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Addressing America

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, July 01, 2011

The cumulative cost of the Operation Enduring Freedom that began with the bombing of key installations in Kabul on October 7, 2001, will touch the trillion dollar mark by the end of this year. To the backdrop of domestic financial crunch that is forcing President Barack Obama to cut costs, the drawdown of combat troops was a foregone conclusion. The logistics alone cost the US and other NATO countries a whopping $4 billion a year. According to STRATFOR, a security and intelligence review outfit, Afghanistan's landlocked location has posed huge logistical challenges for the United States, requiring "hundreds of shipping containers and fuel trucks every day" through Pakistan and from the north to sustain the nearly 150,000 US and allied forces stationed in Afghanistan, about half the total number of Afghan security forces. Supplying a single gallon of gasoline in Afghanistan reportedly costs the US military an average of $400, while sustaining a single US soldier runs around $1 million a year (by contrast, sustaining an Afghan soldier costs about $12,000 a year), STRATFOR reckons.

Two-thirds of this cargo - about 50,000 containers - transit through Pakistan every month, compared to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which runs through Central Asia and Russia (Moscow has agreed to continue to expand it) and entails a more than 5,000km expensive rail route to the Baltic Sea and ports in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Obama's speech, therefore, comes across as a mix of multiple considerations and compulsions.

First of them is the mounting domestic opposition to the war mission in Afghanistan. "Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. We've learned anew the profound cost of war - a cost that's been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan - men and women who will not live to enjoy the freedom that they defended," the president said.

Second is the financial crunch and his struggle (under pressure from the Republicans) to cut costs and save more than $100 billion. And if all goes well, Obama would have saved at least $33 billion by the time the election campaign is in full swing next year.

Thirdly, the elimination of Osama bin Laden on May 2nd (the stated objective of the Operation Enduring Freedom) added to the demands for a gradual disengagement from Afghanistan and that is why Obama reassured his people he would now refocus on nation-building. "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," Obama said. "In this effort, we draw inspiration from our fellow Americans who have sacrificed so much on our behalf."

Fourth, while Obama listed - directly or otherwise - the factors that forced him to announce the phased withdrawal, at the same time, he also reiterated America's foreign policy goals and responsibility as the anchor of global security. In that context, Obama drew on a message from a soldier to warn detractors that "we don't forget. You will be held accountable, no matter how long it takes." (The FBI had taken out Aimal Kansi, the killer of two American intelligence Operatives in 1996 from Dera Ghazi Khan, after years of search).

Obama also cautioned all those who tend to delude themselves with the thought of the US/NATO leaving Afghanistan, or crumbling under burgeoning financial burden.

In an article on June 22nd by Nathan Hughes, STRATFOR points to certain developments that indicate a long-term presence of the United States in Afghanistan. "Based solely on the activity on the ground in Afghanistan today, one would think the United States and its allies were preparing for a permanent presence, not the imminent beginning of a long-scheduled drawdown (a perception the United States and its allies have in some cases used to their advantage to reach political arrangements with locals). An 11,500-foot allweather concrete and asphalt runway and an air traffic control tower were completed this February at Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion in Helmand province. Another more than 9,000-foot runway was finished at Shindand Air Field in Herat province last December."

STRATFOR, it seems, glossed over locations such Bagram, Kandahar, and Khost where the US/NATO have made heavy investments on air and military bases.

On the face of it, permanent US bases in Afghanistan, an issue still stuck in the Afghan parliament, will not only serve as a lifeline support for the fragile Afghan government, but also work as deterrent as well as monitoring stations for Iran and Pakistan. And in this context, Obama made no secret of his views on Pakistan. 

"We'll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments... There should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve."

The American president left no doubt whatsoever, that despite Al Qaeda's winding down after bin Laden's killing, his administration remains focused on the organisation and its "safe havens".

"The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which Al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies."

Interestingly, Obama told his people and the world that "We're a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens."

Most observers in the Muslim world took this assertion with a pinch of salt, as the lack of respect for rule of law by the American forces has surfaced in recent years as a major controversy; the drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the high-handed approach in the Middle East, or even the unauthorised raid to get Osama bin Laden, are some examples that fly in the face of Obama's claims. 

As a whole, the Obama speech reflected the strains and the pains he currently faces at home. But he also used the occasion to underline the American predominance in world politics.

If we look at the American policies towards Pakistan, it is pretty evident that Washington and its mighty military establishment believe that militants based in and around North Waziristan constitute the biggest threat to Afghanistan and are not ready to see the situation in any other way. The fact that going into North Waziristan might spike up violence inside Pakistan is not a concern with the policymakers in Washington. 

What is paradoxical, though not surprising, is that Obama and colleagues began dropping hints they could win peace even without Pakistan (Mullen often talks of engaging Pakistan even though not desirable). This was also evident in the CIA-MI6 and Afghan intelligence NDS move to engage a shopkeeper from Quetta, Mullah Mansoor, who sold himself as a trusted aide to Mullah Omar and made tonnes of money. This was a clear attempt to bypass Pakistan - despite public statements of support for a "strategic ally" by the top US leaders.

Despite such statements and moves, it would be difficult for the American administration to keep Islamabad, that shares a 2,560km border with Afghanistan and is a conduit for two-thirds of US/NATO and Afghan supplies, out of the reconciliation process. 

But the writing on the wall is: the Pakistani government and the military will have to decide in unison the future course of engagement with the United States. An omni-present and mighty American security establishment knows the limitations as well as the exploitable weaknesses of its Pakistani counterpart. And the only way Pakistan can extricate itself from the US pressure and the confusion at home is to devise a futuristic, collaborative strategy rather than an exploitative tactical game that is often scorned as blackmail, and thus takes the country nowhere. ?

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk