Obama’s Afghanistan Review: A Perspective From Pakistan


By Shabana Fayyaz

The recently launched so-called Annual Review of the US strategic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan leaves more questions than answers to the complexity on the ground. Theoretically, policy review implies rethinking and reexamining strategic threats and priorities, identifying gaps in policy implementation and recommending a sustainable way out to end or at least transform the conflict for the good of all stakeholders. Practically, policy reviews often reflect an admission of earlier shortcomings and inject clarity into one’s conduct.

Obama’s annual review defies the norms (theoretically as well as practically) of policy analysis and is more of a ‘report-card’ or ‘progress-review’ of the US strategy in the field. The guiding spirit remains the same, that is, al Qaeda remains a prime threat to the United States and must be dealt with a kinetic response. Denial of ‘sanctuary’ for al Qaeda elements (within Pakistan) is pointed as a key towards ‘durable and sustainable’ peace in the region. Who has to deliver this? From the American prism it’s obviously Pakistan’s responsibility. However, what about the web of transnational arm supplier groups, drug and smuggling rackets, and criminal gangs who continue to be in business by keeping the pot boiling in this area?

Though a review stresses the United States commitment to cultivate a deeper and broader interaction with Pakistan on a sustainable basis, it refrains from mentioning the constructive role that the US can play in resolving long standing issues in the region. Specifically, in relation to Islamabad’s understanding of the India factor raising its strategic threat index in the Afghanistan context. Parallel to this, how to enhance coordination in the conduct of military operations either by Pakistan’s forces or by the US-led Afghan or NATO units remains unaddressed in the much publicized Obama review.

Though there is reference to the need to use ‘non-military’ means to end the insurgency in this region, no clear roadmap is has been stipulated. The discussions along various tracks of dialogue at the government as well as community levels are not deliberated in depth. The need to engage the cultural and traditional patterns of peace-making and consensus-building such as ‘jirga’ are also avoided. It seems Obama’s policy review is meant for the US public only, justifying the gains in the war so far and ignoring the real audience on the battle ground, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is virtually no admission of the civilian losses of both men and material that continues to be glossed under the jargon of so-called ‘collateral damage’.

Obama’s 2010 assessment echoes nothing new. The strategy remains the same, which is “to dismantle, defeat and disrupt Al-Qaeda,” without addressing the root causes that have generated violent behaviour and a radical mindset that serve as fodder for ‘transnational radical movements’ such as the al Qaeda. There exists no understanding of the differences between the Taliban ranks both in terms of their operational goals as well as political agendas. Indiscriminately categorizing everybody under the title of ‘al Qaeda’ is an over-simplification of the complex reality on the ground. The fact of the matter is, the ‘al Qaeda’ has become an international currency like the ‘dollar’ that is useable all over the globe, and any act of violence identified within its fold adds to its ‘global reach’. There is an urgent need to dissect the intricate layers that divide the al Qaeda and Taliban rank and file and deal with each of them as separate yet interrelated units.

It seems the role of development as a critical variable to deliver sustainable peace in the militancy-hit areas remains a secondary priority in the overall US engagement in the region. Though the intent to invest in good governance, economic recovery and civilian institutional growth in Pakistan is registered, no tangible framework is identified. It appears these areas will not receive adequate attention unless Islamabad delivers in ‘hard aspects’. That is, capture, dismantle and deny al Qaeda-related elements ‘safety nets’ within its borderlands. The usage of the ‘development and prosperity’ medium to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the militancy-hit areas needs to be innovatively explored both by the United States and Pakistan governments, as well as the Afghan authorities. We must realize the time-tested value of ‘popular support’ that provides impetus to non-state actors of any kind, across the spectrum of political, economic, social, cultural, ethnic and religious groups. It also holds true for state actors, irrespective of their size or power (both military and economic) in the present international system.

In a nutshell, Obama’s annual assessment is more a reaffirmation of the ongoing US policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan, and offers no innovative avenues to be explored for lasting peace in the region.

Shabana Fayyaz, Assistant Professor, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, 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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