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Count Down in Afghanistan: Nightmare of the Past?

In another three months, US President Barack Obama will make one more review of the situation in Afghanistan.  The December review of strategy, one of the many that he has made trying new strategies, is expected to focus on American and NATO troop withdrawals from Afghanistan starting July, 2011.  As with previous Afghan strategies or the AF-PAK strategies in the real sense, this one is unlikely to show up a convincing end to the Afghan campaign, leaving behind a stable, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Americans have not yet learnt the complexities of the Afghan history and culture.

US top general in Afghanistan who also commands the ISAF /NATO forces, Gen. David Petraeus, very recently said Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s initiative to bring in the Taliban under certain conditions will succeed as the US did in Iraq, and the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland. Gen. Petraeus  was one of the leading American officials to help bring Iraq to the state as it is now.  But this does not compare with UK’s handling the challenge in Northern Ireland.

The Americans claim that they made Iraq a safe democratic country by removing and finally executing Saddam Hossain will be assessed by history.  Saddam Hossain was a ruthless dictator.  There is no question about that.  But the US encouraged him in some of his misadventures, tricked him into disarming, and concocted evidence to attack Iraq.  The ultimate aim was to get a strong foot hold in Iraq, strategic oil rich country stretching from the Gulf to the Middle East.

Saddam Hossain had kept his country secular, westernized in many ways, and kept away the Al Qaida and linked terrorists.  Today, after the establishment of so-called democracy in Iraq, scores of people are dying every day from Shia – Sunni rivalry.  Terrorist networks like Al Qaida and its affiliates have also taken roots there.  A new terrorist haven has been created.

Is Afghanistan destined to suffer the fate of Iraq after the ISAF withdrawal?  It could be worse, with serious consequences for the neighborhood.

Pakistan, that is, the Pakistan army and its unbridled and powerful Intelligence arm, the ISI, remain the most destabilizing and destructive force in Afghan affairs.  They still subscribe to their “strategic depth in Afghanistan” strategy, and are unlikely to accept a government in Afghanistan which does not do its bidding. The civilian government in Pakistan is impotent in such issues.  The army uses the civilian government as a screen only.  Matters of strategy, military policy and a major part of foreign policy are controlled by the army. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Asfaq Kyani, who is now on a three year extension of tenure till 2014, is a key figure in the Afghanistan issue.  It is reported that the US endorsed Kyani’s extension as he would represent continuity.

The US has too many leading official actors in the AF-PAK scenario.  US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, claims he has established a close one-to-one relationship with Kyani, and trusts him.  Former CIA counter-terrorism expert Bruce Reidel calls Kyani a “liar”.  Gen. Petareus is reported to have warned Kyani if Pakistan does not rein in terrorist groups like the Al Qaida, the Haqqani network and the Tekriq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from attacking US forces in Afghanistan, their camps in Pakistan will be bombed.  CIA drones launched  twenty attacks in terrorist camps in Pakistan in September alone, the highest ever in a single month, since 2006. At the same time Afghan government leaders including President Karzai, have been consistent that terror attacks in Afghanistan cannot be stopped till their safe havens in Pakistan are liquidated.There is little or no support for Pakistan’s  terrorist led war in Afghanistan,  yet the US feels that no resolution of the Afghan issue is possible without  a Pakistani role in the future of Afghanistan. Of course sharing a common border with Afghanistan and some unresolved border issues, Pakistan has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan.  That does not mean it can control Afghanistan and use it in its strategic policies.

Available evidence from 2008-09 clearly points to the fact that the US wants Hamid Karzai out, though initially they brought him in.  The US case against Karzai is massive corruption by Hamid Karzai and his family, especially his brothers and supporters.  This may very well be true.   The Wall Street Journal reported that US federal agencies have instituted an investigation of corruption and money laundering against Hamid Karzai’s  elder brother Mahmoud Karzai, who is an American citizen and a businessman. But the US in the past has supported some of the worst regimes in the world.

In the meanwhile, the former UN No.2 in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, has accused President Karzai as being a drug user, unstable and with mood swings.  Thankfully, the US State Department said that they have no such evidence.  But such charges have a habit of catching on.  In the 1990s, a rumour was spread that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was a drug addict, unstable and a pervert.  In the isolated state of North Korea the rumour did not catch on.  But Afghanistan is fully open to the outside world and President Karzai has many enemies.

