Tags: Afghanistan | Obama

Afghanistan — Obama's Vietnam?

Friday, 11 Jul 2008 02:30 PM

By Arnaud De Borchgrave

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It was an ultimatum of sorts by a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Pakistan's new civilian government: Either the government gets serious about flushing out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from their safe havens in Pakistan's tribal border areas, or aid to Pakistan's military will have to be reassessed.

Pakistan cannot reduce — let alone end — the Taliban's cross-border raids into Afghanistan without sending its regular army back into action. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, say Pakistan's military commanders, and the T-shirt read, "Don't come back and stop taking American orders."

The Bush administration, in its remaining six months, should not expect a presently rudderless government in Pakistan to help out in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It has troubles enough on the home front, where a 400-strong Taliban force laid siege to a police station in Hangu in the North-West Frontier province — in Pakistan proper. Taliban rockets also smashed into the army's Armored Corps Center between Islamabad and its twin city of Rawalpindi.

Some 100,000 troops, mostly Punjabis who are loath to kill tribal kinsmen, were assigned to the seven FATA agencies under U.S. pressure. They lost 1,400 soldiers killed and three times that number wounded. Some Pakistani units were ambushed and surrendered without firing a shot. Why should they kill their fellow countrymen, they asked their officers.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., in a breakfast talk to the Asia Society, said if the army can't stamp out cross-border flows of "militants, weapons and other illicit trade," then the Frontier Corps of militarized local tribesmen under Pakistani army officers will have to do the job. The Bush administration recently notified Congress it planned to use $74.5 million for a Security Development Plan to train and equip the Frontier Corps (FC) to conduct counterinsurgency activities within FATA and the North-West Frontier province and put an end to the Taliban's incursions into Afghanistan.

The FC is made up of locals who surrendered in large numbers to Taliban fighters last year. The Taliban's current advantage is that their guerrillas are paid $8 a day against the FC's $2 a day, and their opium poppy-purchased weapons are often better than the FC's.

Casey conceded that Gen. Dan McNeill, who until recently commanded NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, declined to endorse U.S. plans to train and equip the Frontier Corps, "questioning the effectiveness and loyalty of the tribally recruited guards."

Shuja Nawaz is a Pakistani journalist/scholar and authority on the Pakistani army whose recent book, "Crossed Swords," is on the international best-seller list. He says that to put benchmarks on Pakistan "without addressing the basic Trust Deficit between the U.S. and Pakistan and specifically the army . . . will only convince Pakistanis that the U.S. is ready to pull the rug again and decamp," much the way it first did when the last Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989.

That was when the United States began punishing Pakistan with all manner of diplomatic, economic and military sanctions for what was then the country's clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The United States did not endear itself to the Pakistani army when it withheld visas for some of the Pakistani colonels who had been invited by the Pentagon to attend a confidence-building exercise with their Afghan counterparts. But the Afghans got their visas. Shuja added, "Guess what's Topic A in army messes throughout Pakistan now? The Americans do not trust us, they are saying, so why should we trust them?"

Gen. David Petraeus, who is leaving his Iraq command post later this month to take over the U.S. Central Command the first week of September, says his principal concern as he looks at his entire area of responsibility, which is larger than the continental United States, including 25 mostly Muslim nations in the Persian Gulf, Horn of Africa, Caspian Sea Basin, is FATA. Because FATA, where only 3 percent of the women can read, will determine the success or failure of the Afghan Taliban insurgency's comeback, and because the future of NATO now hinges on success or failure in FATA.

NATO's first out of area (out of Europe) operation in its 60-year history is Afghanistan. Failure in Afghanistan would leave NATO toothless without a mission. Milton Bearden, the legendary hero of the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, said this week at a Business Executives for National Security luncheon meeting that the Afghan theater was "spinning out of control."

Domestic opinion among America's NATO allies whose soldiers are doing the fighting, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Canada, along with 37,000 U.S. troops indicates a desire to be out by 2011 at the latest. A British Defense Ministry survey showed half of all British soldiers wanting out of the service.

French, German, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and other forces are not participating in combat operations because of political opposition at home. Even supplying them to stay put is proving beyond the capabilities of slimmed-down, post-Cold War defense budgets. Most Afghan experts cannot see any chance of success without an open-ended commitment of at least five and possibly 10 years.

Bearden advocates turning operations back to the Special Forces and the CIA — a total of 410 men, including some on horseback, liberated Afghanistan in October 2001, less than a month after Sept. 11— who would be highly mobile countrywide. President Hamid Karzai's ratings have never been lower, says Bearden, "and he should temper his own embrace of India, which only makes matters worse with Pakistan."

After saying U.S. troops should exit Iraq prudently, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois makes the point Afghanistan is where the only war on terror is taking place. And he says he is prepared to shift a large number of U.S. soldiers and assets to the guerrilla war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which leads some intelligence experts to ask, somewhat anxiously, whether Afghanistan could become Obama's Vietnam, as it was Russia's Vietnam before.

Bearden reminds his audience that in 1838 a British expeditionary force captured Kandahar and then moved on to Kabul to complete the conquest of Afghanistan. But when the winter of 1841-42 began, Afghans rose up with the guns they were born with. A British retreat to India was hastily assembled. As the long 15,000-strong caravan entered the first gorge on its way back to India, the British were attacked from all sides. Only one man was spared so he could escape to tell the story.

How to convince Afghans that NATO is there to stay is part of Petraeus' challenge. The average Afghan knows NATO will be gone one day. But ordinary Afghans know the Taliban is there to stay.

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