Harsh realities

March 03, 2012

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THE Af-Pak ‘team’ in Washington is reportedly currently preoccupied with negotiating a deal with the Taliban that allows power to be transferred to an Afghan government which the insurgents are expected to integrate with.

The Taliban must also respect US ‘red lines’: break totally with Al Qaeda; uphold women’s rights; not insist on resuming control in Kabul, while exercising influence in south and east Afghanistan; and (even more ambitiously) accept a residual US presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post of March 1 titled ‘Fantasy and Reality in Afghanistan’, Fareed Zakaria considers the Obama plan to “transition power” to an Afghan army and government “fantasy”. He calls for coming to terms “with Afghanistan’s realities rather than attempting to impose our [US] fantasies on it”.

Unfortunately, Zakaria himself succumbs to prejudice if not fantasy by proposing that, since Pakistan will not help rein in the Taliban, America should support the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and “ally with neighbouring countries that support them” i.e. India, Iran and Russia.

This would be a recipe for a prolonged Afghan civil war and regional turmoil, even in the unlikely event that Iran, currently under US sanctions and threat of military strikes, and Russia, facing destabilisation from a US-supported ‘democracy’ movement, would agree to support such a strategy. Of course, the Zakaria ‘alternative’ would be New Delhi’s ‘dream’.

American policymakers need to face up to three harsh realities in Afghanistan.

One, the US-Nato presence in Afghanistan is now opposed by the majority of Afghans. The circle of alienation has widened progressively. At first, the ousted Taliban were the aggrieved party; US-Nato tactical errors and expanded military presence in south and east Afghanistan extended the alienation to most Pakhtuns. The corruption of Karzai and his coterie deepened popular hostility.

Today, as evident from the series of attacks on foreign troops by Afghan army and police personnel and, even more so, from the violence that erupted due to the desecration of the Holy Quran, most Afghans, outside the ruling elite in Kabul, will be glad to see the backs of the foreign forces.

Two, for different reasons, both of Afghanistan’s critical neighbours —Pakistan and Iran — are now anxious to ensure the withdrawal of US-Nato troops and have no incentive at present to support Washington’s policy objectives to transition power to a ‘moderate’ Afghan government.

Iran cooperated initially in ousting the Taliban and installing the Tajik-dominated regime in Kabul. But its inclusion in George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ and the subsequent escalation of US sanctions and military threats against Iran’s nuclear programme have placed Tehran firmly among America’s detractors in Afghanistan. In the event, Israel or the US conduct military strikes against Iran, its retaliatory targets, without doubt, will include Afghanistan.

Simultaneously, the US relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated to unprecedented depths. The aerial shooting spree which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border added ultimate injury to the insult of the major strategic reversals that Pakistan’s involvement in America’s ‘war on terror’ has entailed — a hostile Tajik-dominated regime in Kabul, a fight with Pakistan’s own Pakhtuns and militants, an open back door for India to do mischief in western Pakistan, the collapse of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, and the one-sided US ‘strategic partnership’ with India.

To top it all, the US has accepted the Karzai-Tajik narrative that it is the ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan, rather than internal Afghan disaffection that is driving the insurgency against the foreign forces in Afghanistan. It is a most convenient excuse for failure, for US generals and politicians.

The US demand that Pakistan neutralise, politically or violently, the Haqqani fighters flows from acceptance of this Kabul narrative. The US was naive or arrogant to believe Pakistan would comply and fight a force that is likely to be a strong friend in post-American Afghanistan.

The latest demand that Pakistan ‘deliver’ the Taliban in the negotiations is also premised on the Kabul thesis of Pakistan’s control over the insurgency. As events before 9/11 attest, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban was never one-sided or simple. As often as not, the Taliban acted contrary to Pakistan’s counsel.

The third reality is the growing opposition to the Afghan war in America. If the US army had been a conscript force today, as in Vietnam, and those who were fighting and dying were not only the children of the poor but also the rich, the Afghan adventure would have been long over.

In the US Congress, calls for withdrawal now emanate from both left and right. Some hard-liners say that the aim of defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been achieved. Most are weary of expending more money and blood for objectives whose strategic value to the US is, at best, marginal.

Thus, the billions needed to maintain any residual US military presence, and an Afghan army and government, are unlikely to be available for very long. Without money, the army and the Kabul regime and its regional satraps will quickly collapse. In fact, the process of economic contraction has already started.

In the context of these harsh realities, the issues which President Obama’s advisers should be preoccupied with are the following: can the Taliban exploit the popular disaffection to bring about an internal collapse of the Kabul regime? Anticipating the growing compulsion for US withdrawal, and their inevitable victory, will the Taliban negotiate at all in Doha or elsewhere? How can Pakistan be brought on board to support stability in Afghanistan during and after the US withdrawal? What will happen in Afghanistan if Israel and/or the US attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? Can the plan for orderly withdrawal turn into a rout? What would be the electoral consequences for Obama and the strategic implications for the US?

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.