How to wind down the Afghan war

M.K. Bhadrakumar

While the opinion among American politicians favours a vaguely Afghan variant of the Iraqi “surge,” the silver lining is Washington’s sheer unaffordability of an open-ended war in Afghanistan.

Slowly, imperceptibly, it is becoming official American thinking that a United States “exit strategy” in Afghanistan ought to involve reconciliation with the Taliban. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates admitted as much recently. He said: “There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of the political outcome to this [war]. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.” True, he spoke with caveats but his statement marked a beginning since it was made in the approach to a historic transition of political power in Washington.

Mr. Gates’ admission was long in coming, and was prompted by the cascading opinion among the U.S.’ allies, including close allies such as Britain and Canada, that the war cannot be won. Ironically, this is a “second coming” of sorts. A reconciliation with the Taliban would be essentially based on what Supreme Leader Mullah Omar promised at the eleventh hour in those fateful days of late September 2001 from his Kandahar hideout via Pakistani intermediaries — that, yes, he would verifiably sequester his movement from the al-Qaeda and ask Osama bin Laden to leave the Afghan soil, provided the U.S. acceded to his longstanding request to accord recognition to his regime in Kabul rather than treat it selectively. Of course, the U.S. administration ignored the cleric’s offer and instead pressed ahead with the plans that were already far too advanced to launch a “war on terror” in Afghanistan.

An “exit strategy” must be candid. But there is still ambivalence on the part of the U.S. to admit what, at a comparable point in the trajectory of the 25-year-old Afghan civil war, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did with grace and all humility when he said in 1985 that Afghanistan had become a “bleeding wound” for the USSR. Any number of Soviet ‘experts’ genuinely believed at that time — like their American counterparts today — that if Moscow had given one last push, the war in Afghanistan could have been won. But the Soviet leadership saw that it would be a pyrrhic victory. After all, a point comes during a war when it no longer seems to matter who won or who lost.

Today, Afghanistan is poised on such a threshold. That is why there is a sense of disquiet in the region when powerful American politicians, who include not only Mr. Gates but also Barack Obama and John McCain, still speak about robustly conducting the war. The bipartisan opinion among American politicians seems to favour a vaguely Afghan variant of the Iraqi “surge.” They seem captivated by the new head of the U.S. Central Command and his Roman name — David Petraeus — who claimed “victory” in the war in Iraq.

The silver lining is the sheer unaffordability of an open-ended war in Afghanistan for the U.S. economy. Then, there is a very distinct possibility that like any leading presidential hopeful on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama might not have said the last word on Afghanistan. That is, if we are to believe the compassion and disarming honesty with which he recounted the intellectual journey of his unusual life in his poignant memoir Dreams from My Father.

Ten commandments

Mr. Obama’s new thinking will need a compass of 10 commandments. One, do not allow political instincts to be smothered by spooks, strategists and soldiers who surround statesmen. They don’t see the human condition. They are adept at “managing” conflicts rather than ending them. The Afghans have suffered enough. The pressing question is: how fundamental is the Afghan war to the global struggle against terrorism? Political violence in Afghanistan is primarily rooted in local issues and “warlordism” is an ancient trait.

Two, Taliban is not the problem and it can be made part of the solution provided its variant of “Islamism” is properly understood. Ultimately, the objectives of nation-building and legitimate governance in an environment of overall security that allows economic activities and development can only be realised by accommodating local priorities and interests. Washington has been far too prescriptive, creating and then controlling a regime in Kabul. But such a regime will never command respect among Afghans. Deploying more NATO troops or creating an Afghan army is not the answer. There is a crisis of leadership. Peace is indivisible and must include the vanquished as well.

Three, an inter-Afghan dialogue is urgently needed. The Afghans must be allowed to regenerate their traditional methods of contestation of power in their cultural context and to negotiate their cohabitation in their tribal context.

