By Michael Shank and Shukria Dellawar

With Robert Gates remaining at the helm of the US defence department for another term, Barack Obama signals that the Pentagon’s modus operandi changes little. There are pros and cons to this. The good news: lessons learned from George Bush’s administration will be carried forth, resulting in efficiencies strategically and operationally. The bad news: under newly appointed Centcom chief General David Petraeus the oft-touted “awakening councils” of Iraq will be mimicked in the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. If this policy is pursued – something former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld recently discouraged – it will fail.

First, the credibility of the council concept is dubious at best. The creation of councils in Iraq, with the lauded Sunni Sons of Anbar Province, was pursued with the purpose of enticing Sunni insurgents away from the al-Qaida fold. Money and munitions were funnelled directly to local leaders at Centcom’s discretion. Unsurprisingly, as the US payroll was markedly more profitable, the Sons of Iraq offered loyalty to the highest bidder. The strategy was heralded in Washington by a war-weary Congress hungry for good news. But they misread the newfound allegiance as support for the American cause.

It was anything but. The councils severed ties with al-Qaida due to disputes over ideology, methods of fighting Baghdad’s Shia government (attack civilians or officials?), the direction of the insurgency and concern about warfare’s impact on civilians. For America, this mattered little. Instead, the US succumbed to short-term gain, neglecting the councils’ long-term impact on an increasingly decentralised Iraqi leadership.

When Obama implements the Status of Forces Agreement recently brokered between the US and Iraqi governments, the concomitant American troop pullout of cities in 2009 and the country in 2011 leaves behind a non-inclusive Shia-led Baghdad as the central government and a militarily and monetarily bolstered Sunni-led provincial stronghold. Sadly, this is a reversal of pre-invasion ethnic dynamics, when Sunnis controlled Baghdad politics and Shias were left out. The councils only exacerbate this tension.

Second, tribal dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions are hardly conducive for councils.

The clarity of choice in Anbar – to fight for al-Qaida or America – is nonexistent in Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions. The border’s ethnically heterogeneous population – native Pashtun and Hazara or immigrant Tajik and Uzbek – makes messy business if Americans want strict ethnic force formation. Moreover, given America’s indiscriminate air raids and a history of imperialist agendas played out locally by US and British forces, many locals loathe America and foreign intervention. Neither money nor munitions will sway them.

Third, and most importantly, something more substantial and sustainable than short-term council-queuing is needed to quell the violence in the South Asian hinterlands.

The security solution requires much more than what military alliances alone can muster. If Obama is not careful, his brigade boostering in Afghanistan and planned pummelling of Pakistan will backfire as it did under the Bush administration. The primacy of hard power will proffer little but alienated Afghans and recruits for the Taliban. Keep in mind that the Taliban grew in number under the Bush administration with some elements allying with al-Qaida and foreign militants in the common cause of forcing foreign troop withdrawal.

New political and economic strategies, then, are needed to curb growing instability. In the short term, efforts to usher in security will need to focus on bringing moderate Taliban elements into the political fold. Robert Gates recognises this. It requires a re-think about what a conservative “democratic Afghanistan” would look like in the interest of fighting terrorism and bringing peace to the region.

Simultaneously, robust soft power is needed to advance good governance, contain opium cultivation, increase reconstruction and focus on state building. Obama’s pledge of $1bn in non-military economic assistance for Afghanistan – equalling, hardly surpassing, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s similar call – is simply insufficient. (Same too for the similar sum suggested for Pakistan.) The straits are dire in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, with unemployment as high as 80% and locals living on less than $1 a day. Unless America is willing to focus on the roots of tribal insecurity – poverty, unemployment and illiteracy – the ground will remain fertile for Taliban recruitment and disdain for the near daily dose of American air raids.

Lest Obama continue the failed policies of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, either new blood is needed in the Pentagon or a new strategy is needed on the border. Since Gates and Petraeus are here to stay, hopefully the only awakening that counsels Obama’s watch is the wisdom of wariness vis-a-vis America’s military modus operandi and a willingness to wage a softer form of US power.

Michael Shank is communications director at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Shukria Dellawar is from Afghanistan and is a graduate student at the Institute.

Guardian News and Media Limited 2008