THE received wisdom on invading Afghanistan has been that you may enter the country at will, but you cannot exit from it according to your wishes.
This was true in the times of antiquity when Alexander the Great invaded Bactria (near modern-day Balkh in Afghanistan) in 329 BC to capture Bessus, the satrap of Darius’s III who had killed the latter after his defeat by Alexander at the battle of Gaugamela (near Irbil in Iraq) in 331 BC.
Bessus’s crime was regicide and since Alexander succeeded Darius, Bessus was to be punished for regicide. Apparently, the ancients understood legitimacy better than we do in the 21st century. This episode kept Alexander and the then mightiest army in the world engaged for a couple of years in Afghanistan in an endless war.
Alexander’s invasion of India started because Bessus was given refuge in India (safe haven?). This chapter of history concluded with the death of Alexander on his return to Mesopotamia from India. But the war in Afghanistan had sapped his strength and forced him to change his plans and he died soon thereafter.
The same was the fate of the British when they lost the First Afghan War in 1842 and also suffered in the first phase of the Second Afghan War in 1879 though they ultimately succeeded in prevailing upon the Afghans by taking control of their foreign policy and thus turned Afghanistan into a subordinate state.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan but was forced to leave in 1989 without victory. The recent Bonn conference was held to draw up a plan for the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in 2014; it ended by announcing certain general ideas about the future.
The conference was blighted by the absence of Pakistan, a country that could contribute positively to the endgame in Afghanistan. Pakistan absented itself as a mark of protest at the death of two dozen soldiers who had been killed in a Nato air attack in Mohmand Agency.
Pakistan has reduced its cooperation with Nato and the US in the war and is asking for a review of all ground rules. The West’s Af-Pak strategy is in tatters at a time when it ought to have been at its strongest.
In brief, Pakistan at present is no longer a player in the endgame in Afghanistan. This would suggest that as of now there is no solid plan for an endgame to coincide with the withdrawal of forces by December 2014.
Ahmed Rashid agrees. He says: “The US and Nato have been poorly prepared for the Afghan endgame, which now involves a complex battle for influence between the Taliban, the government and ethnic warlords, and an equally intense clandestine battle for influence by Afghanistan’s six neighbours, especially Pakistan.”
Let us briefly examine some of the aspirations of the main nations for concluding the war in Afghanistan.
For Afghanistan, the main goals are likely to include the following: Karzai to remain president till 2014 and a guarantee of security for him, his family and core team; an orderly exit of Isaf forces after capacity-building of the Afghan army; provision of a peacekeeping force to fill the vacuum after Isaf withdrawal till at least 2024; creation of a power-sharing agreement amongst Afghan ethnic groups; provision of financial support to the Afghan state till 2024.
The Taliban are likely to demand the following in a peace deal with the Afghan government: removal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan; ending hostile operations against insurgents and their families in Afghanistan and Pakistan; recognition of the Afghan Taliban as a political movement and removing their names from the UN terrorist list; agreeing on a version of Islam to be implemented in Afghanistan; removal of corrupt elements from the Afghan administration and prosecuting or exiling some of the warlords.
The US would be satisfied if there is a comprehensive disarmament and demobilisation of the militants and their reintegration into the Afghan security set-up, for this will bring more cohesion and preclude the maintenance of the large 250,000 men Afghan army that is a non-sustainable burden on Afghan finances.
Secondly, the Taliban would have to cut all links with non-Afghan terrorists. The US will be happy if there was also agreement on minimal human rights.
Pakistan would be happy with a solution that created an anti-Indian set-up; gave a prominent role to the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future; led to the departure of foreign forces; ended drone strikes and weakened insurgent groups in Pakistan.
It is clear that the Pakistani establishment is convinced that the US will not wish to reduce India’s influence in post-2014 Afghanistan and that to the contrary, the US would wish to see India exercise a dominant role in the future of Afghanistan that is in conjunction with America’s strategic pact with India.
In view of this disconnect between the US and Pakistan regarding India, Pakistan is now likely to exercise an independent role in the endgame in Afghanistan.
Peace in Afghanistan means the end of the line for international terrorists in Afghanistan but does it necessarily imply they will leave areas in Fata and elsewhere in Pakistan? Some knowledgeable circles fear that after exiting from Afghanistan the international terrorists will combine with local jihadi groups to gain space and influence in Pakistan.
If Pakistani leaders rise to the challenge they may succeed in excluding this new threat from making further inroads. On the other hand, if Pakistan follows a policy of expediency the future will be problematic. Regrettably, the Afghan war is not concluding satisfactorily.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.