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What does the US want?

June 20, 2012


IN my last article I had concluded that Pakistan and the United States have more areas of convergence than divergence on what they want to see in Afghanistan.

In this column I will attempt to validate this assertion in the hope that this will contribute to a rational debate on the subject. This convergence, or absence thereof, is far more important in determining the US-Pakistan relationship than what I see as the temporary if highly inflammatory issues of a Salala apology or the reopening of the ground lines of communication (GLOC).

According to President Obama, who laid out his administration’s policy during the visit he paid to Kabul to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Karzai, “America has no designs beyond an end to Al Qaeda safe havens, and respect for Afghan sovereignty”. He went on to say “our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban”.

He made clear the nature of the commitment to Afghanistan saying, “we’re building an enduring partnership. The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: As you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

As regards the continued military presence after 2014, Obama said, “we’ll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 — counterterrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.”

To Pakistan his message was, “I have made it clear to its neighbour — Pakistan — that it can and should be an equal partner in this process in a way that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, interests and democratic institutions.”Obama also claimed that in coordination with the Afghan government the US was in direct discussions with the Taliban and had made it clear to them that “they can be a part of this future if they break with Al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws.” It was perhaps significant that he did not refer to the Afghan constitution. In so saying he is not I think backing away from the earlier position that these were not preconditions but the desired outcome from the talks.

He recognised that there was no support in America for continued military involvement in Afghanistan but argued that such a presence would be necessary to give Afghanistan a chance to stabilise itself. “Otherwise,” he said, “Our gains could be lost and Al Qaeda could establish itself once again.” He pledged “I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security.”

Many people in Pakistan do not believe that this is the whole story and assert that the Americans will want to maintain a military presence and bases in Afghanistan for much longer. Evidence to this effect can be adduced by referring to the testimony of then Centcom chief Adm Fallon who in asking for funding for Bagram airbase described it as “the centrepiece for the Centcom Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia”.

A further examination of the sums that have been expended on Bagram including $62m for an ammunition storage facility at Bagram and $100m for upgrading and modernising airports in the north to handle aircraft of a size that Afghanistan will not have in the foreseeable future lends credence to the suspicion.

The same people also suspect that the Americans do not want genuine negotiations with the Taliban and are only interested in using them to get some ‘moderate’ Taliban to join the government and then to eliminate the hardliners through military means.

Perhaps there is truth to these assertions, though frankly my own view is that in the face of the $517bn that the US has already expended treating the money spent on base facilities as wasted will not be difficult for a defence department that has this year a $711bn budget. Attempting to beat the hardline Taliban into submission has been tried and has failed. In the present anti-war mood in America, persisting with such notions would be a fool’s game.

Today, Obama’s advisers have apparently coined the phrase ‘Afghan-good enough’ to describe what America will settle for and that can be defined as the destruction of Al Qaeda and the creation of conditions in which it cannot be resurrected. For the rest to put it callously it is every Afghan for himself.

Will Karzai or his successor reach an agreement under which the Americans can be stationed at Afghan bases to provide air support for counterinsurgency operations carried out by Afghan boots on the ground or attacks probably by drones on Al Qaeda adherents on both sides of eastern Afghanistan’s borders?

Despite Karzai’s distrust of Nato allies generally and of the Americans in particular he may find that he has no choice because in that case there will be not just a contraction of the Afghan economy but a complete collapse. Will the Americans stay for the envisaged decade? The rapid increase in ‘green on blue’ incidents will not in my view subside after 2014. At Afghan bases despite heavy security there will be greater vulnerability and the inherent Afghan hostility towards foreigners will be high.

To my mind it is more than likely that if some sort of reconciliation is worked out and some reasonable power-sharing arrangement is accepted by all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Americans will be content to pull out their military and maintain only a political presence.

Is any of this against Pakistan’s interest? I think not as I will try and explain in another next article.

I have not touched on another issue that is of fundamental importance to Pakistan’s security-centric establishment and that is the Indian influence in Afghanistan and our fear of being encircled or facing a two-front war. That too needs to be looked at separately.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.