It is well known that of all military operations, retreat is the most difficult and complicated. A victorious march that takes a wrong turn can end in a stalemate, but a retreat gone wrong will most likely turn into a disaster. These are the grim forebodings that come to mind when we think of the forthcoming withdrawal of the American-led military forces from Afghanistan.
Whistling in the dark
The Obama Administration is putting it out as though the withdrawal is a great achievement, since it will pull it out of the quagmire that it has been stuck in ever since George Bush declared a “global war on terror.” But the reality is shoddier — we are witnessing yet another western retreat from Afghanistan, one that can have baleful consequences for others. No matter what the Americans say or do officially, they are, essentially, whistling in the dark.
The departure of the Americans and their allies — even though reports suggest that a small force will remain — is a fraught moment for the Afghans, the United States and neighbouring countries. Last month, representatives of India, Russia and China met in Moscow. According to an official in the know, the discussion was businesslike and devoid of the double-speak that often marks the occasion. The subject was Afghanistan. Faced with the withdrawal of the American-led alliance from the country, the three regional powers are scrambling to see how they can stabilise the situation. Each of them has interests there, and none of these really clash.
But all three have an interest in ensuring that Afghanistan is stable and secure, witnesses economic growth and reconstruction, and is integrated into the regional economy. India and China are interested in ensuring that a war-ravaged Afghanistan does not once again become a place where militants are able to establish training camps freely. Both have important investments — India’s $ 2 billion are spread in development projects to promote Afghan stability, while China’s $ 3 billion could aid in its prosperity. As for Russia, it is the primary security provider to the Central Asian states and has an interest in preventing the return of a situation of civil war.
It is important that the post-U.S. situation does not degenerate into an India-Pakistan battlefield. The responsibility here lies heavier with New Delhi, since Pakistan can be trusted to follow its baser instincts. Indeed, New Delhi’s strategy must be to prevent Islamabad from trying to turn the Afghan clock back to the pre-American days. In this, it can fruitfully use the dialogue processes it has established with Russia and China and, separately, the U.S. Interestingly, in the recent India-China-Russia talks, the Chinese pointedly avoided projecting Islamabad’s case and spoke for their own interests, just as the other interlocutors did.
But for things to work, there is need for both Washington and Islamabad to confront the hard realities. As for the U.S., writing in Foreign Policy , Vali Nasr wrote “America has not won this war on the battlefield, nor has the country ended it at the negotiating table. America is just washing its hands of this war.” According to Mr. Nasr, who worked in Richard Holbrooke’s AfPak team in the U.S. State Department, President Obama’s attitude to the American commitment in Afghanistan has been dictated by domestic politics — when it was popular back home he backed it, and when it became unpopular, he pushed for terminating the U.S. commitment. The American withdrawal, Mr. Nasr argues, is without any concern for the fate of Afghanistan itself, or for the possible chaos that may follow in the region.
As for Pakistan, the belief among some key players, notably in the Army, that there can once again be “Fateh” (Victory) in Kabul is delusional. Nothing in the ground situation suggests that the writ of the Taliban will run across Afghanistan again, at least not the Taliban that Pakistan so effectively aided and controlled in the 1990s. Indeed, the most unstable part of the country will be the eastern region bordering Pakistan, whose own border with Afghanistan is the site of an insurgency led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP). If anything, the TTP could be the principal beneficiary of the withdrawal, since it will find it easier to get sanctuary and arms from the Taliban.
As of now, in the international process, we have the western countries trying to work out a negotiated settlement that will bring elements of the Taliban into the governance of the country, based on the constitution of the Loya Jirga of 2003. This Doha process has been a slow-moving affair with the Taliban delegation in the Qatari capital twiddling its thumbs most of the time. One problem is no one is really clear as to whether they are dealing with the genuine representatives of Mullah Omar. The bigger problem is that both Islamabad and the Taliban are merely hedging in their responses to the West and they are waiting to see how precipitous the American retreat is, and what happens in the run-up to the Afghan elections of 2014.
Even today, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, and several of its top leaders live in Pakistan. Though Islamabad says it is supporting the Doha process, there are doubts as to whether or not Pakistan can actually “deliver” the Taliban to the U.S. and its allies. But there can be few doubts about Islamabad’s ability to play the spoiler. This is what countries like the U.S., India, Russia and China need to prevent through coordinated diplomacy. And talking of elections, we have to see just how the election in Pakistan expected in a few months will play out.
Since 2002, a set of new facts has been created on the ground. Foremost among these have been the presence of an elected Afghan government and, now, a substantial Afghan National Security Force. This will continue to get the support of the international community and the ANSF will also have the ability to control the key parts of the country, as long as it gets external support. On the other hand, the Taliban has suffered considerable attrition and the relations between Pakistan and the Taliban have been conditioned by the emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP) as well as the unhappy experience of the Taliban at the hands of the ISI.
There is one important, and indeed overriding, consideration in the manner in which we deal with Afghanistan. Both the U.S. and India need to recognise that they have far greater security interests in Pakistan than in benighted Afghanistan. The “victor” of Kabul will inherit a war-torn and ravaged country without the basics of schools, hospitals and transportation systems. But should the Afghan situation catalyse the rise of Islamists in Pakistan, India will be in for trouble. It does not need to be repeated that Pakistan is a country with some industrial capacity, nuclear weapons and a powerful military. Its capacity for mischief would go up by orders of magnitude, were the Islamists gathered by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed in the Difa-e-Pakistan Council to become even more central to the country’s politics.
AfPak to PakAf
For this reason, it is important to reverse the appellation AfPak to PakAf, at least mentally. We need to ensure that a “solution” in Afghanistan has a collateral beneficial effect in Pakistan. Or, at least, it should not affect Pakistan negatively. This is not, of course, a call for pandering to Islamabad’s Afghan fantasies.
The presence of U.S.-led forces has played a stabilising role in Afghanistan. But now they are going and leaving fear in their wake. The Afghans are petrified at the prospect of a renewed civil war and the return of the Taliban, the Pakistanis, or at least the sensible ones, are scared of the threat from the TTP. India, Russia and China are worried about the possible spill-over effects of a civil war in the country. As for the U.S., its fear is that its retreat could, through some missteps, become a rout.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)