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May 5, 2010

Inside Obama's war

Scott Stockdale

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After the moderator assured the audience that American policy analyst Bruce Riedel was a private citizen now, so he could speak candidly about the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Riedel said little that contradicts the Obama administration's partyline, in his address at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), in Waterloo, Ontario.

Mr. Riedel advised Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from posts in the White House, the Defence Department and the CIA. He is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mr. Riedel became a senior adviser on the Middle East to (then) Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. After the election, he was asked by the president to chair the group charged with developing A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. That report was released on 27 March 2009.

In the first couple of minutes of his address, Mr. Riedel mentioned several attacks and planned attacks on the U.S. since 9/11, such as the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted underwear bombing of an American Airlines passenger jet at Christmas time, as examples of Al Qaeda being a direct threat to the United States and, by extension, Canada.

He said this is why President Obama said the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan, so that it's no longer a threat to the U.S. and its allies.  “Obama is a man of his word,” Mr. Riedel added.

Stressing that President Obama inherited a disaster in Afghanistan from the Bush administration, Mr. Riedel said America should been out of this war in 2003 (having achieved its objectives) if the proper resources and strategies had been used in 2001, when the Al Qaeda leadership was in disarray. However, he added that now the U.S. and its allies face a stronger Al Qaeda.

“Al Qaeda is embedded with different terrorist groups on the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some are new Afghan Taliban. Being embedded with other terrorist groups makes them stronger. South Asia has now eclipsed the Middle East as the centre of international terrorism.”

He noted that 7,000 civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year, while 8,600 civilians were killed or wounded in Pakistan; and then he added that a think tank said the real figure in Pakistan was 25,000 killed or wounded.

Mr. Riedel said the Pakistani army lost 10,000 soldiers last year, in its fight against the Taliban and Al Qadea, in the Pakistan – Afghanistan border region.

Meanwhile, he said enemy initiated attacks in Afghanistan itself have increased steadily from less than 50 per week in 2004 to over 500 per week in 2009.

While many may see this as a catastrophic situation, to the Obama administration, and to a lesser degree Mr. Riedel himself, the solution is obvious: send 60,000 more troops. After all, are there any other feasible alternatives?

On a more upbeat note, Mr. Riedel said the increasingly successful U.S. predator drone attacks have put pressure on the Al Qaeda leadership, which is evident by the absence of Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al Zawahiri from the airwaves since December. Mr. Riedel attributes this to the increased number of drone attacks and their increasing accuracy.

“In 2007 we had seven drone attacks and seven misses. Barack Obama has massively increased the number of attacks. In 2009 we had 50 attacks and some significant hits. In 2010 we'll have over 100.”

However, he acknowledged that not only can drone attacks alone not win this war, but “There is no military solution to this war.”

The solution then, Mr. Riedel said, is to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world.

“Al Qaeda has a very sophisticated narrative to explain why they should murder Crusaders and Zionists. That's you. The Obama administration has countered this in a number of ways: It has closed Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo attacking the fundamental narrative of Al Qaeda. He said the U.S. was born in revolution against colonialism. We don't want bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want to bring our soldiers home.”

He added that President Obama is well aware that a two-state solution to the problem in the Middle East, and a solution to the hostilities between India and Pakistan will go a long way toward countering the Al Qaeda narrative; and thus he's been working hard on these issues behind the scenes.

Although Pakistan has begun to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban along its border, Mr. Riedel indicated that the Obama Administration still has an uphill battle winning Pakistanis' allegiance.

“Pakistan feels that it can't rely on the U.S. For the last 60 years we've either been madly in love with them or divorced from them. The U.S. is not reliable when it comes to Pakistan. Pakistani polls show that Pakistanis believe the U.S. is the number one threat to their future. We out-poll India as the number one bad guy. We're in a deep, deep hole.”

Meanwhile, he says it's too soon to say if the beefed-up counterinsurgency force is having a positive effect, and it will take many more months to learn if this strategy is working. The plan is that by establishing dominance on the battlefield, NATO countries can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, where they can also be dominated.

With more troops on the ground, Mr. Riedel said the U.S. can take an area of Afghanistan and then hold it, while attempting to reintegrate rank and file members of the Taliban back into Afghanistan society, by providing them with training for jobs, so they can look after their families. 

As for Al Qaeda, Mr. Riedel said it can be defeated because it's a relatively small organization that the vast majority of Muslims don't support, partly because a disproportionate number of Al Qaeda's victims have been Muslims. However, he then added that this war, like all wars, will consume the presidency.

During a question and answer session after Mr. Riedel's address, University of Waterloo political science professor and panellist, Ramesh Thakur, said he doesn't agree with anything Mr. Riedel said.

“If you're in a hole, stop digging. It's time to get out. We've inherited this mess and we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. The stark reality is that different terrorist forces are interconnected on a global scale ... At which point do we say, 'This is not working. It's not worth sending more Canadians.’ “He added that the fact of the matter is that the U.S. and western powers will leave, even if it's five years from now.

“Someday the U.S. will leave and Pakistan will have to live in the new environment.”

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