The forthcoming visit of the United States Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to New Delhi should provide the Indian side an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on Afghanistan. The point is, President Barack Obama is expected to revisit the Afghan strategy soon after the November 8 election in the US.
Delhi needs to structure its talking points regarding Afghanistan with foresight and wisdom. There is an avalanche of despondency today visible in the recent US discourses regarding Afghanistan. Most assessments are gloomy but of course the stunning weekend editorial by the New York Times
beats them all — demanding the complete, unconditional withdrawal of US troops by end-2013, ie., an year before the anticipated drawdown through end-2014.
The NYT even recommends that the US should destroy its high-tech weapons rather than leave them behind in the Hindu Kush for Taliban and the al-Qaeda to appropriate them. Are things so hopelessly bad? The noted Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid has a fine piece on this big question.
His answer? “Not really, provided…”
I go along with Rashid’s prognosis. Indeed, there is a striking parallel with the February 1989 situation when the Red Army withdrew. The Soviets, Americans and Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq were all agreed that the PDPA regime would collapse without the support of the Red Army.
They were proven wrong. Najibullah’s fall, when it came, was precipitated by 3 factors: Soviets threw him to the wolves; Soviets began dealings behind his back with Ahmed Shah Massoud; and, Pakistan’s relentless attempts to overthrow the regime despite Najib’s numerous overtures to Islamabad seeking a modus vivendi.
Rashid is right: Washington should not pre-judge the Kabul government’s resilience. The heart of the matter is that Afghanistan has its own yardsticks and the resilience of the Afghan people should not be underestimated. It is a nation with acute survival instincts.
The minimum that is expected of the US and its allies under the circumstances is to fulfill the aid pledges made for the post-2014 period. It is a modest commitment, affordable and morally obligatory — $16 billion in economic aid through 2015 and $3.8 billion in military aid to 2017. In sum, give the Afghans the breathing space to get their act together without the NATO and the “international community” cutting them adrift.
Second, it is inevitable that at some point substantive talks with the Taliban become necessary. But don’t make it a clandestine intelligence operation, as the Soviets did, without the Kabul regime being in the loop. Here, the imperative need is to have good intentions, which always provides scope for transparency. The fact is there is today a wide recognition among the world community that the Taliban need to be part of the solution.
Thus, the challenge should be to give the Taliban the confidence to come forward. Alas, there has been a lot of doublespeak on this score, because ‘T’ continues to be a dirty word for the political class in the US, especially on The Hill.
Surely, some sincere “CBMs” are needed on the part of the US. Looking back, the Taliban — Haqqanis or whoever is responsible — scaled up the attacks on the NATO forces because there is no other sphere of activity available for their political agenda to be articulated. Obama should not waste further time by delaying a serious engagement of the Taliban.
Where I disagree with Rashid is as regards his emphasis on the US shepherding the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan. It didn’t work in 2009 and it won’t work now. In fact, it will only exacerbate the cloud of suspicions regarding the US’ intentions.
At any rate, the political dispensation in Kabul in the post-2014 period is critically linked to the outcome of the US’ efforts to reconcile the Taliban. Without the reconciliation of the Taliban, any regime in Kabul will wear a “transitional” look. On the other hand, with the reconciliation of the Taliban, US’ intrusive role in Afghan politics and internal affairs will become not only superfluous but counter-productive.
In sum, Obama shouldn’t lose sleep over Hamid Karzai’s secretive approach toward the 2014 election. What matters at the end of the day is that HK is a leader of some standing and he is a proven coalition-builder. And, of course, it is his native country. Do not humiliate him. HK is also a proud chieftain of an important Pashtun tribe.
Rashid is spot on while suggesting that the US has a lot to do to repair the regional enviornment. Here, the priority for the US should be to open a line of communication towards Iran. The Iraq quagmire, the approaching endgame in Syria — they show once again that while Tehran can be trusted to do what it takes to safeguard its vital interests and core concerns, it is capable of rising above pride and prejudice to contribute to regional stability.
In fact, Iran can be a valuable ally for the US in the stabilization of Afghanistan. The sooner Obama realises it, the better. This is not going to be easy since so much of bad blood exists, but then, both the US and Iran are famously pragmatic when the crunch time comes.
The silver lining is that if Obama gets re-elected, he will be a liberated politician who is free to pursue his Iran policy unfettered by those elements who doggedly pursued him and hindered him though the period from realizing the promise of a new beginning toward Iran that he made in his pathbreaking 2009 speech at Cairo University.
Equally, Pakistan is doggedly refusing to give up its “strategic assets” in Afghanistan, but it is an entirely different matter as to whether it really believes in its capabilities to ensure a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan overcoming the heavy resistance by the majority of Afghan people that is almost inevitable.
Even if, for argument’s sake, such a takeover by the Taliban through military means happens, there comes the infinitely more dangerous prospect of a Taliban regime in Kabul across the Durand Line, brimming with a sense of triumphalism over having licked yet another superpower.
It is hard to believe that the Pakistani military leadership is unaware of the groundswell of anti-Pakistani feelings in the Afghan society; or, the acute limitations of Islamabad to bankroll an Afghan regime; and, of course, the grave implications of a de facto “Afghan-Pakistan confederation” for Pakistan’s own future as a nation state.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that the animus against India would cloud the minds of the Pakistani generals to such an extent that they throw overboard their innate caution and commitment to Pakistan’s long-term security and stability.
That is to say, the US should remain engaged with Pakistan. True, there has been double-crossing. But then, what else did the US expect in a matrix where Pakistan is left with no choice but to safeguard its vital interests? In the ultimate analysis, it is not for the US to determine what should be in Pakistan’s vital interests.
The trust deficit cannot be underestimated, which accumulated through the period since the Raymond Davis affair. But there is no alternative for Obama but to revisit the relationship with Pakistan, since, as Rashid rightly points out, Pakistan is uniquely paced to “ensure a final settlement or to sabotage one.”
Finally, Rashid overlooked a key element, which I have harped on for years. The US’s Afghan strategy was fundamentally flawed since it has overloaded this war in the Hindu Kush with geopolitics. Afghanistan is far too fragile to have been even contemplated as a pawn on the chessboard of big power politics.
This preoccupation with geopolitics — specifically, the containment of Iran, Russia and China — made the US myopic to an extent not even to accept the repeated Russian offers to lend a hand although the precious lives of hundreds and thousands of its young men and women were in serious peril.
Aren’t Iran, Russia and China stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stability? Of course they are. Arguably, they are even more so involved as stakeholders than the US and its western allies ever could be. But look at the dark humor in the Russian writings on the US’ defeat in Afghanistan. Why did things have to come to such a sorry pass? The choice is truly the US’. Obama should take the road not taken — the road leading to Afghanistan’s genuine neutrality.