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Obama in the era of Afghan realism

The New York Times report Tuesday titled “US Abandoning Hopes for Taliban Peace Deal” is a good sign that realism is finally dawning on the Barack Obama administration. A military victory over the Taliban was never on the cards and the US had come to accept it sometime ago already. But the desperate efforts to broker a peace deal with the Taliban, with Pakistan playing the role of an honest broker, continued up until recently. 

It is not only that Pakistan kept scuttling such a deal. Such a deal would never have been accepted by the majority of Afghan people. What was needed was a full-throttle promotion of intra-Afghan parleys. For reasons that remain incomprehensible, the US didn’t take that route. 
My strong guess is that the entrenched FOPs (Friends of Pakistan) in Richard Holbrooke’s team wanted no other route to peace than through Rawalpindi. There were bondings that dated back to the afghan jihad of the 1980s. 
This was stupidity of the first order and the US indeed came to grief for that eventually. In retrospect, despite all the cajoling by outsiders, Pakistani military never really gave up its “strategic assets” and instead it kept playing a duplicitous double game. The US probably realizes that now, but so much time has been lost and so many American lives perished. 
The second mistake was that it took an inordinately long time for the US to realise that its military presence in Afghanistan was part of the problem. The NYT story and various other recent signals – especially, NATO secretary-general’s remark last week that the drawdown may even be expedited – suggest that the US is preparing for a near-complete pullout. 
This is the right thing to do. The unfortunate part is that this pullout is going to be seen as a retreat – ie., an outcome of the so-called “insider attacks” – whereas it should have been independently arrived at as a strategic rather than tactical decision. The point is, perceptions matter in the Afghan bazaar. 
The third aspect is the mistake the US probably continues to make, namely, its lack of confidence in the Afghan army to stick it out in the post-2014 period. Here, the US is being as arrogant as the defeated Soviets were (who also made the sweeping conclusion that Najib would not survive the Red Army’s retreat.)
The fact of the matter is that Najib was backstabbed by the Soviets when they cut off the assistance for him (which they had promised when they retreated) and then began dealing secretly with Ahmed Shah Massoud & Co. behind his back, thereby undercutting the loyalty of time-servers like Rashid Dostum who were useful sidekicks. 
The US shouldn’t make the same mistake. The Afghan forces, if provided with the minimum assistance they need (and deserve), will acquit themselves surprisingly well. In sum, in the post-2014 period, don’t get into any Faustian deal with Pakistan and/or the Taliban behind the back of the Kabul government. And, learn to trust Afghan resilience and sense of fortitude.
That is to say, never forget for a moment that this was at one point their war and therefore, the best thing to do is not to try to impose a solution. The Afghans have their own methods of conflict resolution. If the Taliban show disinterest today, it is because Pakistan advises them to do so — so that the US deals with Pakistan. 
There is always the possibility that Pakistan may get into the act all over gain and try to pitchfork the Taliban into Kabul as it did in 1997. But for that to happen, a direct military intervention as had happened in the 1990s will become necessary. Pakistan will be extremely foolish to do that at this point when its own house is on fire and its is flat broke financially, but then it is also consistently in their DNA to make appalling blunders. 
At any rate, leave the suicidal choice to the Pakistanis on that score. In the worst case scenario of a Taliban takeover in Kabul, what is to be done? To my mind, a golden opportunity will come if the Taliban become rulers and have the responsibility to keep peace, govern their country and its lawless borders (with an extremely rude and intrusive next-door neighbor), and at the same time make its economy work and meet the people’s expectations of a better future. 
For one thing, it will be a matter of weeks or months before serious discord develops between the Taliban and their overbearing Pakistani (Punjabi) mentors. Suffice to say, the relationship with the US will once again become of pivotal importance to the Taliban (as was, ironically, the case in the 1990s.) 
This time around, though, the US shouldn’t repeat the mistake that Bill Clinton (or Karl Inderfurth) made by rejecting the Taliban’s plea for recognition. Instead, the US should deal with the Taliban and help them get to know the international community, which will mean they get out of the Pakistani clutches. 
That is to say, the US policy should be to work toward a future where the Taliban cease to be Pakistan’s “strategic assets” who are put to use to destabilize Afghanistan and keep that country so weak that it forgets how to spell DURAND LINE. If that happens, the US will have not only “won” the war but also will become the arbiter between the Taliban and the Pakistanis.        

Posted in Diplomacy, Military, Politics.

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