Does the US have a replacement for Hamid Karzai in mind?  Till now there is no evidence except that they toyed with the idea of placing their own people in Karzai’s government in 2008 as kind of CEOs. An absurd idea.  The Americans may take care to understand that any one in Afghanistan who is seen as a puppet of a foreign government loses support of the people and is soon ousted .  Hamid Karzai must demonstrate that he is his own master.  Even when agreeing to deal with Pakistan on the Taliban reconciliation issue, he continues to declare publicly that terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan cannot be eradicated until Pakistan closes down the terrorist safe havens in Northern Pakistan.

Latest reports suggest that the Americans have been forced to bring out their private frustrations with the Pakistan Army and the ISI.  In his latest trip to Pakistan (Sept. 29 – 30), CIA Chief Leon Panetta gave a no nonsense talking to the Pakistani leaders, especially Gen. Kyani, ISI Chief, that terrorist plots targeting major attacks in Europe were being hatched in Pakistan, and these actors  trained there.  Panetta’s visit came in the wake of disclosures in Europe about these terrorist plots with their roots in Pakistan.  The UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, also reported twenty Britons of Pakistani origin were training in Pakistan for a major attack in the UK, like the “26/11” Mumbai attack. Panetta reportedly made it clear to his Pakistani hosts that President Obama’s warning, as reported in Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Obama’s Wars”, is serious.  If a successful terrorist attack takes place in the US with roots in Pakistan, Obama would be forced to take actions Pakistan would not wish for!

The Pakistan military – intelligence establishment has been sharing intelligence with the US on Taliban like targets. But they have resisted taking any action in North Waziristan where terrorist arms like the Haqqani network, Tehrik-e-Talibnan Pakistan (TTP) and others are located and are active in Afghanistan, including against US forces. September witnessed the largest number of CIA drone attacks in a month in Pakistan’s northern areas including North Waziristan, taking out some important terrorist targets.  In September alone, there were over 20 drone attacks, the highest in a month since 2006, and supported by air attacks.

The new US assertiveness should have some impact on the Pak Army-ISI’s “unrestricted warfare” strategy – using both terrorism and subterfuge as instruments of choice.  President Barack Obama is facing a congressional election in November with the Democrats losing ground, and his personal ratings falling.  He has to present a scenario to the American people that he is withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan and leaving behind a generally stable Afghanistan. He faces the question of accountability – American lives lost and tax payers money spent. But USA’s most important non-NATO ally against terrorism is queering the pitch for an honorable first phase of withdrawal. The militant and terrorism challenge emanating from Pakistan not only threatens Afghanistan but also the US and Europe.  The White House has little option left but to take a call.

The Pakistan Army intelligence establishment feels  confident enough that the US can be managed as Pakistan is a very important player in the Afghanistan issue not only politically but even for logistic and unstated base support for the US.  But the US and NATO have alternative routes through Russia and Central Asia, although they are more cumbersome and politically less preferable.  But that does not mean that this route will not be used. It would also be worthwhile to examine a post American /NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The other political constituents in Afghanistan like the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and more enlightened Pashtuns are unlikely to accept a Taliban participation in the Afghanistan government.  The two sides have little in common on religious doctrine, human rights, women’s issues and much more.  Again, all Taliban factions may not be agreeable to the proposed Karzai formulation like laying down arms and a more liberal legal and social structure.

Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors are not convinced of a “Taliban participated” government.  Iran has its own interest in terms of Afghan Shias who have been ostracized by the Sunni – Wahabi Taliban. Although the warring parties have been weakened and tired by one-stop war in the last three decades, the fundamentals have not changed.  At the same time, the other constituencies do not have a serious problem with Hamid Karzai and company as a political entity to work with, except for corruption and Karzai’s unclear Taliban – Pakistan inclusive stratagem.This brings up the final question.  Can the US and NATO forces withdraw rapidly from July, 2011?  Most involved in training the Afghan army and police including the US participants on the ground believe that such a withdrawal time table is feasible.  President Obama may finally veer around to this view after the November election.  At the moment the policy carries domestic compulsions.  He is to review the policy in December. President Obama will pay his first visit to India in November.  It will be a very important visit with the agenda covering not only bilateral relations but regional and global developments.  The AF-PAK issue will be somewhere in the top of the discussions and it concerns India directly.  The Indians see a quick US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a disaster for the stability of the region.  The Pakistan Army –intelligence establishment, with their myopic focus, may see the withdrawal as a boon.  But outside Afghanistan, they may be the worst hit.  The US will have to examine the issue constantly, because the security of the US and Europe and their assets and interests across the world become more insecure.  It may be a difficult decision for the US, but it has to be taken; and not compared to withdrawal from Iraq.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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