Obama's escalation challenges U.S. military

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan challenges his generals to do more with slightly less than they wanted -- and much, much faster. The odds are against them.
The deployment of 30,000 more troops is a victory for proponents of the buildup within the U.S. military, who say it will breathe new life into a flagging eight-year-old war that would have ended in defeat otherwise.
But Obama did not give General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander on the ground, all of the 40,000 troops he sought -- let alone a more ambitious plan to deploy up to 80,000 extra troops. NATO will not entirely bridge the gap.
Obama, in his speech on Tuesday, also demanded success more quickly, calling for U.S. forces to start pulling out in mid-2011 -- a year and a half sooner than McChrystal thought was advisable.
"He is being asked to do more with less, at least less than he had asked for," said military analyst Kimberly Kagan, who was part of the team that helped McChrystal assess the Afghan conflict during the summer.
"Is it enough? I don't know ... 30,000 forces is a lot of combat power and it has a chance, and I think a reasonable chance, of dramatically changing the situation on the ground."
Commanders are expected to funnel the forces into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and opium-producing areas of Helmand province, protecting key population centers.
The reinforcements, all of which are expected to be in place by the end of August, will aim to isolate the Taliban and create the space needed to train the Afghan security forces and build local governance.
McChrystal, a straight-talking former special operations commander said to sleep just four or five hours a night, led Americans into an autumn of soul-searching about the Afghan war after his bleak assessment of the conflict was leaked to the media in September.
He warned the war effort would fail without additional troops, and, worse still, that an escalation alone could not ensure victory.
But his calls to address a crisis of confidence in the Afghan government have raised uncomfortable questions about nation-building -- a grim prospect in an underdeveloped country ravaged by three decades of war, rampant corruption and a booming opium trade.
Obama, in his speech, said Afghanistan's government had to crack down on corruption and deliver services to the people, warning "the days of providing a blank check are over."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has announced plans to tighten control of multimillion-dollar U.S. contracts as a first step to fighting corruption.
After three months of White House strategy reviews, McChrystal commended Obama for giving him a "clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task" -- even though he did not get all of the troops he wanted.
McChrystal cited the goal of ramping up training of Afghan security forces -- a crucial step for any handover. There are now about 190,000 Afghan soldiers and police, a number McChrystal has recommended raising to 400,000.
But officials have also spoken bluntly about the obstacles of developing capable Afghan security forces given high attrition rates among recruits and widespread illiteracy.
Less than a third of the Afghan population are literate and officer training includes teaching officers to read, a fact McChrystal warns could take the training well beyond 2013.
For McChrystal and his boss, General David Petraeus, the Afghanistan mission will be a crucial test of counter-insurgency strategy and the lessons of Iraq.
There, a quick "surge" of 20,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq between January and July 2007 is one of the factors credited with helping to pull that country back from brink.
But both McChrystal and Petraeus have been wary of drawing comparisons to Iraq given the major differences with Afghanistan, which lacks a strong central government or tribal structure after three decades of war.
For his part, Obama rejected comparisons to Vietnam in his speech on Tuesday, as U.S. generals have done for years.
And then there is the Soviet Union. U.S. military strategists are working hard to make sure that Western forces are not seen as occupiers, as they escalate past the peak size of Soviet forces before their withdrawal in defeat in 1989.
Gates has said showing Afghans that U.S. troops improve their lives will help prevent comparisons to the Soviets. He wants U.S. forces to build wells, schools and roads after clearing towns of the Taliban.
But avoiding such comparisons could be difficult. Even the strategy itself drew allusions to the Soviet Union on Tuesday.
"The McChrystal plan calls for what the Soviets did -- holding the cities," said Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.
"That did not work for the Soviets and I don't know how it will work with us, given the troop footprint we have."

Separatists, Islamists and Islamabad Struggle for Control of Pakistani Balochistan

By: Chris Zambelis

To say that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001 shook Pakistan to its core would be an understatement. Since then, the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan on multiple levels. The escalating cycle of violence between Pakistani security forces and a patchwork of tribal militants, particularly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and foreign fighters aligned with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is a case in point. Many observers of Pakistani affairs have used the deteriorating situation in the tribal agencies along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier as a bellwether of future trends in Pakistan. In this context, it is no surprise that events in Pakistan’s tribal areas seem to draw the most attention. Yet Pakistan’s Balochistan province is also beginning to draw interest as a center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.

