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Gen. Petraeus now wants us to take on the Afghan Taliban on his behalf in North Waziristan and, lately, Quetta, regardless of the consequences or the outcome. Or he thinks we should let him have a go at it. Like most daydreamers who try to make happen what does not happen, because it is sheer vanity, Petraeus is a dangerous man.
ZAFAR HILALY | Thursday | 2 December 2010
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—‘War,’ said Georges Clemenceau ‘is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to generals.’ President Obama should have heeded the advice. Had he some experience of running anything but his small senate office and, before that, a community centre in Chicago, he would have probably appreciated the value of the advice the experienced and garrulous Clemenceau, arguably the greatest French war leader after Napoleon, had imparted. Alas, he did not and as a result it is his generals, specifically General Petraeus, and not he, who call the shots in Afghanistan.
Bob Woodward’s book reveals just how peripheral Obama’s inputs were to the American war strategy and McChrystal’s dismissal showed in what low regard the generals hold him. It’s sad because Obama seems a well-intentioned man who, given time, might get the hang of his job and learn the skill of man-management, administration and statecraft in which he is presently so woefully deficient.
Just as Obama is derided by Washington insiders for being a novice, General Petraeus, who rewrote the American army’s counter-insurgency manual, is praised for his experience, ability and leadership qualities. Although, if his peers are to be believed, nothing in his counter-insurgency opus has about it the ring of a genius at work. After reading Gareth Porter’s rubbishing of his performance in Iraq and the now legendary ‘surge’ that he is credited with having employed to such great effect, he seems all too human. This is borne by the fact that thus far identical tactics in Afghanistan have produced no results. In fact the Marjah operation launched with such fanfare earlier in the year turned out to be an inept, overblown and unsuccessful attempt at securing the area.
General Petraeus now wants us to take on the Afghan Taliban on his behalf in North Waziristan and, lately, Quetta, regardless of the consequences or the outcome. Or, he thinks, we should let him have a go. Petraeus has dreams of victory. Like any soldier he believes that given the resources and a freehand he can pull it off. Like most daydreamers who try to make happen what does not happen, because it is sheer vanity, Petraeus is a dangerous man. His craving for success, like any addiction, is alarming. Not that one would begrudge him such ambition except that as he reaches to touch the stars he does not care that he stands on our dignity and self-respect. If he carries on in this manner, the worm (Pakistan), will eventually turn.
Already, our differences on the Afghan Taliban issue have distracted us from going full pelt after the Pakistani Taliban. They and their supporters are now well-entrenched in the Punjab and seek the destruction of the Pakistani state and its civil values. Moreover, as the war drags on and pressure mounts on Petraeus to show results, tension over the sanctuaries’ issue will mount. And once US forces begin to thin out, knowing Petraeus, he will be less concerned about the political fallout of drone attacks on Pakistan or nightly raids by Special Forces than the victory he craves. In other words, the situation for Pakistan will get a lot worse unless negotiations for a settlement get under way. Admittedly this is easier said than done. Besides, there isn’t a broad framework of a settlement in play or anything vaguely on offer that can provide a way out for both sides, so what are we talking about?
The question that any settlement must address is how the ethnic and political divide in Afghanistan can be accommodated. In other words, what is it that will ensure that the major ethnic groups can feel secure in their own geographical spaces and develop in accordance with their wishes along their own lines?
Some difficulties come to mind.
First: The present unity Constitution that the Americans and Karzai are holding out for will not do. Only a decentralized Afghanistan in which Kabul ceases to dominate the provinces can provide the degree of security each ethnic group craves.
Second: If they are confident about their own popularity among the Pashtuns, the Taliban should not have any objection to such a solution. It is something that they would need to accept if they wish Afghanistan transitioned from violence to peace. However, being who they are, and feeling responsible only to God and not their fellow man, it is unlikely that they will. Their desire is to dominate Afghanistan in the pre 9/11 style.
Third: As a settlement in Afghanistan is more in our interest than that of any other country we should be doing a lot more thinking and utilize backchannel diplomacy. While it is good that we have summoned up the guts to withstand US pressure to launch an operation in North Waziristan, we seem far less proactive than we should be in proposing a settlement and far more reactive than the situation demands.
Considering then what is at stake for Pakistan, one is at a loss to understand why special envoys carrying the outlines of an Afghan settlement plan are not already whizzing around the world and regional capitals. If need be, they should trawl the caves, ravines and valleys on the Pak-Afghan border where the Taliban are ensconced. Why is it that we move so slowly? Is it because we tend to stupidity? Why is it that we sit on our hands and eventually cast the blame for what is happening or not on others and essentially become spectators of our own miseries? Why do we wait for America and perhaps Holbrooke to conjure up a plan for peace? If this is our war then any agreed outcome must reflect our engagement and cooperation. Be not afraid of moving too fast, Mr Zardari, be only afraid of standing still.
This article is adapted from a column by the author published by The News International. The writer is a former ambassador. Reach him at
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