Afghan War Heads Roll Nato Strategy Unchanged Till 2015
The talks on the sidelines of G8 Toronto summit have given a tougher complexion to NATO’s Afghan war strategy. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration of 2015 as a sort of time limit beyond which British troops would not stay in Afghanistan and its non-contradiction by US President Barack Obama has given a new extension to NATO’s war schedule. Those who were interpreting Obama’s aim of starting a troops pullout some time next year will have to readjust their sights.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors who have hailed the dismissal of two top Western commanders of the Afghanistan war— one implemented and the other soon to be effected—as a yet another battle victory will have to think again. The euphoria in the bin-Laden camp and its fundamentalist followers across the badlands of Pakistan and elsewhere may be premature.
The sacking of the US general Stanley McChrystal by President Barack Obama and the slightly less dramatic replacement—euphemism for dismissal of Britain’s Chief of Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup—before the end of his term in autumn is certainly a visible slippage in the conduct of the war but it is more of a wobble than an unsettling blow to the NATO war strategy.
The biggest reaffirmation of carrying on with the Afghan war strategy came when British Prime Minister David Cameron declared in Toronto that he wanted the British forces to be out of Afghanistan by 2015. “I want British troops out of Afghanistan by the next election (2015),” he told Sky Television. There is clearly no ambiguity about any prompt pullout, as suggested by several news headlines and commentators.
Clarifying the Prime Minister’s statement, Nick Harvey, British Armed Forces Minister, told BBC Radio4: “He’s [Mr Cameron] expressing a hope, he’s not committing to a firm time line. It’s putting into the public mind a sense of an overall time frame but it’s not committing to a calendar date for coming out.”
Nor was there any hint of a dilution of this policy even at the joint press conference of Obama and Cameron where Obama said: “We recognise enormous sacrifices that both British troops and US troops have been making for some time now, but we are convinced we have the right strategy to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up capacity over the next months and years.”
Clearly, no change of strategy. Both US and British forces top command changes are certainly untimely but they are not indicative of any weakening of the US-British resolve to fight the war. As President Obama said in his acceptance of General McChrystal’s resignation: I did’nt make this decision based on any difference of policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy.” The strategy of a surge in military operations, as symbolised by the decision to deploy 30,000 extra troops in Afghanistan will continue under the command of incoming General David Petraeus, the ‘father’ of the surge strategy in Iraq where it has worked pretty successfully by allowing US troops to stay in the background, leaving the Iraqis to deal with the day-to-day eruptions which have been progressively declining. The continuation of the surge strategy remains in safe hands, perhaps in even safer hands in the new set-up. Genral McChrystal was obviously sacked for his own and his closest officiers’ gaffes belittling Obama’s civilian team, especially Vice-President Jo Biden and the Af-Pak special envoy Richard Holbrook in interviews to the Rolling Stone magazine correspondent over pub drinks in Paris and elsewhere. The mocking of civil authority by a military commander, however top-starred, is simply not on in the democratic code underlined by Obama when he said there was no change in strategy: “But war is bigger than any one man or woman , whether a private, a general or a president. As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe it is the right decision for our national security.”
“The conduct represented in the recently published article (in Rolling Stone) does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system and it erodes the trust that is necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”
General McChrystal’s gaffes
undermined Obama’s personal authority as Supreme Commander too which he simply could not allow. The general had obviously too big for his boots and had to be booted out. The saga also has historical echoes in America where during the Korean war General Douglas MacArthur, the hero of World War II, wanted to extend the Korean war towards the Chinese borders risking a war with China. President Harry Truman saw through the dangerous implications of such a strategy and took the unpopular step of sacking General MacArthur who had his eye on the presidency himself. Truman replaced him with general Dwight David Eisenhower who played cool and became President in good time.
General McChrystal may have won the admiration of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and even of some other Afghan leaders besides a lot of men and troops on the ground but as Obama said the cause and the strategy is bigger than any individual. The strategy of gradually handing over Afghan security to Afghan hands, though shaken, remains unchanged. The withdrawal of NATO forces will be gradual even after next year’s time line. It will be a gradual drawdown of forces rather than an abrupt pullout. Some of the NATO allies might have weakening of resolve, the Americans and the British are in no hurry to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban. It will be an Iraq-style redeployment in behind-the-scene barracks.
In unison with the American policy, British Prime Minister David Cameron on his first visit to Afghanistan soon after assuming office redoubled his commitment to British forces with more cash and materials to pursue the war.
Addressing British soldiers at Camp Bastion, Cameron summed up Britain’s Afghan mission in two words : “National security, our national security back in the UK.” “This is not a war of choice, it is a war of necessity… this is not a war of occupation, it is a war of obligation.”
He said British forces were in Afghanistan because that was the base from which al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks. He added: “That is why we came here, that is why we cleared away those training camps. “As soon as they are ready—and you are helping them to train and be ready—then we can leave and go home.”
The media pundits may have picked on the last portion of his speech but nowhere either he or his Lib-Dem coalition partners or Labour opposition leaders have talked of cutting and running away from Afghanistan. The imminent sacking or replacing of the current British Chief of Staff Sir Jock Stirrup is being done precisely to reinvigorate the war effort under a new commander and not to pull out lock, stock and barrel, leaving the Taliban to reconquer Afghanistan.
The New York Times Square failed bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad’s guilty plea to all 10 counts in a show of calculated defiance is a chilling reminder of dangers ahead.
An unapologetic Shahzad told the court: “I want to plead guilty, and I’m going to plead guilty 100 times over because until the hour the US pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking US, and I plead guilty to that…”
The gravity of the threat has not been lost on Washington or London.
The US and British strategy is for a calibrated drawdown of forces and Iraq-style repositioning behind the battle field when the time is ripe. There are no signals for a rash rush-out now or even 2015.
By Subhash Chopra from London