It's time for the US to rethink its AfPak strategy

The Afghanistan-Pakistan approach: a five point plan for Obama.

Afghanistan is a mess. Pakistan remains a perpetual headache.  The Obama Administration’s AfPak strategy is not working.  It is time for a fresh approach.  

The starting point must be a hard-headed assessment of what kind of Afghanistan can be left behind when NATO forces leave in 2014.  The aim should be to prevent a descent into an all out civil war.  The foundations for a stable regime should be established where all key players feel they have a stake in the future of the country.  

US strategy should be re-focused upon five strands.

First, however much one detests the Taliban and what it stands for, it is clear that its confidence is growing.  The start of its Spring Offensive on April 15 - which saw the targeting of foreign embassies and government institutions - underlined the severity of the situation.  The long-term risk of not directly involving those elements of the Taliban willing to cease hostilities in discussions about power-sharing post-2014 is much greater than the short-term fallout a US President might suffer from doing so.  This is also an issue where the strategic interests of both the US and Pakistan coincide, and where the latter could prove useful in seeking a compromise. 

The Taliban comprehends the reality of its own position.  After 35 years of fighting, it is itself exhausted and appreciates that marching on Kabul post-NATO withdrawal is not realistic given the increasing strength of the Afghan army.  It also realises that all foreign aid would be immediately cut off leaving it facing a disgruntled electorate and millions of mouths to feed.

But the longer the US shuns a political solution in favour of a futile military pummelling of the enemy, the weaker its negotiating position will become.  

Second, a regional track to diplomacy on Afghanistan must be established, involving all countries with strategic interests in the country.  Pakistan has for decades sought pliable government in Kabul to offer “strategic depth” against India for fear of “encirclement”.  But the recent visit to India by Asif Ali Zardari, the first by a Pakistani president since 2005, to promote bilateral trade – currently a paltry $3bn - is an encouraging sign of a potential rapprochement between the two neighbours.  

The Russians, Iranians and Arab states also have a stake.  A multilateral diplomatic initiative needs to begin imminently and be led by a credible third party with no historical Kalashnikov to grind.

Third, the extent of the use of drone attacks should be considered.  There is no doubt that they have brought success in dispensing with a number of unsavoury characters in North Waziristan, the base of the Haqqani Network of insurgents.  However, when innocent civilians are killed, this simply acts as a recruiting sergeant for family members to take up arms against the US to avenge the death of their relations.  Honour and revenge in blood are hallmarks of the Pashtun tribal code.  Such attacks should be used sparingly and judiciously.

Fourth, as a Pew research study conducted last year revealed, only 1 per cent of Pakistanis had a positive image of the US - despite $600m in aid being provided after the floods in 2010.  Of the $20bn the US has given since 2001, over 70 per cent has been taken by the country’s military.  The US must instead focus its aid efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan on the development of infrastructure and the provision of microfinance to small businesses starved of credit.  The biggest problem being faced by ordinary Pakistanis is the shortage of gas, and living for up to 18-hours a day without power.  More than 60 per cent of the population is under-25 and only 50 per cent are literate.  Central to solving the security conundrum is helping Pakistan back to a path of economic growth and job creation.

Fifth, with an eye on the Pakistan Parliamentary elections to be held early next year, the US must recognise that the political balance of power within the country may well shift.  The frustrated youth and urban educated elites of Pakistan have been captivated by the anti-corruption message of former cricketing legend turned politician, Imran Khan.  His rallies in Lahore and Karachi have attracted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis.  A growing number are yearning for positive change.  They want an end to Berelvi (Sufi) shrines being bombed by radical Deobandi fanatics, economic prosperity, and their nation to be raised from the status of an international pariah state.  The US cannot afford to be caught out as it was, for a time, by the seismic events that took place across the Middle East last year. 

Laying the foundations for a stable Afghanistan by 2014 with Pakistan’s assistance is still achievable.  But it will require personal risk on the part of the President, whatever his political persuasion.  This is no time to be pusillanimous.  The situation demands a leader with the dexterity to strike a deal combined with a strategic vision for the region.  There might then still be one throw of the dice left in the Great Game.  

Ali Miraj was a member of the Conservative Party Commission on International and National Security 2005-2007

Barack Obama with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, September 2011. Photo: Getty Images
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit