During the Vietnam war, US secretary of defence Robert McNamara was so cocksure of an American victory that he propagated a ‘strategic’ bottom line: “Two plus two is four, and we will win the war”.
The trouble with this line was that, as one CIA official once put it, McNamara could never define what ‘two’ represented.
Parallels are increasingly being drawn between the current US military campaign in Afghanistan and the one in Vietnam, but this time, the Americans could be said to have had a handle on the objectives.
For a brief period, from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, ‘nation building’ was an oftheard refrain.
It no longer is. “I'm not doing long-term nation-building.
I am not spending a trillion dollars,” US President Barack Obama is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward's recent book Obama's Wars that details the continuing strain in his administration over the exit plan out of Afghanistan. The frustration in the President's tone is barely disguised.
Now, ‘exit strategy’ is the phrase on which the discourse turns in Washington.
In his speech outlining the Af-Pak strategy March last year, Obama had delivered a curt message — the clear and focused goal of the US is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved.”
In Woodward's book, Obama sounds like he has grappled with the other objective, too.
“We need to make clear to people that the cancer is in Pakistan,” the president said. Creating a secure Afghanistan is imperative, he said, “so the cancer doesn't spread” there.
How these objectives can be achieved when Nato forces under American command in Afghanistan are hamstrung by a resilient Taliban insurgency, a corrupt government in Kabul and venal warlords presiding over much of the nation, is the question that haunted the administration ever since.
But the whole narrative shifted since Obama set a deadline to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan — from July 2011 — in the very address in December last as he announced the sending of extra troops.
It’s no surprise that as the exit strategy became ever more pressing, the need for a political settlement has assumed utmost urgency.
Unfortunately for the president, the Plan A of military strategy has not been a roaring success so far, the surge in troops notwithstanding.
The coalition's touted Helmand, Marja and Kandahar operations have achieved less-than-desired successes.
Though the US insists that the Taliban's battlefield victories are small-bore, the latter can count on something else — a powerful sense of momentum and time — while the US campaign is limping.
So, the shift to Plan B: talks with the Taliban. It seems now that the old distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban have worn thin.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has confirmed that his government has been holding unofficial talks with the Taliban ‘for quite some time’.
The talks come amid a change of heart by the Obama administration towards the full backing of talks with the Quetta Shura headed by Mullah Omar.
Here, the problem is that Plan B too cannot succeed without Pakistan’s sanction, as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has made it clear the other day.
So far, the Haqqani group, the Taliban faction that has been the target of escalated US drone strikes in Fata, has been excluded from the negotiations.
But the Haqqani faction is being promoted by Pakistan as its hedge against ‘arch-enemy’ India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been making persistent efforts to ensure that the Haqqani network is included in the negotiation process without getting a bloody nose militarily from the Americans.
If that happens, the July 2011 timeline set by President Obama to start the withdrawal of troops would look like a cut and run, a complete negation of the plan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.
Obama is right when he says nationbuilding is boggier terrain, but merely walking away is not an option.
Like it or not, Afghanistan's fate is entwined with that of Obama's administration, and McNamara’s ‘wisdom’ might again not make the cut.
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