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Afghanistan Returning To Brink

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Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Six months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had put forth three corner stones for American policy in Afghanistan; a strong military effort to defeat al-Qaida and support Afghans as they secure their sovereignty, a civilian push to promote economic development and good governance, and a diplomatic surge to support an Afghan-led reconciliation process.

To pursue these ends, United States has been focusing its exit strategy on a triad of conflicting parameters: attacking the resistance forces to decimate them; while at the same time putting up a facade of negotiations with break-away factions; it has invested heavily in building Afghan security forces for enabling them to take over the bulk of dirty fighting assignments from NATO/ISAF. However, these efforts have reached a dead end.

The window of opportunity that propped up after NATO/ISAF started handing over district wise control to Afghan security forces appears to be shutting off fast by the reports about a dubious Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which the United States is trying to impose on Afghanistan. SOFA is aimed at allowing the US military presence in Afghanistan until 2024. An effort to secure 6-8 military bases is also on, though in a hush hush manner. As a reaction, Afghanistan is back to brink.

Afghan resistance elements no longer trust American sincerity towards negotiations and consider it as a ploy for gaining time to weaken them militarily. The multibillion-dollar training of the Afghan national army and police force may at best be taken as a waste of money. This year alone, $12 billion will go down the drain in an effort to develop effective army and police forces in Afghanistan. Despite tremendous investment, Afghan security forces are nowhere close to the mark. During poppy cultivation and harvesting seasons, security personnel desert their units to participate in these better paying activities; they return to their units during intervening periods!

Perception at senior levels of the Afghan intelligentsia has it that the United States wants to use Afghanistan indefinitely as a spring board for power projection in Asia and the Middle East.

An increasing number of Afghans consider American counterterrorism operations as a venture aimed at ‘look busy do nothing.’ Independent analysts opine that America and its Western European followers are adamant at not letting Asia and the Far East benefit from the natural resources of Central Asia. And for this they are working hard to keep Afghanistan and Baluchistan (including Iranian portion) on boiling pot. Since American advent in Afghanistan, a number of oil and gas pipelines have become functional connecting Central Asian oil and gas to Europe and beyond.

Contrary to the upbeat rhetoric about progress in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the situation points toward a military and political deadlock. Afghanistan is in a deep perpetual crisis; country’s fragile democratic institutions are crumbling. In a desperate attempt to strengthen his constituency, President Karzai has recently dissolved the ‘Independent Election Commission’ that was looking into the frauds during recent parliamentary election. Certainly, tainted parliamentarians would be more pliable for the approval of upcoming SOFA. Situation stays hazy as to what the US expects to achieve by simultaneously wanting to target and talk to Taliban leaders. In this ‘kill-capture-or-reconcile’ strategy, the US expects Pakistan to assist by facilitating contacts and at the same time take action against Taliban leaders unwilling to oblige.

Amid rapid deterioration in security across the country, recent spate of effective operations and high profile assassinations by the Taliban indicate that the Western-backed government in Kabul may not survive very long after the foreign withdrawal. These attacks look like an armed campaign with the tinge of a nationalist movement, directed against the foreign occupiers and their local extensions. Afghan majority now tends to believes that America is the part of problem and it no longer wants to be a part of the solution; lest the solution comes by.

To come out of this impasse, the United States needs to come clean about its objectives in Afghanistan, indicating a political track in synch with military strategy. America must support Afghanistan’s institutions and democratic forces. It should employ its leverage more effectively to encourage political and economic reforms.

The US unwillingness to propose any confidence-building measures like suspending night raids in return for the Taliban’s cessation of assassinations reflects continuing inconsistency in American policy making structures.  Different components of the Administration seem fixated to different ends. While the White House and the State Department appear to support the reconciliation process, Pentagon still feels that talks with Taliban amount to an admission of failure. Thanks to internal dysfunctions in Washington, military strategy is still at odds with its declared objective of seeking a negotiated end to the war. Escalating special operation missions prompts the Taliban to continue fighting and not abandon it in preference for talks. The notion that more fighting will force the Taliban into negotiations means pursuing elusive battlefield gains.

The historical record of peace processes suggests that they start with some form of agreed stand down leading to a negotiated cease-fire. Mutual reduction of violence will help to create the political conditions for dialogue. Such a roadmap for an Afghan-led peace process could involve various phases, starting with a reciprocal de-escalation of violence to create the conditions for peace efforts. If America resorts to mutual cessation of violence as a necessary starting point, a sustainable plan could be crafted for a peace process.

Another American rhetoric about interlocking trio of defence, diplomacy and development is equally lopsided. Congress has allocated $1.3 trillion to the Defence Department for war spending through fiscal year 2011; whereas annual budget of State Department is $27.4 billion.

Unfortunately, America and Pakistan view the Afghan conflict through different prisms. Pakistan is making an effort to work out an Afghan led and Afghan owned political solution, also acceptable to all immediate neighbouring states of Afghanistan. America on the other hand is attempting to coerce the Afghans to a militarily imposed solution, underwritten by prolonged presence of American military in Afghanistan. It is not without reason that ethnic composition of Afghan Army and Police is quite similar to the Northern Alliance militia of yester years.

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