Reports that the U.S. is seeking Pakistan’s approval for expanding its controversial drone campaign against targets in Balochistan - a clear red line for Pakistan - have raised serious concerns in Islamabad about Washington’s ultimate intentions (The News, [Islamabad], September 29). As the Obama administration escalates its military campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders have expressed deep concerns about the potential destabilization of Balochistan resulting from the intensified fighting expected in Afghanistan in the coming months (The Nation [Lahore], November 27). As if these concerns were not enough, Balochistan remains a hotbed of ethno-nationalist militancy, drug smuggling, and organized crime. Balochistan is also in the throes of a refugee crisis that has been largely ignored. The confluence of these trends - which indirectly or directly reinforce each other - is making an already dangerous situation worse with severe implications for Pakistan and the wider region.

Geography and Demographics

Balochistan occupies approximately 42 percent of Pakistan’s total landmass, making it the country’s largest province. Yet in spite of its large geographic area, Balochistan is only home to an estimated population ranging between 7 and 12 million, a consequence of its harsh, mountainous terrain and paucity of water sources, making it Pakistan’s least densely populated region and smallest province in terms of total population. The provincial capital of Quetta is home to an estimated 750,000 to 1 million people. Ethnic Baloch represent a slight majority in the province, with ethnic Pashtuns, many of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from Afghanistan, representing the next largest community, especially in the north. Ethnic Pashtun influence is significant in Balochistan; the provincial capital Quetta, for instance, is a majority Pashtun city, as are other areas of the province. Balochistan is also home to smaller ethnic and religious minorities.

Pakistani Balochistan is situated in a strategic location in southwestern Pakistan due south of the South Waziristan region of the FATA and adjacent to the borders of the neighboring Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan and Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabol, and Paktika provinces. Balochistan lies on the Gulf of Oman, a busy sea passage that connects to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and by extension, the wider Indian Ocean. Balochistan is also home to the strategically important Gwadar deepwater seaport. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was motivated largely by Moscow’s pursuit of access to a long coveted warm water seaport giving access to the Indian Ocean.

Balochistan is among Pakistan’s poorest and least developed regions. Paradoxically, it is also rich in natural resources. Balochistan is home to significant natural gas deposits (accounting for at least one-third of total Pakistani consumption) and oil reserves. It is also rich in minerals and metals, including copper, uranium, and gold (Asia Times [Hong Kong], May 9). Balochistan lies along the route of the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline - popularly dubbed the “peace pipeline” - designed to transfer natural gas from Iran to India via Pakistan. Balochistan also lies along the alternative regional pipeline network favored by the United States (precisely because it excludes Iran) known as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. [1]

Ethno-Nationalist Militancy

Balochistan has been a center of ethno-nationalist militancy and violent revolts against the state since the province was forcibly annexed by Pakistan after the partition of India gave rise to an independent Pakistan. Prior to being annexed by Pakistan, Balochistan enjoyed autonomy under British colonial rule. Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch community is underserved and deeply resents what it sees as a calculated effort by Islamabad to suppress Baloch identity and culture. Baloch nationalists argue that Islamabad is actively working to keep the Baloch people impoverished, weak, and disorganized, thus making it easier for the ethnic-Punjabi dominated central government to reap the benefits of Balochistan’s vast natural resources. The latest outbreak of the Baloch insurgency was sparked by the deaths of three prominent Baloch rebel leaders following a period of relative calm. Baloch militant groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) accused Islamabad of instigating the latest round of violence.

Baloch militants typically target symbols of the Pakistani state, political leaders, members of the security services and targets associated with the region’s natural resources, such as gas pipelines. Pakistan has always viewed the Baloch with great suspicion, owing in part to their strong sense of national identity and their numbers in Afghanistan and the neighboring Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan, where ethnic Baloch insurgents led by the obscure Jundallah (Soldiers of God) movement are mounting their own violent campaign against Tehran (see Terrorism Monitor, February 9). While Pakistan and Iran have a history of cooperating closely to suppress Baloch nationalism, as the Baloch separatist aspirations threaten the territorial integrity of both countries, Pakistan is wary of attempts by regional rivals such as India to support Baloch militancy (PakTribune [Rawalpindi], November 19).