Four, the U.S. has been proved wrong in believing that imperialism and hubris could trump nationalism. Prolonged foreign occupation is triggering a backlash. It is time for the foreign forces to leave. A timeline is necessary.

Five, the agenda of the war must be transparent. It needs to be appreciated that the U.S. decided to invade Afghanistan. The backdrop of the September 11 attacks and George W. Bush’s dubious election victory in 2000 engendered compulsions. The invasion was avoidable. The war should never have escalated beyond what it ought to have been — a low-intensity fratricidal strife. In other words, a solution to the conflict has to be primarily inter-Afghan, leading to the formation of a broad-based government free of foreign influence, where the international community can be a facilitator and guarantor.

Six, the geopolitics of the region is casting shadows. The war provided a context for the U.S. military presence in Central Asia; NATO’s first-ever “out of area” operation; a turf which overlooks the two South Asian nuclear weapon states, Iran and China’s Xinjiang; and a useful toehold on a potential transportation route for Caspian energy bypassing Russia and Iran.

But Afghanistan is far too fragile to bear the weight of a heavy geopolitical agenda. Quite clearly, the regional consensus is breaking down. That can only prove lethal as time passes and the war increasingly gets viewed in zero-sum terms by the regional protagonists. The incipient signs are appearing — Russia’s warnings about NATO supply routes; creation of a Collective Security Treaty Organisation force in Central Asia; India-Pakistan rivalries; Iran’s activism vis-À-vis the forces of Afghan resistance, etc.

Seven, the war should not have been an American enterprise. Nor should it have space for the arrogance of power. Unfortunately, the U.S. uses the United Nations as a fig-leaf but pretty much decides on the war strategy. Eight, the Afghan problem is linked to wider questions of regional security, especially the situation around Iran. The U.S.’ “Great Central Asia” policy and containment strategy towards Russia, NATO’s expansion, etc. are other factors at work. Therefore, the involvement of the regional powers in any Afghan settlement becomes imperative — a regional summit, for instance. Washington’s contrary approach is needlessly paving the way for competitive politics. The current attempt to get Saudi Arabia to manipulate or splinter the Taliban can only complicate matters.

Nine, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in it are intertwined. But Gen. Petraeus’ strategy seems to be to hire Pashtun mercenaries to fight the war so that western casualties remain low and western public opinion doesn’t militate against the war. The strategy will take the situation in the Afghan-Pakistan tribal areas to anarchic levels and spread the war into Pakistan. Historically, the tribal areas constituted the buffer for Pakistan’s western marches.

Pakistan problem

Finally, this brings us to the “Pakistan problem.” This is also where Mr. Obama has got his sums seriously wrong. He has said harsh things about Pakistan not doing enough in the war but surprisingly for someone who lived among Pakistanis, he hasn’t introspected why this happened. He’s not seeing why Pakistan is unable to evolve a coherent strategy in the “war on terror.” There is no running away from the fact that it is the U.S.’ “war on terror” in Afghanistan that has destabilised Pakistan. The Pakistani people are not extremists, nor do they clamour for the Shariah law. Their opposition is not per se to their country’s leadership — civilian and military — but to its pusillanimous collaboration with the U.S. war effort.

Yet under American pressure, the Pakistani army, which is the backbone of the state, is launching forth in the tribal areas despite its lack of self-confidence and conviction. If this paradigm is pressed further down the road, a scenario like the one in Iran in the 1970s may well develop. The conditions are slowly ripening, although a charismatic leadership is lacking to capitalise on the groundswell of popular frustration.

Thus, Pakistan’s long-term stability is also linked to the departure of the foreign forces from Afghanistan. In all likelihood, any prospect of Pakistan disengaging from the U.S.’ war itself would have a calming effect on the tribal regions. Meanwhile, the new Pakistani leaders — in Islamabad and especially in Peshawar — would do well to make a reasonably convincing effort to appear to be their own masters in their own house. Equally, Mr. Obama should allow them to do that.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and an Indian Foreign Service officer.)

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