The testimony before the Congress on Tuesday in Washington by the commander of the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus gave significant clues to the current phase of American thinking towards the war as well as what the future portends.
The most important salient, however, appeared not in Petraeus’ testimony as such but the inter alia comments and observations by the Congressmen who conducted the hearing. What seems to be weighing in on the politician’s mind is the result of a joint Washington Post – ABC News poll that was just released ahead of the congressional hearing. The poll showed that two-thirds of Americans (including two-thirds of dependants) no longer consider that the Afghan war is worth fighting, while almost three-quarters of Americans (including 80 percent of dependents) call for a substantial withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan this summer.
The shocking trend is that this trajectory of public opinion has just about begun as a sharp upward curve in the very recent past and may still be climbing. During the period since last December alone, the curve has moved up by 15%. That is a dramatic turn to the public opinion against the continuance of the Afghan war.
What will bother President Barack Obama even more is that his overall performance rating at 51 percent looks actually quite good at the present stage of his presidency and the Republicans are not exactly endearing themselves to the American people, either, or instilling confidence that they are capable of providing a credible alternative to the president.
Clearly, it won’t be a surprise if at some point soon, Obama begins to view the Afghan war as a drag on him politically in the upcoming campaign season. The lack of popularity of the Afghan war among the American public is now comparable with the corresponding point in the George W. Bush presidency with regard to the Iraq war, which rendered him a ‘lame duck’ for nearly two years of his second term.
Politics trumps the war
Quite obviously, the domestic public mood is going to figure as a major determinant of the US policy toward the Afghan war. Actually, it already may have. Petraeus was certainly not hung-ho about the war. There was a vague trace optimism in his claim that the US and NATO forces have gained ground on the battlefield. But it was a kind of ‘caveated optimism’.
He said: “It is ISAF’s assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas. However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible.”
Alongside, Petraeus also told the Congressmen that “much difficult work lies ahead” for NATO and its Afghan partners and things are going to get tough as the new “fighting season” begins in spring. There has been a broad recognition by the Congressmen as well that the military success so far remains far from assured and the mission is critically dependent on the capacity of the Afghan security forces to hold the ground that the US and NATO forces have cleared – a factor that also depends on the record of “good governance” by the Hamid Karzai government, something over which US has less and less control as time passes.
There are no easy answers, either, as to whether anyone is really confident about the professional capacity and motivation of the Afghan armed forces. According to prominent congressman Carl Levin, as many as 70000 additional Afghan police and troops are needed in immediate terms alone. Surprisingly, however, Petraeus still exuded confidence about sticking to the July deadline for the commencement of drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan.
Petraeus has likely factored in that the drawdown issue has become highly sensitive politically when a super-majority of Americans support a substantial withdrawal; when the Democratic Party is on record that it favours prioritizing job creation and a swift withdrawal of US armed forces and military contractors in Afghanistan which must include a significant and sizable reduction no later than July 2011”; and when influential voices within the Obama administration, particularly Vice-President Joe Biden have favored a substantial withdrawal of forces (“a whole lot of people moving out”) beginning in July.
Any serious American politician today would be inclined to look at the state of play in these terms: a substantial troop reduction minimizes war casualties and saves huge amounts of money running into tens of billions of dollars at a time when tight budgetary discipline is a compelling necessity and the government is compelled to justify its draconian cuts in domestic spending.
From the above perspective, Petraeus hinted at three future directions of US policy in Afghanistan in the coming months. One, Petraeus commended the US’ cooperation with Pakistan in the war effort.
He said NATO is now coordinating “more closely than ever” with the Pakistani army. What he might have said in closed hearings we do not know, but in Petraeus’s words, “The Pakistanis are the first to note that more needs to be done. There is, I think, a growing recognition that you cannot allow poisonous snakes to have a nest in your backyard even if they just bite the neighbor’s kids, because sooner or later they’re going to turn around and cause problems in your backyard.”
This level of conciliatory attitude toward Pakistan is quite understandable since, as leading Republican Senator John McCain put it, the next few months could be “decisive” as winter turns to spring and NATO forces “face a renewed Taliban offensive to retake territory lost on the battlefield”.
But not everyone is convinced about Petraeus’ diplomatese. The New York Times commented editorially: “Pakistan’s sheltering of both Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders is also profoundly worrying. General Petraeus insisted that Pakistanis increasingly understand the threat, but he needs to tell them that time is running out.”
A second point is the emphasis that Petraeus placed on a political settlement. He claimed that the program to reconcile the insurgents has shown promise and he underlined, “we and our Afghan partners cannot just kill or capture our way out of the insurgency in Afghanistan.” Petraeus revealed that “some 700 former Taliban have now officially reintegrated with Afghan authorities, and some 2000 more are in various stages of the reintegration process.”
Finally, Petraeus made some highly significant observations about the future of the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. He described the value of a long-term relationship with Kabul and noted that continuing military relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2004 would depend on the negotiations with the Kabul government.
On the other hand, Karzai is on record that this won’t be a matter restricted to the government-to-government negotiations, but will also involve the Afghan parliament and the broader public opinion in the country as well as the thinking of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. During their recent visits to Kabul, both Biden and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates apparently pushed the envelope but Karzai held his ground. This, in turn, has necessitated the US to look for various other options.
Washington seems to see the writing on the wall that in the present mood of growing antipathy toward foreign occupation among Afghans, likelihood of Karzai agreeing to outright American military bases is diminishing. Interestingly, some Congressmen also took note en passé that Afghan public mood is becoming increasingly unfriendly.
Unsurprisingly, Petraeus (and Michele Flournoy, US undersecretary of defence for policy who also testified) denied that US has any intentions of establishing military bases in Afghanistan. Flournoy said, “The president [Obama] has been also very clear from the beginning that we do not seek to have a presence that any other country in the region would see as a threat.”
Nonetheless, Petraeus sprang a surprise. He raised a new possibility of operating joint military bases with local Afghan forces on a long-term basis. He said: “I think the concept of joint basing, the concept of providing enablers for Afghan operations and so forth – frankly, similar to what we have done in Iraq since the mission changed there – would also be appropriate in Afghanistan.”
Flournoy revealed that the negotiations over the post-2014 period would also include “opportunities to help develop the country’s economy and system of governance.”
In sum, if the recent indications of NATO setting up shop in Bishkek and US’ revived interest in establishing a presence in the Batkent region of southern Kyrgyzstan are anything to go by, an enduring military presence in Afghanistan becomes a pre-requisite.