Figures of speech

Published : Jul 29, 2011 00:00 IST

After Obama's speech,the Pentagon spokesman said that the withdrawal date announced by the President was an aspirational one. - KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

After Obama's speech,the Pentagon spokesman said that the withdrawal date announced by the President was an aspirational one. - KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The Afghan government welcomes the U.S. announcement about a partial pullout of troops, but the Taliban wants all foreign forces to move out.

THE announcement made by United States President Barack Obama on June 22 about a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year and a responsible end to the war there has been welcomed by the government in Afghanistan. But the Taliban has reacted by saying that the Afghan people will be satisfied only with a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country. In a statement, it has described Obama's announcement as a symbolic step which will never satisfy the international community or the war-weary American public.

Recent public opinion surveys in the U.S. show that the majority of Americans are against the Afghan war. According to a Pew Research Centre survey, 56 per cent of Americans want a speedy withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. More than 1,500 American servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan so far. The U.S. military establishment, personified by the Pentagon, has questioned the President's latest move to withdraw one-third of the 100,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan. At the military's behest, Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops last year in a last-ditch attempt to quell the Taliban militarily. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told a U.S. House of Representative Committee hearing that the President's faster than expected withdrawal plans created new risks.

Recent events show that the Taliban continues to be a force to reckon with. Soon after the U.S. President's speech announcing the withdrawal of forces, the Taliban struck at a five-star hotel in the heart of Kabul. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops and helicopters were requisitioned to kill the Taliban hit squad that attacked Hotel Inter-Continental on June 26. The Taliban leadership has said that its forces will continue fighting until the last of the American troops leave Afghanistan. Earlier on in his term, Obama promised a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Along with the 100,000 U.S. troops there are 40,000 soldiers from the NATO alliance in Afghanistan now. Obama has said that 10,000 soldiers will be relocated from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 33,000 by the middle of next year. This tallies with the number of extra troops he ordered as part of the military surge in December 2009.

Obama, who had during his successful campaign for the presidency described the occupation of Afghanistan as a good war, dramatically increased the U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan. Going by the timetable of the proposed withdrawal, in 2012 when he faces the electorate again, the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will be higher than when he took over as President in 2008.

The Taliban would not have failed to notice that the U.S. President in his latest speeches has not talked about inflicting a comprehensive military defeat on the resistance forces. Instead he has talked about strengthening the Afghan army so that it can prevent the overthrow of the government in Kabul after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

The Afghan army and police forces, trained by the U.S./NATO forces, are known to be an undisciplined and mostly uneducated bunch. The defection rate is already high. In recent months, there have been instances of Afghan army officers turning their guns on their foreign trainers. Many of the recent attacks on the occupation forces were carried out by fighters disguised in Afghan army uniforms. The U.S. spent $22 billion in 2010 and 2011 to train and equip the 300,000-strong Afghan security forces.

Electoral calculations

Obama's announcement of a partial troop withdrawal was prompted mainly by electoral calculations. The war in Afghanistan has been bleeding the American exchequer. The U.S. has given $18.8 billion to Afghanistan and $20 billion to Pakistan as development aid to buy support for the Afghan war. It is estimated that the bill for the upkeep of each U.S. soldier in Afghanistan costs a million dollar a year. Today the U.S. government has nothing concrete to show for the taxpayer's money it has expended in the region.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to the U.S. President asking him to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial for the immediate national security of combating Al Qaeda.

Obama in his speech said that the U.S. was giving up on nation-building projects and would no longer be engaged in open-ended wars. He said that by 2014, the Afghan people would be responsible for their own security.

The government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai, seeing the writing on the wall, is trying to free itself from the apron strings of the Americans. He has on recent occasions criticised the U.S. military presence calling it ineffective and at the same causing harm to the civilian populace. In recent speeches, he has even described the American troop presence as occupation.

According to the latest quarterly United Nations report, with 1,090 lives lost, civilian deaths and injuries are up by 20 per cent compared with the toll last summer. Over 435,000 Afghans have been displaced by the war, a 4 per cent increase from last year's figures.

The Obama administration tried to portray to the world that the military surge he had ordered helped in pacifying large parts of the country and was a big success. Now it turns out that most of those killed and arrested had nothing to do with the Taliban. According to a recent investigative report, 90 per cent of the Taliban fighters captured by U.S. forces were released soon as they turned out to be Afghan civilians.

The majority of the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan want to see the retreat of the Americans at the earliest. The beleaguered government in Pakistan is also trying to distance itself from the U.S. The latest illustration of the growing alienation is the demand reportedly made by the Pakistani government to remove U.S. military personnel coordinating the drone attacks on targets inside Pakistan from military bases on its territory. But the Pakistani establishment is also deeply wary of the implications of a U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Washington is already in talks with the Karzai government for a permanent retention of its key military bases in Afghanistan after the bulk of the U.S. troops leave the country.

After Obama's speech, the Pentagon spokesman said that the December 31, 2014, withdrawal date was an aspirational one. He said that it did not mean that all American and other foreign troops would be gone from Afghanistan by then. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen chipped in to say that the Afghan war would continue for as long as it takes.

A few weeks before his retirement recently, the U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said that the country should maintain a long-term presence in Afghanistan. Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S./NATO forces in Afghanistan, have voiced their desire for American soldiers to stay on beyond 2014.

According to reports, Russia, China and India have conveyed to the U.S. that they are against the U.S. having permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Senior Pakistani officials are trying to convince the Afghan government to look to China for security after the departure of the Americans. American power can be easily deployed against neighbouring countries such as Iran if the U.S. military bases are allowed to stay. The U.S. mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden was conducted from a military base in Afghanistan.

The U.S. President, in his speech, also said that Washington would ensure that there would not be any terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and that it will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. This could mean that the U.S. is contemplating the stationing of a military force in Afghanistan to ensure that the Taliban does not succeed in capturing the government in Kabul and to keep the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas permanently under watch. This in effect means that the Pakistani government will continue to be under intense scrutiny and subject to cross-border attacks.

Obama insisted in his speech that Pakistan expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for the region and keep on working with the U.S. to root out the cancer of violent extremism. In a not-too-veiled threat, Obama said that the U.S. would insist that Pakistan kept its commitments.

Senior U.S. officials have told the media that while numerous international terrorist plots have emanated from Pakistani soil, none has emerged from Afghanistan for the seven to eight years. The U.S. military now gets much of its supplies through Central Asia. Until 2009, as much as 90 per cent of NATO and U.S. military surface cargo came through Karachi port. By the end of this year, U.S. military planners hope to get 75 per cent of their cargo through the Central Asian route.

Islamabad is preparing for life after the U.S. military's likely withdrawal. In the last week of June, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, along with Karzai, was present at an international conference in Teheran hosted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss the threat posed by terrorism to countries in the region and the need to face them unitedly. India and other major players in the region were invited.

Iran and Pakistan, both sharing long borders with Afghanistan, will naturally have a key role to play in the region's politics. Obama administration officials have accused Teheran of helping the Taliban.

The fundamentalist Taliban was a sworn enemy of Iran when it was in power in Kabul. Pakistan's major concern is to negate India's influence in Afghanistan.

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