aid effectiveness, including transparency of assistance… today we meet for a different purpose: to show our political support…with renewed vigor to Afghanistan’s stability and recovery.”

Ban stated poignantly, “We cannot afford to fail in this endeavor.”

In Iraq, the military surge in 2007 clearly turned the military tide away from the insurgency, and has since allowed for cautious political progress. Winning Afghanistan is a totally different game. First off, Iraq had a much better educated population, infrastructure, and through its petroleum resources, an opportunity for economic development and eventual success. Afghanistan is after all, a loosely organized tribal quilt, a political patch work of warlords, tribes, and drug barons. Narcotics remains the principal export according to the UN. Supplanting drugs with agricultural substitutes or a handicrafts industry is just not going to happen.

The Obama Administration’s AfPak Strategy appears reasonable for the medium term, but for Afghanistan itself. The risky future challenges will come from the untamed frontier tribal areas and probably see a spillover of more violence and chaos into Pakistan proper unwittingly opening the lid of the Afpak Pandora’s box.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for
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