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26 September 2011

The Irony of Afghanistan And The Real Endgame


Afghanistan drifts towards a closure, on floating wafts of time, on which travel events outside the control of the most powerful; directionless. Sadly, after half the world has fished in its troubled waters, abandonment is on the cards. US President Barack Obama remains unclear which way he is going, both as the guide to American policy and as a president. He has lost his way in the Washington maze, and in the absence of the commander-in-chief, everyone else is suddenly sprung into action — Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, Brennan et al. No, it isn’t the routine Washington functioning where separate voices provide differing nuances, but a superpower in serious disarray. It is important to say this since the super-power drives the agenda, especially so in Afghanistan. All others are bit players swishing on the fringes, at best muddying the already murky.

It will be important what happens in November 2012. If Obama can recreate the magic that brought him into power in the first place — exceedingly difficult now with a baggage of suspect leadership on key issues — or, if Michele Bachmann of the Tea Party can somehow avoid further gaffs and be the miracle, 2014 might just see the end of America in Afghanistan. What might stay shall be a heavy CIA presence and some military in the garb of trainers who will additionally be adept at Special Operations, but the critical mass of the famed American military would have gone back home; sadly bringing to a tame closure another American misadventure. No victors and no losers on the battlefield — that shall remain the judgment on irregular wars. Rick Perry or another Republican just might decide differently but will be hard put to sway too far than what the economic realities of a super-power in decline will dictate.

Where does that leave Afghanistan? In a limbo, I am afraid. There is this great make-believe world that all engaged in Afghanistan are letting prevail on their conscience till it becomes the only reality. This, in more profound terms, is called ‘grand deception’. The ‘escape’ narrative of the United States is that when this great Afghan military is brought into shape, beginning 2011, and the responsibility to save and defend Afghanistan is handed over to this re-discovered symbol of the Afghan pride of yore, Afghanistan and all its subjects will live happily after.

It will take eight or nine billion dollars per annum to finance this symbol of free Afghanistan, composed of half-and-half mix of Pashtuns and the rest; with an overly dominating non-Pashtun officer corps; with a recent history, none too brilliant, still in the process of being equipped and structured and manned; without an air force or a semblance of experience in joint action. The current size of the Afghan economy is around 30 billion dollars and 97 per cent of it is sourced in American money that comes in to sustain the American presence in Afghanistan. With the Americans gone, someone will need to find the money to run this 400,000 strong Afghan army and police. These will be just too many people trained to fire a gun straight. In an environment, where with the Americans present, the appointed Afghan governors must keep the local Taliban commanders in good humour to function as governors, this shall be a telling test to keep such an army together. The adversary — yes, the Taliban and not al Qaeda because that is how the US let the subject morph — on the other hand may just claim victory, simply for never having been vanquished, but with a combat gain of having fought world’s best military for ten or more years. And the unfortunate face of post-America Afghanistan begins to take shape.

The only ray of hope for the post-America structure to sustain is to convert the political set-up into a central pivot which should be inclusive with a broad appeal. This may just delay the inevitable. Gained time just might throw up some options. Remember, though, that Karzai holds his present position after a farcical election with a given understanding that he will not re-contest in 2014; the two-term rule. If a Panjsheri by association, like Abdullah Abdullah, or a non-Pashtun becomes the next choice, the possibility of a gruesome end seems greatly more foreboding. It seems ruthless to state but the real endgame in Afghanistan will begin the day after the Americans leave and it won’t be pretty.

Of essence then, a political structure must include all the estranged Taliban. These include Mullah Omar’s Kandahari Pakhtuns; the Hekmatyar group, and the Haqqanis from the adjoining eastern provinces of Afghanistan. It is more likely that the next year and a half might see a rapprochement of sorts between the US and the first two groups. Why the Haqqani group is being left out in the cold is anyone’s guess. If indeed Haqqani was such a force in Afghanistan why did the US show it the benevolence of exempting it from its long-applied drone campaign in North Waziristan? Why does the full might of the US not interdict the Haqqani elements when they are on their way from Pakistani safe havens to Kabul and back; a long enough geographical distance. An incessant pressure on Pakistan to initiate a third front by neutralising the Haqqani group continues unabated. The difficulty is that such a war does not lend itself to easy conclusions. At least it won’t for Pakistan, even after the Americans have left. With the group numbers hovering around 20,000 it will remain a potent force of estranged Taliban if not woven into the reconciliation mosaic. That remains the only sensible option; else killing even 10,000 will mean an equal number still on the outside, ready to challenge the political make-up in Afghanistan floundering any hopes for stability in Afghanistan and in the region.

Is Pakistan being diabolic by suggesting a different approach? The Pakistani armed forces may still have the capacity to fight another operation but this hapless nation doesn’t. For a tanked-out economy, a fractured society and a fractious polity, such an operation may just prove the last straw.

Many real challenges for both Afghanistan and Pakistan lie ahead. Getting stuck in the Haqqani groove should not be one of them.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th,  2011.