America, Pakistan and the Taliban

U.S. Senator John Kerry shares a light moment with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a press conference in Kabul on October 20, 2009. The White House has high praise for the American team in Kabul, including Kerry, that played a major role in persuading Karzai to agree to a run-off election.   | Photo Credit: Musadeq Sadeq

The Pakistanis use an earthy metaphor when they want to put their American interlocutors on the defensive. They complain Pakistan has been used like condom and discarded time and again in the Cold War era. By saying so, they urge the Americans to be constant in friendship.

The Afghans would feel the same way today about the Americans. One look at the CNN on Tuesday afternoon was sufficient to take in the painful sight of Afghan President Hamid Karzai lining up with a slight stoop for the photo-op announcing he lost the presidential election and a runoff will be held on November 7. A cultural mishap has taken place, which leaps out of the famous E.M. Forster novel set in Chandrapore. The Americans didn’t even know a Popolzai chief was being made to admit defeat in front of his people.

Mr. Karzai insisted until last weekend he would not accept interference by foreigners in deciding the outcome of the election, which he claimed he won. Yet, four days later, he retracted in public view without offering explanation. In the Afghan bazaar, he has suffered a lethal blow to his prestige. John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly sat in the presidential palace and pressured Mr. Karzai for a total of 72 hours not to insist he won the election. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called from London; French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner personally visited Kabul to participate in the arm-twisting; and the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made their own contributions from New York and Brussels to the western enterprise to get Mr. Karzai sign up on his political obituary.

Mr. Karzai caved in realising he has irretrievably lost that gravitas without which one cannot hope to be a ruler in Afghanistan. He knows the Afghan bazaar has taken note and it will be impossible for him now to rebuild the charisma he was lately claiming by ostentatiously distancing himself from the western powers. The triumphalism in the western capitals underscores, on the other hand, they haven’t yet quite grasped the gravity of the appalling act they committed. They don’t seem to know — or worse still, if they don’t care — that Afghans do not respect those incapable of giving steady friendship. Whether Mr. Karzai was efficient or corrupt is no longer the issue. The issue is the perception that Westerners use their friends like condoms and then discard them. This tale will be told and retold for a long time in the vales and hills, wooded copses, sunken lanes and meadows of Afghanistan.

Surely, any “Afghanisation” of the war needed to be built around a Prometheus Unbound in Kabul — figuratively put, of course — and that has become impossible now. No matter who wins the November 7 runoff, he will carry the cross of being an American puppet, and forever will the common Afghan sit on the fence dangling his feet and refusing to rally in the fight against the Taliban and forever will the western powers remain in ground zero with their finely chopped “Afghanisation” strategy. The only feasible way of “Afghanisation” is the fashion in which Mr. Karzai hoped to go about it – via incomprehensible coalitions and cutting Byzantine deals with local commanders, “warlords”, Mujahideen, tribal maliks and mullahs. “Afghanisation” crucially depended on a central Pashtun figure like Mr. Karzai who would incessantly network, keeping one eye and one ear closed, seeing and listening when he wanted.

There was a method in Mr. Karzai’s madness in displaying his independence from his American mentors. His political credibility was directly proportional to his defiance of the Americans. His defiance might or might not have been a mere act of optical illusion, but that shouldn’t detract from its worth in the Afghan cultural context. His entire strategy now lies in ruins as he was shepherded before television cameras on a Tuesday afternoon and made to admit he has no mind of his own. The only plausible explanation that can be given to the theatrics by Mr.Kerry in Kabul (which U.S. President Barack Obama has, astonishingly, commended) is that the U.S. is actually not looking for a strong Afghan power structure. All the talk of the Afghan election being fraudulent and the UN-supported electoral watchdog ruled a new round is baloney. When the Afghans heard about the fraudulent election, as the Pakistani author Tariq Ali wrote, “The Hindu Kush mountains must have resounded to the sound of Pashtun laughter”. Make no mistake about it, the runoff too will be largely fraudulent. What else can one expect? After 62 years of democracy, ballot stuffing and impersonation of voters and “booth capturing” happens all the time in India. Mr. Tariq Ali put the finger on the pie: “Nobody in Afghanistan takes elections too seriously and especially not when the country is occupied by the U.S. and its NATO acolytes”.

Mr. Ban told the BBC the UN wants 200 poll fraud officials “fired” so that the runoff could be made “credible”. Pray, who will replace them and also vet the credentials of the other thousand petty officials on election duty manning the polling booths? And all this to be worked out within the next fortnight, which is all the time left. The BBC reported that “the sense of apathy is strengthened because there is a perception in Afghanistan that everything – from money, to the use of state machinery, to violence and intimidation, to registering phantom voters – has already been predetermined”. Such being the fact of life, why the brouhaha that Mr. Karzai lost a clear-cut win by less than one percent of votes in the first round? The problem is Mr. Karzai, stupid. The U.S. fears an assertive Mr. Karzai may become a thorn in the flesh if he gets elected on his own steam by hook or crook. Prima facie, this may appear a contradiction when the war itself is all but lost. However, there is a logical explanation.

Quintessentially, what is unfolding is that in the name of “Afghanisation”, Washington is preparing an exit strategy which will be built around an incremental “Talibanisation” of the Afghan power pyramid. This approach presupposes that any new power structure in Kabul will at best be a mere transitional authority to bridge an interim phase. The man in charge in Kabul — Mr. Karzai II or Abdullah Abdullah — will need to be a Paid Piper who follows the U.S. diktat — and nothing more. The U.S. is expected to kickstart in the very near future a determined effort to co-opt the Taliban. The foreplay has already begun. Troops are being redeployed, abandoning far-flung or remote and indefensible military outposts and instead concentrating on holding major towns and cities. What is on the cards is that the Taliban cadres will be allowed in to fill the local power structures. The gateway opens when the local elections are held in 2010.

The U.S. spokesmen have begun justifying that what suits Afghanistan is a decentralized government with a nominal centre. The Americans, in their slang, call this an ingenious “bottoms-up” approach. What it implies is that devolution of authority to the local government would be the most effective form of governance for a country of such immense diversity like Afghanistan. No doubt, the argument has its merits, but why was it that the erudite Americans took eight long years to make this great discovery about Afghan history? The point is, the overriding American priority today is to ensure that somehow the fighting tapers off so that NATO casualties come down and the alliance’s long-term continuance in Middle Asia becomes politically sustainable, which is crucial for the U.S. global strategy.

Therefore, the Obama administration is adopting a revisionist approach towards the Taliban, saying the latter do not pose any threat to the U.S.’s security. To be fair, Mr. Obama has no reason to be on a revenge act in the Hindu Kush, as was the case with his predecessor eight years ago. Bob Woodward has made riveting revelations in his book “Bush At War” precisely on this issue as to whether the Taliban regime in Kabul in September 2001 was to be regarded as America’s enemy. That 8-year old discussion has come full circle. True, the Taliban aren’t necessarily America’s enemies. Nor should they be excluded from their own country’s body polity. So, if the Taliban pose no threat to the U.S. security and if only the Taliban would agree to severe links with the Al-Qaeda, the U.S. would unscramble the omlette.

All the same, the U.S. officials have begun arguing, the raison d’etre of continued western troop presence in Afghanistan still remains insofar as Pakistan’s stability has now become the new focal point. But then, no one remembers anymore that it was the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan that in the first instance destabilized Pakistan. Thus, the U.S. sidesteps the core issue – a timeline for ending the occupation of Afghanistan.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 1:47:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/America-Pakistan-and-the-Taliban/article16888277.ece

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