Afghanistan 2014 Transition can be messy

BY H.K. Dua  

The US and Nato have finalized their plans to pull most of their troops out of Afghanistan, but no major player on the scene is certain that the strife-torn country will see peace and stability after the foreign troops have gone home.

Even if the US chooses to leave behind 10,000-odd troops, plus drones, behind, there is no guarantee that the Taliban, which it has been fighting for over a decade, will let peace prevail in Afghanistan until its aim to rule over the country has achieved.

Accounts filtering out of the contacts between the US and the Taliban in Turkey and the Gulf countries and those between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban are hazy and  do not promise  a political settlement about a post-pull out dispensation.

The major supporter of the Taliban – Pakistan – which has been holding its cards close to itself  has until recently been reluctant to be of help to the US mainly because the relations between Washington and Islamabad have remained strained after the US captured Osama bin Laden from his sanctuary in Abbotabad.

Judging from the latest statements made by Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani after a meeting with Hillary Clinton relations between the two countries seem to be  on the mend and there are indications that Pakistan may now agree to lend the US interlocutors some help to facilitate talks with the Taliban leaders, most of whom are in Quetta.

Hamid Karzai has been making his own efforts to have Pakistan on board and his recent meeting with President  Asif Zardari has led to the release last week of Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, and the latest press reports emanating from Pakistan suggest that Mullah Baradar may also be released soon by Islamabad.

Whatever the quality of improvement of relations between the United States and Pakistan, and the promised release of Mullah Baradar as a confidence-building overture to Hamid Karzai, it is likely a transition from the present situation to a post-pull out Afghanistan is fraught with acute uncertainty.

It is mainly because the aims of all major players are different and apparently not reconcilable.
The end-game being played in Afghanistan may turn out to be less painful than  the agony it suffered in US pull-out from Vietnam and to some extent  in Iraq.  This is notwithstanding the reality that the US has not accomplished all its tasks it wanted to in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama had in his first term made it clear that his future policy would aim at pulling the US troops out of Afghanistan.  His decision to get out of Afghan engagement was clearly the outcome of the slowdown in the US economy and the growing unpopularity of the war being fought faraway in the mountainous terrain at the cost of nearly $ 3 trillion and enormous loss of lives of American soldiers.

In the second term, the Obama Administration has stepped up its efforts to secure a smooth and honourable exit from Afghanistan. His critics had faulted him for announcing much in advance the 2014-deadline for the pull-out. This was bound to make the Taliban more difficult to deal with. Hence, the US attempts to persuade Pakistan bring the Taliban leaders  to the negotiating table for a political settlement of the conflict.

The Taliban has one aim: It wants to be a part of any future government in Kabul. Pakistan is also keen that a post-pull out government  in Kabul should be headed by someone who is willing to do Islamabad’s bidding. Whatever, the  public protestations Islamabad —  certainly  the Pakistan Army — has not given up the desire to acquire strategic depth in Afghanistan.

The US  wants to evolve a political settlement in which all sections of the Afghan society are a party.  Any settlement with the Taliban, which is mainly Pushtoon  in composition, will not endure as those who were the members of the Northern alliance which have been backing the US drive against the Taliban, will not accept an accord reached only with the Taliban.

Presidednt  Karzai who understands this problem of  managing various sectional demands more than any other Afghan leader, is retiring by 2014 when the  US troops will be leaving.

The post-pull out situation can lead to an outbreak of fresh hostilities familiar to Afghans. . The northern alliance at some stage might get revived and a civil war can break out which the 10,000-odd troops the Americans want to leave behind might not be able  to prevent.

Although the Taliban is unlikely to give up its objective of gaining power in Kabul, the  possibility of the Taliban establishing their  hold on southern and south-western Afghanistan cannot be ruled out as soon as the US troops have left.

Not that this will lead to a division of Afghanistan as once predicted by Robert Blackwill, a former US Ambassador to India, a few years ago, the Afghans being essentially nationalistic in mind irrespective of  varied ethnicity. However, the kind of peace Afghanistan badly needs for economic and social development will elude the country for quite some time.

Pakistan, has a price for helping the Americans who have lately shown understanding of its keenness to install a government convenient for Islamabad. It also wants the US, and British give an undertaking that they would accept the Durand Line as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – a proposition that has been a sore point with the Pushtoons.

The Americans are keen that the Taliban agree to work within the framework of the new constitution, give up violence and not support Al Qaida. From Pakistan it wants a commitment that it will not allow  safe havens for the terrorist groups on its territory from where they have been launching attacks into Afghanistan and on US  troops.

The precarious state of Pakistan economy and the need for another tranche of money from the US and international agencies might compel it to be of help to the Americans arrive at a settlement with the Taliban.

On their part, Americans may ultimately pay that price, as they have always been doing, considering that they have generally  considered Pakistan a front-line State – earlier against the Soviet Union and now against the Taliban and terrorism.

What if the Taliban – “Good Taliban”, as President Obama once innocently described, agree to these conditions now, but after sharing power in Kabul for some time return to the old ways ignoring all the commitments made. Also, Pakistan  may not be able to prevent the use of safe havens even if it wants to be of help to the Americans.

