Muddling Along

American journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book about the White House — Obama’s Wars — has meticulously documented the deliberations involving the current US strategy in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the flurry of newspaper articles preceding its release, Mr Woodward’s book does not contain many sensational revelations. It does retain its importance, though, for at least three reasons.

First, it gives an inside view of the decision-making process of the Obama administration. In this context, the book has several valuable lessons for civil-military relations. Second, it is a historical record: irrespective of the outcome of the Afghan war strategy, it will prove in retrospect to be of enormous value in any study of the motivations, assumptions and processes leading up to key decisions. Lastly, the book provides insights on what to expect in India-US relations under this administration, and on the future of Afghanistan.

As president, Barack Obama comes across as a cerebral, rational and logical decision-maker who is not overwhelmed by his vast civilian, military and intelligence apparatus. Mr Obama seems adept at wielding power and frequently questions military wisdom.

Two anecdotes illustrate this. When asked for options for the United States’ Afghanistan strategy, the civilian and military leadership interprets it as a request for a more detailed justification for a single strategy. The president’s tenacity in forcing his National Security Council (NSC) to debate and refine options in the true sense of the word forces his advisers to tread the fine line between debate and discord and impresses upon them that the ultimate decision-making powers are vested in him.

Similarly, after several rounds of deliberations and after the NSC consensus to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the defence secretary ask for wiggle room, citing pending requests for 4500 enablers and an additional ten percent leeway. In response, Mr Obama dictates a terms sheet that clearly lays out the numbers, timeline and objectives thereby comprehensively asserting his authority over the military bureaucracy.

Mr Obama’s personal involvement, which results in a robust debate among members of the NSC, is remarkable. Nevertheless, the impression is one of a complex exercise producing a mediocre solution due to a lack of innovative ideas. The only radically new idea comes from Joe Biden, the vice president, who favours a small highly mobile counter-terrorist force and constant aerial surveillance to deter al Qaeda. This proposal is quickly dismissed. Most strategy sessions consequently devolve into an exercise of cutting down the military’s expansive agenda of counter-insurgency, which would inevitably lead to larger and larger resource commitments. “Debates” soon degenerate into a “scope reduction exercises”. Also notable for its absence is any coherent strategy for creating leverage with the Karzai government in Afghanistan to improve governance or, for that matter, with Pakistan to stop its sheltering of terror factions and end its double game. This is despite the clear realisation by the NSC that without achieving these goals, any military strategy is doomed for failure.

The strategy sessions commence with Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal’s stark warning: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term [by September 2010]…risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Throughout the course of the book, it is clear that American planners no longer think that defeating the Taliban is possible. A significant portion of the book documents the intense debate over the words “defeat”, “disrupt” and “degrade” with a consensus that preventing a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan until Afghan forces are trained to prevent this on their own will be the ultimate US objective in Afghanistan.

In addition, Mr Obama is quite clear that the troop commitment in Afghanistan should reduce starting July 2011. There are three key flaws in this strategy. One, there are no metrics or goals for the training of the Afghan army and police forces, whose attrition is as high as 75 percent. Two, there is no concrete plan to force Mr Karzai—who is portrayed as a manic depressive under medical treatment—to reduce corruption and improve governance. Three—and this is the most critical flaw—there is no coherent Pakistan strategy.

The last aspect is the most pertinent for India. Pakistan’s perfidy is common knowledge in US policymaking circles—this is repeated over and over again throughout the book. For example, even before the commencement of his presidency, Mr Obama is informed by Mike McConnell, the outgoing director of national intelligence, that Pakistan is a dishonest partner and that “they are living a lie”. General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, is bluntly called a liar and Mr Obama states “[we] need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan….The reason we are doing the target, train and transfer in Afghanistan is so the cancer doesn’t spread there.” However, Pakistan’s propensity to shelter radical groups is seen through the prism of India-Pakistan competition with the dangerous consensus that Pakistan’s support for radical groups in Afghanistan will cease if relations between India and Pakistan are normalised. For example Peter Lavoy, deputy director of national intelligence states that a “more mature and less combustible relationship between the two longtime adversaries is more important than building Afghanistan”.

In this context, everyone in the administration looks upon India to make concessions to enable its transformation to the next level in the world stage and everyone shows an inclination to play a part in facilitating such concessions. Pakistan’s insecurities vis-a-vis the Durand line, its nightmare scenario of a strong Afghanistan with strong armed forces, and its desire to disrupt and control Pashtun nationalism is neither acknowledged nor reconciled with this conclusion. Nor is it acknowledged that curtailing Pakistan’s control over Afghan proxies would result in a moderation of its intransigence towards settling outstanding problems with India, and its preference for sub-conventional and unconventional aggression.

India must clearly and resolutely articulate these nuances or risk a scenario in which Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is increasingly looked upon as a legitimate tool of foreign policy, especially when the West ceases to pay a price. A lack of a coherent US strategy towards Pakistan is in many ways a symptom of a lack of coherent Indian strategy towards Pakistan. One excerpt from the book aptly sums up why US strategy in the region continues to be mired in failure:

As a result of nearly endless policy discussions in the White House, [then-National Security Advisor] Jones, [then-Deputy NSA Thomas] Donilon, [NSC Afghanistan-Pakistan senior director Doug] Lute and others had repeatedly asked: How are we going to get these guys in Pakistan to change? For the moment, they knew that this was the wrong question. Pakistan was not going to change. The Pakistanis were hardwired against India. Let’s quit banging our heads against the wall and accept it…Pakistan would be at such a disadvantage in a conventional war….that it had relied on two asymmetric tools—proxy terrorism through LeT and threat of nuclear weapons…

Jones tried to convey to them: We’ve come to the conclusion that after years of trying, we’re not going to change your strategic calculus. It’s yours. We accept it and want to understand it better.

If this is the kind of acceptance and understanding of Pakistan that the Obama administration aspires for, India must hedge its options in Afghanistan. Come 2012, these may no longer be Obama’s wars; but they would still be India’s wars—to fight, and to win.

Links to Book: Hardcover, Paperback

Photo Credit: Chad J McNeeley/US Department of Defense