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Nato summit: what next?

May 23, 2012

THE hoopla is over. President Obama can congratulate himself on having presided successfully over the largest Nato gathering ever arranged and on having won an endorsement for the ‘irreversible’ departure of all Nato troops from Afghanistan by Dec 31, 2014 and for the cessation of active combat operations by Nato forces after July 2013. Beyond this what was achieved?

No firm commitments or pledges were made by the Nato members for funding the $4.1bn that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will need annually for a decade. It was said that this was not a pledging conference but for the last few months American diplomats have been doing the rounds of Nato and non-Nato countries to get these pledges.

Only Germany ($190m), UK ($110m) and non-Nato Australia ($100m) have made firm annual pledges and even these are not for the entire decade. The American hope was that it would pick up half the tab, the Afghans themselves would contribute $500m and the balance would come from Nato and non-Nato allies.

This has not happened in Chicago and will probably not happen in the next few weeks before the Tokyo conference in July where pledges are expected for funding Afghan reconstruction and development. There too it is hard to visualise that the donors will come up with the approximately $6bn a year the Afghans believe they need.

Much of the burden will fall on the Americans. First, they have to finance the additional $2bn to $2.5bn annually that the ANSF will need during the 2014 to 2017 period while the drawdown of the ANSF is under way. Second, they will willy-nilly have to make up the shortfall in the Nato contribution — possibly $750m annually. Third, they will have to give $3bn to $4bn annually for Afghan reconstruction if a collapse of the Afghan economy is to be avoided and if the shortfall in contributions from others is to be made up.

One can argue that this is a small price given the $120bn annually that the Americans are now spending on the military presence in Afghanistan. But the mood in America now is such that very few in Congress will be prepared to take on this burden.

One can anticipate that funding both for the ANSF and for reconstruction will fall far short and that such a shortfall will be justified by the inability of the Afghan government to live up to the pledges it has made to curb corruption and to institute reforms. The already serious economic problems of Afghanistan will be exacerbated and give fresh impetus to ethnic rivalries relating to the division of a shrinking foreign-aid pie.

The Nato statement talks of “a new post-2014 mission of a different nature in Afghanistan, to train, advise and assist the ANSF, including the Afghan Special Operations Forces”. It emphasises that “this will not be a combat mission”. This does not mean that American forces in Afghanistan post 2014 will not continue their counterterrorism operations within and outside Afghanistan.

The target will be the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Americans are convinced Al Qaeda and its local allies who endorse its global agenda are located. The American intervention in Vietnam was justified by the ‘domino theory’ — if the communists won in Vietnam then all of East Asia would go ‘red’. When public opinion so dictated, this theory was discarded and American allies in South Vietnam were abandoned but only after millions of bombs had devastated neighbouring Laos and Cambodia to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail.

For Pakistan it would be prudent to assume that this pattern could be repeated in Afghanistan where it can be argued that what remained of the terrorism threat could be controlled through other means.

This is one facet of the continued American presence. The other is the pressure it will bring to bear on the Taliban to engage seriously in reconciliation talks with the Karzai administration.

The Pakistan Defence Council argues that when all foreign forces are withdrawn the Afghans will work out a solution amongst themselves. The record of past efforts at reconciliation between 1989 and 2001 when there were no foreign forces seems to suggest otherwise. These were the years in which the Afghans waged a civil war that wreaked greater havoc than the decade-long Soviet occupation. Will there be patience in Washington, if the Afghan Taliban remain obdurate and retain safe sanctuaries, to stay the course? The prudent assumption should be that reconciliation, acceptable to all Afghans, must come by 2017 or the Americans will abandon this path.

The third facet of a continued presence is that it may guarantee the flow of a measure of economic assistance that prevents the collapse of the Afghan economy and a consequent flow of Afghan economic refugees to Pakistan. Again, prudence would support the assumption that with the mounting number of ‘green on blue’ incidents the Americans may find it difficult to sustain a presence even on joint bases with joint training programmes for very long after 2017.

To me, the summit suggested that America and its Nato partners, despite the hoopla and the brave words, are quite prepared to cut their losses in Afghanistan and treat it as a lost cause. It is quite conceivable, even in today’s world, that they will in the process wreak the same havoc that impoverished not just Vietnam but also Cambodia and Laos. The equivalent of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields could easily emerge in this disturbed region. This may be an exaggeration. The global consequences of the creation of such chaos in this region would be horrendous but let us not dismiss the possibility out of hand.

So what is the solution? It lies in the words of our president who in his speech at the summit said, “We firmly believe that only an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue can lead to sustainable peace in Afghanistan”. He also recalled that parliament had said that “foreign fighters and non-state actors seeking to destabilise Afghanistan and the region, if found on our soil, must be expelled”.

If we work sincerely using the levers we have to promote this intra-Afghan dialogue — one lever being the expulsion of those seeking to destabilise Afghanistan — we can succeed. This will not be a panacea for all the ills of the region but it will be an indispensable first step. Let our mantra now be ‘reconciliation, reconciliation, reconciliation’. This, more than the transit route issue, should be our principal preoccupation.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.