The Afghan conundrum - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, July 23, 2010

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They came to Kabul from seventy countries last week. Some of them are doing the fighting and the dying in the dusty valleys of Afghanistan. Others are playing their part by throwing money on the problem. And then there were those, like Pakistan, who cannot wish their geography away.

In this meaningless media extravaganza, they were told myths that they were desperate to believe. Among them that Afghan forces will take over the security of the country by 2014. Like a medieval storyteller in the village square, President Karzai spun a web of sweet talk that brought a smile to every face. What it was in truth is pure fiction.

The grim reality of the Afghan state is that without American and Nato support it would collapse in a day. Its ragtag army is poorly trained, ill disciplined and divided by history of conflict between its different ethnicities. Its police is no better and has shakily been put together by attracting recruits with heavy doses of American money. At the first sign of trouble, it melts away.

The governing structure is based on patronage and corruption that flows from the centre to the provinces, with Mr Karzai holding the ultimate pot of foreign-inspired gold. The announcement at the conference that more donor money will be funnelled through the Afghan government would have been music to his ears.

There is hardly any functioning bureaucracy beyond Kabul, and even there the meaning of the word functioning would have to be stretched. The provinces are run, if run is the word, by a governor with a small band of loyal retainers.

This is not a structure that corresponds to any modern definition of a viable state. Vigorous efforts are being made by the Americans and others to make it better, but the results are not very encouraging. How this will change in four years, and to the extent that Afghan forces will take over security duties in the country by 2014, is difficult to comprehend.

And Mr Karzai knows that. He is only telling this fiction to his Western backers because they want to hear it, or at least said publicly. In private, they know, or the realists among them know, that this is unlikely to happen. They just don't want their people to hear it.

The problem for the Americans and their Western allies is that support in their countries for the war in Afghanistan has virtually collapsed. With dead bodies coming home every week, most people cannot understand what their armed forces are doing in Afghanistan. Or, why so much money in these difficult economic times is being spent there.

It is for this reason that President Obama announced the start of a withdrawal in July 2011 and new British prime minister David Cameron has forcefully declared that British forces will be out of the country by 2015. The Europeans and others have already begun to phase out.

The conundrum that Obama faces in particular, and to an extent others too, is how to leave with a modicum of dignity intact. What they are looking for is any fig leaf that will allow them to declare mission accomplished, or to at least avoid a retreat in dishonour and defeat.

The exit strategy devised to accomplish this has two pillars based on the presumption that no military victory in this conflict is possible. One, to negotiate a solution with the Taliban that ends the fighting, and brings them, or at least their acceptable faces, into the Afghan power structure. And, two, to build the Afghan state to an extent that it can stand on its own feet after the Westerners withdraw.

Both are doomed to failure. But this will not bother the Americans or their allies as long as there is a decent interval between their retirement from the fighting and whatever happens next in Afghanistan. Shades of Vietnam again, and probably with similar results?

The first pillar, that of finding a negotiated solution with the Taliban, is problematic because of contrasting timelines. The Americans want this to happen within a year or so, and to force the Taliban to agree have a ramped-up foreign military presence. They are getting ready to launch a major assault on Kandahar to drive the message home.

This is unlikely to work because, as the previous campaigns have shown, such as in Helmand, the Taliban melt away and return to fight at a time of their choosing. They can wait, while the Americans and the British have deadlines. This was captured best by a Taliban leader who is supposed to have remarked that they have the watch and we have the time.

The more desperate Nato becomes to withdraw, the stronger the Taliban get. They may have a medieval worldview, but they are not idiots. They also understand the internal dynamics of the Western countries. They are ready to wait out their adversaries.

This is where Pakistan's role has become crucial. The Americans want it both to pressure the Afghan Taliban militarily and use its influence to bring them to the negotiating table. This apparently contradictory demand is particularly targeted at the Haqqani network, which is alleged to have close links with the ISI.

It seems that Pakistan is willing to help out, provided its concerns are met. Pakistan wants a friendly Afghanistan, as Gen Kayani has repeatedly emphasised. It wants a neighbour that is not a problem for its security and, if possible, provides opportunities for mutual economic benefit.

The recent warming of relations between the two countries is an indicator that Pakistan's concerns have been to an extent acknowledged by the Americans and the Afghans. Of particular significance is the training of Afghan military officers scheduled to begin in Pakistan soon.

This was one area where the Indians were keen to get in and that was troubling for Pakistan. Military training builds bonds between the armed forces and Pakistan was keen for it to take place here. The fact that it will start to happen is interesting, and an important indicator of warming relations between the two countries.

This will lead to the next step; for Pakistan to deliver the Taliban. It will not be easy. The Taliban may go through the motion of talks but will want to wait out the Americans. If they are wise, though, they should give a fig leaf to the West so that it can withdraw with some honour intact. Trying to rub an enemy's nose in the dirt can have unforeseen consequences.

The second pillar of the Western strategy, that of building up the Afghan state, I have already stated has little chance of success. Thus, both parts of the American exit plan are problematic, to say the least. How its different elements play out over the next year would be interesting to see.

Afghanistan has seen a thirty-year war already, and no end is in sight. Whether the West remains there or not, peace among its diverse people will remain a fond dream. This will keep its neighbours on the edge and Pakistan has potentially much to lose and much to gain.


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