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Afghanistan exit via Pakistan

June 28, 2011

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A FEW days before Barack Obama's much-anticipated announcement about reversing the troop surge in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai issued one of his sporadic declarations of relative independence from the forces that have sustained him in office for nine years.

“They are here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they are using our soil for that,” he said in reference to the American and Nato military presence. Karzai also spoke of “chemical materials” in the western weaponry — presumably a reference to the use of uranium or other radioactive materials — which he said meant that “our people get killed, but also our environment is damaged.”

The first American response was a rebuke from retired general Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing US ambassador in Kabul (who, incidentally, advised Obama against a surge two years ago). “America has never sought to occupy any nation in the world,” he declared. “We are a good people.”

Quite a few nations that have borne the brunt of American imperialism would beg to differ. Yet his statement that “when we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse … our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on” is open to interpretation as a partial explanation for the withdrawals whereby American troop strength in Afghanistan will be reduced by 33,000 before the end of next year.

But that will still leave twice as many boots on the ground as there were at the start of Obama's tenure. The US president's explanation for his drawdown — in the face of opposition from the military hierarchy and administration hawks — did not pursue the Eikenberry line of thought. Nor did he make the mistake of declaring 'mission accomplished', despite the suggestion that the withdrawal was justified because its goals had been achieved.

There is plenty of evidence, however, that domestic political considerations are the primary driving force behind the slashing of resources expended on military adventures overseas. Nearly 10 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans oppose the military presence in Afghanistan. And the urge to conclude American participation in this open-ended conflict is by no means restricted to Democrats: a substantial proportion of prospective Republican candidates for next year's presidential contest appear to be keen on a more rapid withdrawal of forces.

None of them are willing to admit, of course, that the American response to 9/11 was essentially misdirected. At the time, a commando operation against Al Qaeda would have made considerably more sense than an all-out invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime — officially recognised only by its sponsors in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — was indeed appalling in any number of ways, but it did not pose a threat to the US.

The sanctuary it afforded to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts was incidental. The 9/11 attacks were not contingent on a base in Afghanistan. The conspirators held consultations in Hamburg and trained in the US. The location of their mentors was only marginally relevant. It did not suffice as justification for all-out war. Yet hardly anyone in the US opposed that war when it was launched. The thirst for retribution is not hard to fathom; the nation described in the second half of the 20th century by one of its outstanding personalities, Martin Luther King Jr, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” wasn't accustomed to being attacked on its own soil. But the effort to quench that thirst was misdirected from the outset. It exhibited a bloodlust that more than matched that of its foes — who had, let's not forget, been its allies until a few years before.

It is now being argued that the incipient pullout from Afghanistan is somehow related to the successful targeting of bin Laden and the degradation of Al Qaeda. Bin Laden was tracked down to a not-very-safe house in Pakistan, far away from the drone zone where American forces have long operated with impunity from unassailable heights. Al Qaeda's remaining adherents in the region — believed to number in the dozens — as well as the Taliban leadership are believed to mostly be in Pakistan.

That makes it hard to explain why combat operations are being conducted in Afghanistan — amid, mind you, contacts that could lead to negotiations with the Taliban.

American security relations with Pakistan, meanwhile, have hit a new low in the wake of the bin Laden raid. It does not require particularly deep insight to fathom why the CIA decided against sharing its plans for that raid with Pakistani authorities. Although no substantial evidence has emerged of high-level Pakistani involvement in providing a sanctuary to bin Laden, the manner in which Harkat-ul-Mujahideen — a banned militant group with suspected links to military intelligence — and Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) reacted almost simultaneously with vehement denials of American insinuations of contacts between Harkat and Al Qaeda is certainly intriguing.

ISPR has also been keen to reject American press reports about a brewing revolt within the Pakistani armed forces against the military hierarchy on account of its relations with the US. Doth it protest too much?

Perhaps. It has long been obvious, though, that the struggle against violent religious extremists in Pakistan is something of a lost cause unless it can be portrayed as a Pakistani war. The drone attacks regularly launched from the Shamsi air base in Balochistan have not been particularly helpful in this regard, especially when they entail civilian casualties. The idea that the Americans will maintain forces numbering 25,000 or so even after a 'complete' withdrawal from Afghanistan a few years hence, in order to retain the capacity for military interventions in Pakistan, is not particularly reassuring.

The notion that Pakistan is host to terrorists with an international reach is hardly a fantasy. But the notion that US military adventures and expeditions abroad — be they in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen or Pakistan — are somehow going to diminish the likelihood of attacks on American soil remains a dangerous illusion.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com