History does not repeat itself every time a transition is attempted. But it could be going back to the drones Pakistan and the Taliban hate so bitterly. The year 2014 may not end up on a positive note for Afghanistan as being planned by the international chess-players. Endgames are generally difficult to play as Afghan history has proved in the past.

—Mr H K Dua is a  senior journalist   and now a Member of Parliament.


Obama needs to redo his sums

Most reports emanating from Washington indicate that the United States is caught in an acute dilemma over Afghanistan. Having spent nine years fighting in the mountainous terrain without achieving what it wanted to, policy-makers in Washington are debating not the pros and cons of a pull-out, but when to pull out of Afghanistan.

The issue will be clinched in December when President Barak Obama has called a high-level review conference after which he will take the call about the time-table and the nature of the troop withdrawal.

Even before President Obama reaches New Delhi for his first-ever visit in November, India is letting the Americans know how dangerous it will be to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of troops next summer as promised by the US President soon after his election.

The jury is still out in Washington on the US pull-out.  Compulsions of domestic politics, the forthcoming congressional elections, his keenness to stand for a second term in the White House, the  running cost of the war, the battle-fatigue, and the state of the economy,  seem to have persuaded President Obama to favour a phased withdrawal beginning in July next year.

Many of his top advisors are agreeing with him.  He is also getting support from Nato allies who are fighting with US troops  but are showing greater keenness to pull out of Afghanistan.

However, serious opposition to a pull-out is coming from other policy advisors who think the US cannot afford to lose face in the world if it walks out of Afghanistan without achieving much.

General David Patreas who was recently sent to Afghanistan to lead the US troops, chose to go on record recently, stoutly opposing the idea of the withdrawal next summer. He thinks the US task in Afghanistan is not yet over. This view is reportedly shared by several policy wonks in Washington, and many in the Pentagon. It remains to be seen whether President Obama will at all go by the views of the high-profile general  or stick to his belief.

There is a serious risk of the Americans going in for a  withdrawal  without considering the implications it will have for the image of the United States as a world power, for the countries in the region and the rest of the world.

A US withdrawal is bound to send wrong signals to the Taliban, Al Qaida and other Jehadis all over the world who would possibly have a last laugh over the fate of the campaign the mighty United States  launched against them soon after 9/11.

Already the Taliban are feeling emboldened by Nato troops’ failure to tackle it.  The Taliban continue to have the capacity to mount attacks at the targets they choose  and  disperse behind the hills afterward. They have been able to have their way, particularly in the south and the areas close to Pakistan-Afghan border.

Al-Qaida, on the other hand, is not just marking its time in the caves in the Af-Pak region. It has begun operating from Yemen, Somalia and lately from Algeria.  A fight against terrorism is always difficult; it is more so, when the destructive force spreads its wings to different countries and climes.

India will  also be concerned if the pull-out leads to the Taliban filling the  post-withdrawal vacuum. The bitter memories of the 1990s when Indians were driven out of Afghanistan, and the Kandhar hijack are still fresh in Indian minds.  Pakistan’s ISI will again exploit the situation by using the Taliban against India.

Islamabad’s ultimate aim is to acquire what it calls “strategic depth” –the strange doctrine it has evolved to give a cover to its extra-curricular territorial designs by installing a surrogate government in Kabul.

India is not opposed to the US pull-out per se.  It, however, does not want Pakistan to gain influence in Afghanistan using the Taliban which has been trained by the ISI.  General Pervez Kiyani and his predecessors have over the years  sought to justify the doctrine of strategic depth on the ground that Pakistan needs  “the depth” in the north-west to face threat from India in the east.

New Delhi would like a regional solution to be evolved at an international conference to guarantee Afghanistan, like Austria, a neutral status.  This will essentially involve guarantees by the UN Security Council, the European Union, the neighbours – India, Pakistan and Iran – and those in the north like Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

Pakistan, as expected, is totally allergic to the idea of  regional solution as it will not be able to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The guarantees will counter its game-plan going under the rubric of “strategic depth”. It is odd that the US is also lukewarm to the idea of  regional solution.

There is another danger in case the US pulls out. The Taliban are essentially a Pushtoon force reflecting  hardcore Wahabi orthodoxy.  The Tajiks and  the Uzbeks in the northern and the Hazras living along the borders with Iran are bound to join hands against the Taliban.

This kind of conflict can again lead to a civil war between the Taliban and the non-Pushtoons and the country where the US wanted to establish peace and democratic order will get torn asunder.

While the ripples of such a civil war will be felt in Central Asia, the US and Nato troops would have gone home, with none in the area capable of restoring order in what would definitely be a troubled region.  Instability in the region can also draw in other nations and  also create fresh uncertainties in West Asia.  In a global world, fires can be lit with a little effort, but cannot be contained easily.

No one knows what view Washington will take on President Obama’s project to see US soldiers home next summer but India would need to let the President know when he comes here in November  about the risks involved in case he persists on a pull-out.

– The Asian Age, August 28th, 2010