Obama’s Afghanistan Review


By D Suba Chandran

The much expected Afghanistan Review by Obama’s administration was finally made public during the third week of December 2010. What does this review say about Obama’s policies and strategies towards Afghanistan?

Obama said, “It’s important to remember why we remain in Afghanistan. It was Afghanistan where al Qaeda plotted the 9/11 attacks that murdered 3,000 innocent people…And that’s why, from the start, I’ve been very clear about our core goal. It’s not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

Perhaps, this is the most articulate expression of how the US (and the rest of the world) perceives their presence in Afghanistan. For long, there has been a heavy rhetoric that the war in Afghanistan is for the sake of the Afghans, and international troops stationed in the country aim to help the Afghans build their nation; ultimately leading them towards a stable democracy.

Obama should be congratulated for casting aside rhetoric and placing things in perspective by clarifying that the US is in Afghanistan to dismantle the al Qaeda, and not for a nation building project or for addressing every security threat.

But the real question is: Can the two be seen as two different processes? How did the Taliban and al Qaeda come into Afghanistan in the first place? Is that not because of the security problems of Afghanistan leading ultimately to the failure of nation-building?

Obama is right. The Afghans should ideally build their own nation and be responsible for facing national security threats. Undoubtedly, every nation in this world should engage in this process by themselves. However, in Afghanistan’s case (as in the cases of numerous countries in the Middle East, East Europe and North Africa), was this process ever allowed by the international community, especially the US and the former Soviet Union?

After shamelessly engaging in a cold war for decades and ruthlessly supporting regimes for narrow interests, both the US and the former Soviet Union systematically collapsed any nation-building process in these countries. Today, Obama has forgotten this history. It is unfortunate that the global history and problems of terrorism starts with 9/11 for many in the US. Those in the Middle East, East Europe and North Africa consider their national borders and recent history to be drawn with their own blood; thanks to the US, former Soviet Union and their proxies in the region. Al Qaeda is an expression of this anger; unless and until the international community addresses this anger, one will never be able to defeat these non-State actors. They will continue to pose a threat to international stability.

Such a myopic reading of history is likely to result in the US taking the wrong decision. Obama should understand the larger implications of his withdrawal without establishing a stable Afghanistan. Obama himself says, “In pursuit of our core goal we are seeing significant progress. Today, al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago…It will take time to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake – we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization.”

What the US and the rest of the international troops have done so far in Afghanistan (and in parts of the Tribal Agencies in Pakistan) is in terms of disrupting the al Qaeda network. But their network has been neither been dismantled nor completely neutralized.

The US should not leave until and unless the Taliban and al Qaeda are completely routed. Unfortunately, Obama does not see the al Qaeda and the Taliban in the same wave length. For him, al Qaeda is a great threat that needs to be dismantled, but not the Taliban, which could be negotiated with.

Are al Qaeda and the Taliban two different entities, one of which could be neutralized and the other negotiated with? In terms of structure and leadership, undoubtedly, they are two different entities. But in terms of ideology and the threats they pose to Afghan stability – both will remain the same.

The US has a duty to perform in Afghanistan befitting its global reputation as the sole super power. If it does not, no one else will. Obama (and perhaps his advisors) refer to history to understand how Afghanistan reached this point. 9/11 was not the starting point; it was only an expression of what has gone wrong in many Muslim countries. A failure in Afghanistan will affect the American image which will ultimately strengthen the al Qaeda in the long run. In fact, this Islamic belligerence is not limited to the Middle East alone. From the US and Spain to Indonesia and the Philippines, it spreads across three continents.

Obama should remain engaged in Afghanistan. An American failure will be a recipe for disaster, with far reaching repercussions.

D Suba Chandran, Deputy Director, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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