The threat of Baloch separatism will remain a challenge for Pakistan in its own right. The deteriorating security situation across Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, could severely complicate matters for Islamabad in Balochistan. Baloch rebels, for instance, may see a window of opportunity to escalate their campaign against Islamabad as Pakistan concentrates its efforts on fighting militants in the tribal areas. A potential expansion of the U.S. drone campaign to Balochistan may also provide Baloch militants with another opening to strike at Islamabad. There is evidence to suggest that Baloch rebels are already exploiting the current turmoil in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A series of bomb blasts and abductions in recent years targeting Chinese laborers prompted China to halt construction of the Gwadar oil refinery in Balochistan due to security concerns (Financial Times, August 14). Baloch rebels have also begun abducting international NGO personnel in the province. A senior UNHCR official was kidnapped and his driver killed by members of the BLUF in Quetta in February. BLUF staged the operation in part to highlight the plight of Baloch political prisoners in Pakistani prisons. While the UN official was eventually released, the BLUF’s decision to target UN relief workers represents a major escalation of Baloch militancy (Dawn [Karachi], February 4). Islamabad fears that Baloch rebels may position themselves as a potential bulwark against the spread of Taliban and al-Qaeda-style extremism that is increasingly gripping the province’s ethnic Pashtuns in an effort to gain allies in Washington, thus circumventing Islamabad’s authority and potentially ushering in a new and more dangerous stage of the Baloch separatist movement.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda

U.S. officials identify Balochistan as a critical center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity. Many observers believe that high-profile al-Qaeda figures and ranking Taliban members, including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, have fled Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal areas for sanctuary in Balochistan. The provincial capital of Quetta is believed to serve as a critical hub for financing and organizing Taliban and al-Qaeda operations (Dawn, September 30). Islamabad’s intelligence service is often accused of protecting Afghan Taliban members in Balochistan, namely the powerful Taliban faction led by Mullah Omar known as the Quetta Shura. Pakistan disputes the very existence of the Quetta Shura, choosing instead to lay the blame for the resurgence of the Taliban and the deteriorating security situation in South Asia on what it describes as the failure of the U.S.-led mission to stabilize Afghanistan (Dawn, September 27). Because of its geographic proximity to the tribal areas, Balochistan is open to a spillover of violence and radicalism. The emergence of Baloch-based militants aligned with the Taliban, namely the obscure Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan (TTB), is indicative of the larger concerns regarding the spread of radicalism in the region (The News, March 4).

Because Balochistan borders Afghanistan, including Helmand province—a center for Taliban operations against NATO forces—Islamabad worries that an escalation of the U.S.-led campaign in Helmand and other parts of Afghanistan will compel Afghan militants to use Balochistan as a temporary sanctuary to evade direct engagements with U.S. forces. Afghan militants may also use Balochistan as a staging ground for attacks against NATO forces in Helmand and beyond. In other words, Pakistan fears that Balochistan may go the way of FATA and the NWFP following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, a dangerous scenario, to say the least. Afghan militants may also wreak havoc in Balochistan by launching attacks inside the province, particularly against religious minorities such as the small Shi’a community, a frequent object of radical Sunni Islamist ire. In fact, Balochistan has seen a spike in sectarian attacks over the last few years (AFP, March 4). Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani has expressed concern over a possible influx of militants in Balochistan after U.S. reinforcements arrive in Afghanistan (The Nation, November 27). This is a nightmare scenario for Pakistan since it also has the potential to invite a more aggressive U.S. policy of launching drone attacks in Balochistan.

Tribal militants fleeing the Pakistani military’s offensive in the tribal areas may also use nearby Balochistan as a temporary base. The problems affecting Balochistan are severe, considering that the region serves as one of the crucial logistical hubs sustaining the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Convoys ferrying fuel, vehicles, arms, food, and other crucial items to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan travel through Balochistan. The first confirmed attack against a NATO convoy in Balochistan occurred in June in Chaman City, near the Afghan border (Times of India [New Delhi], June 3). Militants struck again in September in an attack against a NATO fuel convoy passing near Quetta, setting eight oil tankers ablaze (UPI, September 9). Vital supply routes used by NATO in Balochistan are likely to come under increasing attack as the escalation in Afghanistan unfolds, consequently raising a new set of challenges.

Opium and Organized Crime

Pakistani Balochistan plays a critical role as one the world’s busiest and most dangerous opium smuggling hubs, where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran converge. Known as the Golden Crescent, the region is home to scores of powerful organized crime networks, especially criminal organizations engaged in drug smuggling and opium production. Not surprisingly, the rapid expansion of opium cultivation in Afghanistan in recent years has provided a boon to regional drug smugglers.

