The 19th century Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote in his famous work, On War: “The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.” Unsurprisingly, a Clausewitzean war such as the one in the Hindu Kush has been covered in thick fog.

Yet there are times when the fog abruptly lifts or becomes transparent and nonmaterial, and the atmosphere of uncertainty, hazard and blunder characterising the Afghan war eases a little. It becomes possible to grasp at air and arrest the declining lack of confidence. One such moment presented itself on August 5 when the United States commander of the forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was called to a meeting in Belgium where Secretary of State Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told him to go slow on submitting his report, earlier expected in mid-August, to President Barack Obama and await the outcome of the August 20 Afghan presidential elections.

The Pentagon is preparing the ground for expanding the Afghan mission well beyond Mr. Obama’s early focus. Alongside is an attempt at precisely the sort of nation-building plan being integrated into the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan that Mr. Obama seemed to decry in March. Equally, the Americans are in a quandary: if Hamid Karzai secures a renewed mandate, the AfPak strategy cannot roll on.

So far the fog kept from view the full contours of the AfPak strategy, which apparently focussed on a “clear and concise and … attainable goal which is to disrupt, dismantle and prevent the al-Qaeda from being able to operate in its safe havens” — to quote U.S. National Security Advisor General James Jones during his media briefing in Washington, DC, on March 29. Gen. McChrystal reportedly wants to double the number of American civilians working in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. ambassador to Kabul sought an additional $2.5 billion in expenditure for 2010, which is about 60 per cent more than what Mr. Obama requested from Congress. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who advises Gen. McChrystal, told The Times newspaper that the U.S. should send another nine combat brigades comprising 45,000 troops, which would bring the total American presence to about 1,00,000.

On Friday, at a press conference, Mr. Gates hinted at a big U.S. troop build-up in Afghanistan. He also underscored the criticality of the Afghan election results for the U.S. policy when he said “close consultation” with the new government was imperative to ensure that the Afghans did not reject too big a U.S. military footprint. While, as of now, the Afghans might be viewing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led coalition as their partner, “I just worry that we don’t know what the size of the military presence might be that would begin to change that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for AfPak, has been assembling a nation-building team for Afghanistan for the long haul — comprising senior U.S. diplomats, counterinsurgency liaisons from the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, USAID and agricultural experts, and even well-known academics and think tankers. Mr. Holbrooke commands an impressive parallel government. Evidently, the “civilian side” led by Mr. Holbrooke will count on the success of the “military side” led by Gen. McChrystal in killing and trapping the recalcitrant Taliban and smashing up the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is against such a complex background that the U.S. wishes to tighten its control over the power structure in Kabul. Mr. Karzai’s re-election will pose a major headache for Washington. Mr. Holbrooke is heading for Kabul. Without doubt, the presidential election in Afghanistan has assumed immense significance for the geopolitics of the region. Mr. Holbrooke’s mission to Kabul is of the utmost importance for the future of the AfPak strategy. An election whose outcome was considered a foregone conclusion has become a cliffhanger. Mr. Karzai faces an existential threat from none other than his erstwhile mentors in Washington. For the past several weeks, the U.S. has been fighting a rear-guard battle to ensure that he somehow fails to get an outright victory in Thursday’s first round, which will necessitate a run-off in October.

Surely, the Afghan kaleidoscope is shifting with dizzying speed. Mr. Karzai has built up a coalition involving the erstwhile mujahideen leaders Ismail Khan, Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq and Rashid Dostum. Mr. Dostum’s return from Turkey — defying U.S. warnings — galvanises Jumbish just in time to boost Mr. Karzai’s electoral prospects in the Amu Darya region. The Uzbekis and Hazara Shias account for well over a quarter of the Afghan population. Besides, Ismail Khan, “amir” of western Afghanistan, who is close to Tehran and is allied to the former President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has come out in support of Mr. Karazi. Mr. Khan’s support for Mr. Karzai at this juncture undermines the U.S.-Pakistani strategy, which was based on the premise that Tajik disunity (and incipient Uzbeki-Tajik rivalries) would hamper Mr. Fahim’s capacity to deliver Tajik votes to Mr. Karzai. Thus, all in all, Mr. Karzai’s prospects have improved. Washington’s strategem to prevent his first-round victory is in jeopardy. In an extraordinary public vent of dismay, the State Department said in Washington on Tuesday: “We have made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concern regarding the return of Mr. Dostum and any prospective role in today’s Afghanistan.” Mr. Obama has already asked his national security team to give further material on Mr. Dostum’s “background,” including concerns that he might have been involved in the death of a significant number of Taliban prisoners of war in 2001 during the U.S. invasion.

To be sure, Mr. Holbrooke faces a huge challenge. A clear-cut victory for Mr. Karzai in the first round will bring into power a coalition that Washington will find hard to control what with multiple power centres. In this context, the “operational role of the Pakistani intelligence [ISI]” will assume critical importance. The ISI disfavours Mr. Karzai’s victory. It has scores to settle with almost all the Northern Alliance “warlords” who rally behind Mr. Karzai. These “warlords” may reject the U.S.-British-Saudi-Pakistani game plan to co-opt the Taliban into the Afghan power structure, as they know that Mullah Omar and Co. will go after them one day or the other. Equally, the Pakistani security establishment and the Obama administration cannot easily stomach a democratically elected government dominated by the Northern Alliance “warlords,” who used to enjoy the support of Russia, Iran and India, coming to power in Kabul. The agenda of introducing Islamism for the remaking of Central Asia, NATO’s expansion and long-term military presence in Afghanistan — all these are in the cross hairs. It is a moot point whether Russia or Iran actively promoted Mr. Karzai’s coalition with the Northern Alliance stalwarts. Surely, no one needs to tell Mr. Holbrooke and his interlocutors in the Pakistani security establishment that the destiny of the Afghan war and Mr. Obama’s AfPak strategy hang by a thread and they have a congruence of interests. Indeed, if there could be a ‘do-or-die’ situation in the great game in the Hindu Kush, it is this.

The big question is: how will Mr. Holbrooke tackle this nasty challenge? Will he push for an “Iran-like” situation in Kabul? What could the ISI do to help out Mr. Holbrooke? Long-time observers won’t fail to sense that there is an opaqueness in the air in Islamabad. Whenever the ISI goes into overdrive in the Hindu Kush, Islamabad puts on an appearance of studied indifference. No doubt, Mr. Holbrooke’s extended stay in Islamabad — and the visit to Rawalpindi by Gen. McChrystal on Monday — points to hectic U.S.-Pakistani parleys on the next American move on the Afghan chessboard.

The fog kept out of sight Mr. Karzai’s growing rift with Washington — and his inevitable “Afghanisation” — which began circa 2007 when he began demanding a say in the NATO troop deployment and the scale of military operations by the foreign troops. He sought an Iraqi-style Status of Force Agreement. Mr. Karzai also insisted that the international community work through his government in undertaking aid projects and not bypass it. Most important, he pressed for an intra-Afghan peace process through a Loya Jirgha (tribal council) to reconcile with the Taliban and pave the way for the vacation of NATO occupation. Mr. Karzai’s approach undercuts the U.S. agenda of monopolising conflict resolution in Afghanistan, which is inseparable from the U.S.’ regional strategies.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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