Obama's New Security Team

President Barack Obama's decision last week to appoint a new Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, a new CIA chief, General David Petraeus, and a new general to head the war in Afghanistan, Lt Gen. John Allen, promises no certain victory in the war in that country.

Despite the capture and killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the strategy driving the war in Afghanistan is not an effective one. Rather, it is just warmed over strategy from Iraq, which aims to use increased force deployment (“surge”) to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that helped stabilize Iraq largely because of the Sahwa movement – i.e., the decision of the Sunni insurgent to side with the U.S. military in fighting al-Qaida. As a result Iraq was stabilized. However, the obdurate Sunni-Shia conflict is still there.

The Kurds are still dreaming to have a separate homeland in the northern Iraq. Al-Qaida is very much alive and active, and seems to be widening the scope and areas of its activities in that country. What the United States is focused in Iraq these days is to negotiate a long-term deal whereby it could retain a large chunk of its military forces in that country. In other words, George W. Bush's dream of making Iraq a permanent American colony is very much alive. Except that Obama is very suave in pursuing it.

In the absence of a sui generis strategy to win the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration initially went along with implanting the Iraqi “surge” model in Afghanistan. But there are no Sunni insurgents to fight on the side of the U.S. troops. There is no hardnosed implementation of the type of “clear, hold, build” strategy that is being implemented in Afghanistan. On the contrary, when Vice President Joseph Biden – who fancies himself some sort of expert on the Middle East and South Asia – insisted that counterinsurgency (CI) model of dealing with the war in Afghanistan is not a suitable one and advocated a counterterrorism (CT) approach, the Obama administration kept on insisting to Petraeus to do just that. The “political general” was forced to go along with that suggestion.

Consequently, there is no clear picture regarding what strategy the United States is really applying in Afghanistan – perhaps a blend of CI and CT. As the 2012 presidential elections approach closer, the Obama administration will be driven by the same urgency for developing a “quick fix” type of strategy to guarantee Obama's reelection as George Bush did in 2004 for winning his own second term.

President Obama's decision to appoint a new national security team should be viewed against this backdrop. The requirement for having a new team emerged because of the decision of Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to retire. Hillary Clinton was not interested in taking over his job. So, Leon Panetta, current head of CIA, was tapped to head the Department of Defense. Petraeus' next appointment – as if the celebrated general needed another feather in his cap – should have been the Chairman of Joint Chiefs. However, Petraeus could not shed the image as “Bush's general” within the Obama's inside advisors. But Obama needed the general “inside the tent,” so to speak, in order to win the next term. So he was given the job of the Chief of CIA, while “Obama's general,” USMC's James E. Cartwright, got the job as the new Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Petraeus' successor will be Lt. General John Allen, the current deputy commander of the USCENTCOM. Allen was a safe choice because he was stationed in Iraq. As such, he has “hands on” experience in implementing the surge strategy. Even though there is only a semblance of the surge strategy that is being applied in Afghanistan, Allen's appointment seems to have been done to stifle criticism related to a potential discontinuity in the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

The most promising part of this new national security team is the appointment of Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who performed so effectively, along with General Petraeus, as the US Ambassador to Iraq. In that capacity, he not only developed good rapport with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but he also complemented Petraeus role as his military counterpart in that country. The most annoying aspect of watching the top US operatives in Afghanistan was the prickly U.S. Ambassador, Carl Eikenberry, who did not get along with General Stanley McChrystal or with President Hamid Karzai. He should have been fired from that job several months ago.

One has to keep on wondering why Obama left Eikenberry in that job for this long. It was either Obama's lack of experience in foreign policy, or his lack of focus on Afghanistan that resulted in Eikenberry's remaining as a sore spot inside the U.S. power circles in Afghanistan. One has to hope that things are likely to improve now that Ambassador Crocker will be in charge of diplomatic affairs.

As the new team is confirmed and put in place in the next several weeks, there is that hope that the current US strategy in Afghanistan will also change. A winning strategy in Afghanistan must take into consideration Pakistan's genuine national security concerns, and, thereby, enabling that country to become a true US partner in winning this war. The United States and Pakistan – at least according to President Obama's speech on the subject – cooperated in killing Bin Laden. However, the question is how far that cooperation will go in the future for winning the war.

The fact that Bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, a military cantonment less than 50 kilometers from Islamabad, does not bode well about the alleged knowledge and involvement of the ISI or even the Pakistani military. The uppermost question right now has to be how much did those entities know about Bin Laden's presence and how long did they know it. However, once the matter is clarified, it behooves both Washington and Islamabad to find fresh bases of rapprochement about winning the Afghan war.

If Pakistan has indeed cooperated with the U.S. military in eliminating Bin Laden, then that fact should only persuade the Obama administration about the value of cooperation from Pakistan. It is hoped that the new team – especially the seasoned political operative Leon Panetta in his role as Secretary of Defense, is most qualified to bring his country and Pakistan closer in winning the Afghan war. Petraeus, with all his political clout related to his past achievements as a general, will have less of a role as CIA Director in having direct dealings with the Pakistani officials. So, one should not attach too much significance to his continued dominance in the future dialogue with Pakistani officials.