Ethnic Baloch-led criminal gangs based in Pakistani Balochistan (some of which associate with ethnic Baloch insurgent groups as well as Taliban factions based on mutual business interests as opposed to ideology or politics) figure prominently in the smuggling of opium out of Afghanistan (Asia Times, October 22).

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world with almost 1.8 million refugees on its soil. [2] Pakistani Balochistan is home to generations of refugees, mostly ethnic Pashtuns who fled Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, as well as refugees who fled the country more recently. Balochistan is also home to IDP camps housing upwards of 200,000 ethnic Baloch forced to flee various parts of the province as a result of Islamabad’s military operations against Baloch separatists in the region. [3]

UNHCR estimates that upwards of 2 million people - nearly all ethnic Pashtuns - were forced to flee their homes during the fighting between Pakistani security forces and tribal militants in the FATA and NWFP [4] The massive scale of the displacement of Pashtuns from the tribal areas to other parts of Pakistan, including Balochistan, has caught Pakistani, U.S., and international authorities by surprise. The migration of IDPs into Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan will have a serious social and political impact on Pakistan’s society and economy that may ultimately threaten political stability. Baloch activists, for instance, often accuse Islamabad and the international community of favoring Pashtun refugees and IDPs in Balochistan at the expense of ethnic Baloch IDPs for political reasons. Some Baloch observers believe that Islamabad is exploiting the refugee and IDP crisis in Balochistan to further diminish Baloch influence through demographic changes. [5] The recent decision by the United Nations to withdraw much of its staff from parts of Pakistan - including Balochistan - due to security concerns will also exacerbate matters in the months ahead, adding another set of challenges to Pakistan’s embattled domestic institutions

Pakistani Ruling classes plunder public money

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Dr Babar Awan has disclosed that three political families and some retired army officers got millions of rupees bank loans waived from 30 banks across the country between 1985 and 2003. Without giving details, he said the National Bank of Pakistan had been the main sufferer. A report on this corruption by influential people has been tabled in the National Assembly. Separately, the NA's Public Accounts Committee also sought details of the writing-off of 1,000 Industrial Development Bank of Pakistan loans amounting to Rs 14 billion. Federal minister Syed Naveed Qamar also divulged in the NA the other day that a total of about Rs 60 billion of bank loans have been written off during 1999-2007. Most written off loans were obtained by cement, textile and sugar industries. The Punjab Bank waived Rs 608.74 million and the National Bank of Pakistan Rs 6109 million. The First Women Bank wrote off Rs 12.3 million, SME Bank Rs 1.239 billion, the IDBP Rs 10.763 billion and the Bank of Khyber Rs 1.124 billion. A total of Rs 127.485 billion of loans have been written off between 1999 and 2007 alone. If calculated banks have been writing off loans worth trillions of rupees between 1985 and 2007 and political people, army institutions and industries in addition to influential individuals have been the beneficiaries. This is not all because as, upon the directions, the State Bank has been submitting to superior courts lists of the people obtaining huge loans from almost all Pakistani banks and then getting them written off. What is even more deplorable is that all such scams have gone unnoticed and no corrupt people have ever been proceeded against under any law of the land. No government has ever seemed pushed about this colossal bank robbery particularly since 1985. This is because all political parties, military establishment, business barons and industrial tycoons belong to one ruling class that have virtually developed mafias that are sucking the blood of the common people already subject to severe economic miseries. Banks around the world work for the betterment of society and the welfare of the people but in Pakistan they serve only the already rich and influential. Stopping this corrupt practice is almost impossible at least for the political administration because top bosses are hand in glove with bank loan mafias. In fact, all those belonging to the ruling class are working like mafias. As such, the people cannot expect justice from any government. The only way left may be a judicial commission to probe into this alarmingly high corruption. As a last hope the Chief Justice of Pakistan should appoint a commission to inquire into the issue in depth at least since 1958, fix responsibilities, get the plundered public money back and inflict exemplary punishment on those who have and continue to harm the national and public financial interests. We may request the apex court of the country to also slap disqualification on corrupt political people from pursuing their political ambitions because no corrupt deserves a place in a legislature and government.

The Afghanistan Speech

New York Times

Americans have reason to be pessimistic, if not despairing, about the war in Afghanistan. After eight years of fighting, more than 800 American lives lost and more than 200 billion taxpayer dollars spent, the Afghan government is barely legitimate and barely hanging on in the face of an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.

In his speech Tuesday night, President Obama showed considerable political courage by addressing that pessimism and despair head-on. He explained why the United States cannot walk away from the war and outlined an ambitious and high-risk strategy for driving back the Taliban and bolstering the Afghan government so American troops can eventually go home.

For far too long — mostly, but not only, under President George W. Bush — Afghanistan policy has had little direction and no accountability. Mr. Obama started to address those problems at West Point, although the country needs to hear more about how he intends to pay for the war and how he will decide when Afghanistan will be able to stand on its own.

The president’s prolonged and leak-ridden policy review had fanned doubts here and abroad about Mr. Obama’s commitment. He showed no reluctance on Tuesday night. He said he decided to send more troops because he is “convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” which he called “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda.”

“This is no idle danger,” Mr. Obama said, “no hypothetical threat.” He warned that new attacks were being plotted in the region, and raised the terrifying prospect of an unchecked Al Qaeda taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Mr. Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops — and ask NATO allies for several thousand more — is unlikely to end the political debate. Republicans are certain to point out that it is still short of the 40,000 requested by the top field commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and object to the president’s pledge of a quick drawdown. Many Democrats and the president’s own vice president had opposed any escalation.

At this late date, we don’t know if even 100,000 American troops plus 40,000 from NATO will be enough to turn the war around. But we are sure that continuing President Bush’s strategy of fighting on the cheap (in January 2008, the start of Mr. Bush’s last year in office and more than six years after the war began, there were only 27,000 American troops in Afghanistan) is a guarantee of defeat.

Mr. Obama said he planned to move those 30,0000 troops in quickly — within six months — to break the Taliban’s momentum, secure key population centers, speed up training of Afghan security forces and then hand over control to Afghan authorities. He said he expected to be able to start drawing down American forces in July 2011. But he made no promise about when all American combat troops would be gone, saying only that the decision would be based on conditions on the ground.

Over all, we found the president’s military arguments persuasive.

The Afghan people have no love for the Taliban’s medieval ideas and brutality, but the Karzai government’s failure to provide basic services or security has led many to conclude that they have no choice but to submit. Driving the Taliban back swiftly and decisively from key cities and regions should help change that calculation. Coupled with an offer of negotiations, it may also peel away less committed fighters.

There is no point in doing that unless there is a minimally credible Afghan government to “hold” those areas. There is no chance of that unless Mr. Karzai ends the corruption and appoints competent officials. One of Mr. Obama’s biggest challenges is figuring out how to goad him into doing that, without further damaging the Afghan leader’s legitimacy, or driving him even deeper into his circle of unsavory cronies and warlords.

In his speech Mr. Obama sought to put Mr. Karzai on notice, but more gently than we would have. “The days of providing a blank check are over,” he said, vowing that his government “will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.”

We hope that the president and his aides — who failed to stop Mr. Karzai from trying to steal his re-election — are a lot more specific and a lot more forceful with the Afghan leader in private.

Mr. Obama faced a similar balancing act with Pakistan. He forcefully argued that Pakistan’s survival also depends on defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban but gave the Pakistani government more credit than we would have for seeing that.

Pakistani officials insist they understand the threat but question Washington’s staying power. Mr. Obama said the United States will support Pakistan’s “security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent.” But it will take a lot more cajoling and pressure to finally persuade Islamabad to stop hedging its bets and fully take on the extremists.

For years President Bush sought to disguise the true cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars. So it was a relief to hear the president put a credible price tag on his escalation — he said it is likely to cost an additional $30 billion next year — and promise to work with Congress to pay for it. He and Congress need to address that issue quickly and credibly.

We are eager to see American troops come home. We don’t know whether Mr. Obama will be able to meet his July 2011 deadline to start drawing down forces.

For that to happen, there will have to be a lot more success at training Afghan forces and improving the government’s effectiveness.

Still, setting a deadline — so long as it is not set in stone — is a sound idea. Mr. Karzai and his aides need to know that America’s commitment is not open-ended. Mr. Obama’s generals and diplomats also need to know that their work will be closely monitored and reviewed.

Otherwise, Mr. Obama will be hard pressed to keep his promise that this war, already the longest in American history, will not go on forever.