Barring a last-minute change, President Barack Obama will present on Friday, March 27, his new military and political program for an American troop buildup in Afghanistan, the extra forces' missions and a strategy for terminating the war launched in 2001 against global terror.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Islamabad report that this plan leaves many key problems unaddressed because of deep divisions at the top of the administration.
In all, administration pronouncements on Afghanistan and the interconnected Pakistan issue have been inconsistent and unfocused, a sense which has percolated to its higher echelons.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants the new forces deployed to parts of Afghanistan, where the chances are good for evicting Taliban and al Qaeda, such as Helmand Province in the south. He also wants to intensify operations to root them out of the Afghan-Pakistan border belt. Gates is also keen on investing quickly in reconstruction projects for the war-torn country.
But Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, prefers to invest the extra troops in tightening US military control of the capital, Kabul, and its vicinity. Only after Kabul is safe, he believes, should US reinforcements be diverted to more remote parts of Afghanistan.
The general's critics argue that the Petraeus “surge” tactics which succeeded in Iraq and focused on a US troop build-up in Baghdad would not work in Afghanistan where conditions are quite different. But his advocates argue that if the US loses the battle for Kabul, it will not be able to save the remote provinces either.
According to our Washington sources, this tactical argument is not likely to be resolved any time soon. It will accompany the bloody fighting on the battlefield as conditions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to deteriorate.
US denies plan to sideline Karzai
On Monday, March 23, the presidential envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke was embarrassingly cornered when he arrived in Brussels to brief NATO representatives on the Obama administration's plans for the region. He was forced to deny reports published last weekend alleging that Washington was about to appoint a prime minister in Kabul to bypass President Hamid Karzai as de facto ruler of Afghanistan. The reports were put about by interested parties in Washington and Brussels.
Holbrook denied that they reflected “…any views that I am aware of in the government I work for and it's certainly not a universal NATO plan or anything.”
He was talking to the wall. US and British journalists went on to name Afghan figures they claimed were considered for the post, including: Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar; former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani; the governor of Jallalabad province, Gul Agha Shirzai; and Mohammed Halim Fidai, governor of Wardak province.
All were described by the reporters as regional figures with more clout than Karzai.
The Afghan president's spokesman weighed in to dismiss the reports as “nonsense.” He said the post of prime minister is unconstitutional and therefore cannot pass the Jiga Loya, the Afghan parliament – certainly not before the presidential elections scheduled for early August.
The next terror attack: No idea when or where
Obama added to the confusion in his interview Sunday night to the CBS television program 60 Minutes.
Asked to define America's mission in Afghanistan, the president replied, “Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the US homeland and US interests and our allies. That's our No. 1 priority.”
This statement was puzzling because no American intelligence or any other service fighting Osama bin Laden's organization has any notion where al-Qaeda's next major attack on the United States or on any other western target will originate. Preparations may be moving forward at a place or places far from Afghanistan, just as 9/11 was set up in Hamburg, Germany and inside the United States.
And just as in 2001 – and up to the present – Western and Middle East counter-terror agencies have never plumbed the identities of the master planners who designed al Qaeda's atrocity against the United States, so too, eight years later, they have no leads to the masterminds close to bin Laden who may be working at this moment on al Qaeda's next attack.
Obama has picked up the self-congratulatory tone sounded in Washington in the past eight years, which dismisses Bin Laden as a man on the run or isolated in some remote location cut off from his followers. America does not therefore need to actually lay hands on him because he is out of the action.
This supposition may be correct, although it has never been substantiated. No US clandestine agency or commando force has any real knowledge of the al Qaeda leader's real circumstances or whereabouts. The forces combating the jihadist group are shooting in the dark in the hope of hitting a worthwhile target by chance.
After stating his first priority, president Obama went on to say: “So what we're looking for [in Afghanistan] is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy… There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift.”
By these assertions, President Obama laid out five important principles for his Afghanistan policy:
Fight al Qaeda, work with Taliban on exit strategy
One sense of his words is that under the Bush administration and up until the present, the US and NATO had no comprehensive strategy for the Afghanistan war.
Obama omitted mention of the Taliban in his references to Afghanistan. This omission was instantly picked up in Riyadh, Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi as indicating that while continuing to fight al Qaeda, the administration is willing to work with Taliban on a policy leading to the US army ending its mission in Afghanistan. An accord with Taliban is necessary to eliminate the 'sense that this is not perpetual drift'…
This assertion leads to the need for a timetable for the US to pull its troops out of Afghanistan – in the same way as President Obama set a deadline for the US military to withdraw from Iraq.
The difficulty here is that what worked for Iraq is not applicable to Afghanistan.
In Iraq, no NATO units were involved in the US war, except for the British. In Afghanistan, in contrast, Washington is taxed with delivering a victory not only for its own but also for its allies' contingents.
In declaring his search for an exit strategy, he shirked that point.
America's NATO allies can therefore be expected to react by seeking their own exit strategies and turning aside demands for more troops.
In fact, when Holbrooke outlined Washington's new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan in Brussels, he did not ask European Union members for more troops, as the former administration had done, but only for more financial support, which stands around 50 million euros (68 million dollars) a year.
He told the European Commission that more economic aid was needed for Pakistan, according to one unnamed diplomat in on the talks. “We are all very concerned about what is happening in Pakistan. It is a major security issue for everybody, a problem of political stability,” said another diplomat on condition of anonymity.
“It's a zone that's even more sensitive than Afghanistan,” he said.
The Obama administration is now saying that the Afghanistan conflict cannot be resolved without reference to Pakistan because they are interlinked. On the one hand, Obama and his envoys speak of an exit strategy. On the other, they are broadening the conflict to Pakistan.
(Read a separate item to see how Iran views the spread of U.S. military operations to Baluchistan.)
Put differently, the US proposes ending the war on terror in its present incarnation before getting to grips with a new strategy for engaging terrorists to avert what President Obama calls their “capability to attack the US homeland and US interests and our allies” – even though he rates this mission “Our Number 1 priority”.
Taliban grows stronger, Pakistan feared near collapse
This posture might have made sense before the Taliban achieved its big victory this month in seizing control of the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report.
In the face of President Ali Asif Zardari's denials, evidence from Western sources on the spot attests to the Taliban's takeover of this region unchallenged by Pakistani troops. The radical Islamist insurgents are now preparing to launch themselves on additional parts of Pakistan.
A Western intelligence source offered this description: “The capital Islamabad is surrounded by Taliban forces and sympathizers to a degree no less than the Afghani capital Kabul.”
Other reports indicate that “Taliban, al-Qaeda and other radical Muslim organizations are taking over more and more sections of Pakistan's major cities.” They are also increasing their foothold in Baluchistan where the Americans have stepped up their military operations and also in the Punjab.
One Western intelligence source reckons that “the Americans may be too late not just in Afghanistan but in Pakistan too.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report grave concern in Washington that the central government in Islamabad may not weather Taliban pressure and collapse, opening the door for Taliban and al Qaeda to move in rapidly on fresh regions and raising the specter of a Pakistan civil war.
This concern apparently prompted the Obama administration to approach Iran, as we report exclusively in separate articles in this issue.