Barack Obama's faith in ‘reconciliation' with the Taliban could prolong the agony of the Afghans. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will make the AfPak region an epicentre of global terrorism
On February 17, 2009 US President Barack Obama announced that in order to “stabilise the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan” he was authorising the deployment of an additional 17,000 US troops there. He added: “The problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the spread of extremism in that region cannot be solved solely by military means”. Shortly thereafter, he announced the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops. At the London Conference in 2010, the US announced that responsibilities for security would be transferred to Afghan forces so that US-ISAF forces could begin withdrawal by July 2011. On June 22, 2011, Mr Obama announced that the US intended to end all combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, while transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces. This process is in place and the bulk of security operations even now are undertaken by Afghan forces, with American logistical backing.
The American strategy also involves a process of “reconciliation” through talks in Qatar between the Taliban on the one hand and the Afghan High Peace Council, on the other. The US and the Karzai Government aver that this process will be based on “respect for the Afghan Constitution, rule of law, and democratic values”. While the nucleus of a Taliban office has been set up in Qatar, even the most optimistic are sceptical that the Taliban and its ISI backers will settle for anything short of getting substantial control, in initial years, of the bulk of southern Afghanistan. The US is expected to retain a residual military presence of around 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, together with control of around half-a-dozen military airports, while focusing on training and counter-terrorism operations. It will be financing, training, equipping and providing logistical support to the 3,50,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces. There is scepticism about the will of the US, to stay the course on its commitment in its Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan to “combat Al Qaeda and its affiliates and enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter threats against its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity”. Virtually every Afghan will aver that his country faces these threats only from Pakistan and its proxies.
Interestingly, like Mr Obama, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly announced his decision to withdraw Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and commenced the withdrawal in 1988. Mr Gorbachev’s entire strategy was based on the naïve belief that Pakistan will cease arming the Peshawar-based Afghan Mujahedeen, in accordance with its commitments in the Geneva Accords. (In the preceding years, the CIA funded and provided the ISI with weapons, enabling them to arm and equip an estimated 80,000 fighters to challenge the writ of the regime of President Mohammed Najibullah). Pakistan’s President, General Zia ul-Haq, however, made it clear that he had no intention of abiding by the Geneva Accords and he would deny Soviet accusations of the ISI arming the Afghan Mujahedeen, telling President Ronald Reagan: “We will deny any arms aid is going through our territory. After all, that is what we have been saying for the past eight years”.
Like President Obama is now looking for ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban, Mr Gorbachev made an ill-advised and desperate attempt to negotiate with the Peshawar-based, ISI-backed seven-party alliance of fundamentalist Afghan parties. The Mujahedeen just stalled for time as they obtained ever more direct Pakistani military assistance to oust the Najibullah Government, which, interestingly, offered fierce resistance, till the Soviet Union collapsed in December 2011 and arms supplies dried up. Pakistan’s long-term objectives in Afghanistan were clearly spelt out earlier by President Zia, who stated: “We have earned the right to have a friendly regime in Afghanistan. We took risks as a frontline state, and won’t permit it to be like it was before, with Indian and Soviet influence there and claims on our territory. It will be a real Islamic state, part of a pan-Islamic revival that will one day win over the Muslims of the Soviet Union, you will see it”.
Mr Gorbachev’s naiveté and Pakistani duplicity and territorial ambitions led to the instability, violence and international terrorism that tore apart the body politic of Afghanistan and brought misery and suffering to its people. Is Mr Obama’s ‘end game’ in Afghanistan and his faith in ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban set to prolong the agony of the Afghans? Afghanistan is and will likely remain, an international basket case for at least a decade. It will need at least $4.1 billion annually to maintain its armed forces. The economy can become self-sustaining only if the country’s mineral wealth can be put to use, which will require at least a decade of conditions conducive to economic development. The only redeeming feature is that the US, unlike the Soviet Union, will not collapse. Moreover, there is some recognition in the international community that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will lead to the AfPak region remaining the epicentre of global terrorism.
Much is going to depend on how domestic developments within Afghanistan play out and on the credibility of its Government. It is crucial to ensure that the forthcoming presidential election in 2014 is transparent, fair and credible. It would of course be ideal if India can work with others to try and see that the leading presidential candidate enjoys genuine domestic and international credibility and respect. Given his experience and role as an Afghan patriot, President Hamid Karzai could then assume the role of an elder statesman. Given the ideological inclinations of the Zia era officers, who now run the Pakistani Army, it is going to be a difficult task to persuade and pressurise the military establishment to discard Gen Zia’s grandiose notions of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and the Islamic world. The Pakistan Army would claim that it is essential to keep on the right side of Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, given its ongoing operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies. But, New Delhi will be making a serious mistake if it allows misplaced concerns about Pakistani ‘sensitivities’ to inhibit its political and economic partnership, or its defence relationship, including arms supplies, with the dispensation in Kabul.
India has already eroded its credibility and compromised its interests by the extent to which it has sought to appease Chinese ‘sensitivities’ in the conduct of its relations with the US, Japan, Vietnam and others. It must, therefore, not repeat the mistake in dealing with Pakistan.
(The accompanying visual is of US Army’s Apache Company covering an injured soldier in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. AP Photo)