COMMENT: End games —Salman Tarik Kureshi - Saturday, January 29, 2011

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The US can fight as long as it chooses; it has that much power. What it seems to lack is the power to force the Taliban to surrender. All that the Taliban have to do to win, is not lose

“Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished,

It must be nearly finished...

I can’t be punished any more” — Endgame by Samuel Beckett.

If my readers think the above ode is about the demise of this peculiarly hapless government, I must disappoint them. That denouement is not at issue any more; the question is not whether or how it will end, but who and what else is going down with it. The power and significance of the historical moment that began with the February 2008 elections was not appreciated by most intellectuals of the left or the right, nor by most of our media pundits or commentators, nor, indeed, by the political actors themselves. That moment has now passed.

But please treat the above as an aside. Another process of great historical significance is also reaching a decisive stage in this unfortunate stretch of earth inappropriately labelled AfPak by our superpower allies.

The conflict that rages here was unleashed to further the ambitions of both the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan, which sought a lease on life, and the American CIA. This latter entity sought to avenge their country’s Vietnamese humiliation by unleashing the pseudo-Islamist cannon fodder they had clandestinely bred to fight “godless communism”. This fourth Afghan war began over 32 years ago and is the longest war that has been fought anywhere in the world since 1453, when the Hundred Years War petered to a halt. It has caused immeasurable destruction and misery in its theatres, engaged the troops of many armies, expended the blood and treasure of many countries and resulted in the spread of terrorism around the world, not least in Pakistan.

Is it finally ending? The US, it is felt, is war-weary and desperate to extricate itself. Certainly, adherence to at least a phased timetable of American withdrawal over the next four years is foreseeable.

While withdrawal was reconfirmed by President Obama in his State of the Union message this week, it is naïve to imagine that the US has been ‘defeated’. Despite its difficulties, it remains the most powerful nation in history, both in the size of its economy and its military strength. While withdrawing its own forces from direct engagement in Afghanistan, the strategic goal of the US will now be to build an Afghan security force that can take over in the coming years. It is now accepted that the conduct of counter-insurgency operations by visibly foreign troops serves to stir the most powerfully xenophobic of sentiments among the very people who are to be protected against the insurgents and, in fact, counter-productively drives more and more of them to rally against this “foreign occupation army”.

The US can blame the training camps and “safe havens” in Pakistan all it likes. While these have certainly contributed to NATO’s discomfiture, they are not the decisive factor. That factor is the identification of the Americans as a foreign army of occupation, which makes it impossible for them to win hearts and minds among the Afghan people. Further, for the Pakhtun nationality in Afghanistan, to fight against the Americans or any regime they back is perceived as a sacred national crusade.

The American tasks in Afghanistan are therefore: (a) win hearts and minds, (b) isolate the Taliban and (c) use segments of the population to buttress the government of President Karzai and provide recruits for the military and security forces. Beyond even the time and money required to rebuild and train an effective indigenous military infrastructure in Afghanistan, as George Friedman of Stratfor has pointed out, “The essential problem with this strategy is that it wants to control the outcome of the war while simultaneously withdrawing from it. For that to happen, the US must persuade the Afghan people (who are hardly a single, united entity) that committing to the US is a rational choice when the US goal is to leave.”

And that is precisely the rub. The US can fight as long as it chooses; it has that much power. What it seems to lack is the power to force the Taliban to surrender. All that the Taliban have to do to win, is not lose.

So, the US-Taliban endgame is in play and the US is entering this stage seemingly foreseeing a stalemate as victory enough. But the point is that, however odious a comparison between the Taliban and the Viet Cong may seem, the final outcome in Vietnam certainly comes to mind. The Taliban clearly control enough of the board that an endplay would lead to, not stalemate, but checkmate for the US and its allies, followed by a frenzied scuttle. And Mullah Omar and his cohorts would once again have acquired political control over our north-western neighbour. Contemplation of just such a likelihood — more than irrational anti-India fixations or preoccupations with ‘strategic depth’ fantasies — would logically lead our establishment to seek broadening their range of options.

But what would be the consequences of a Taliban victory? For one, such a victory would be confined to the Pakhtun south of that country. Afghanistan would once again be plunged into civil war, between the north and south and between factions in the south as well. Far from restoring order (as imagined in Robert Blackwill’s Plan B: Defacto Partition of Afghanistan), a Taliban victory and the partition and other upheavals that would follow, would plunge the entire Central and South Asian region into prolonged further anarchy. The shock waves would engulf neighbouring states, most notably Pakistan, where the effects would be particularly catastrophic.

Now, if elements within our establishment feel they can ‘deal’ with the resurgent Taliban, they should be quickly disabused of that notion. The bloody consequences that followed past attempts to do business with the Islamist warriors are obvious enough. The murder of Colonel Imam — reputedly a ‘father figure’ to the Taliban movement — should serve as an immediate warning.

Thus, Pakistan’s strategic choice vis-à-vis Afghanistan — as also our other neighbouring countries — is only too clear and does not offer any range of options. But who listens? The institutions of this state seem to be run by savage children (mental children, that is, who lack all innocence!) and they are engaged in playing games of a uniquely vicious character.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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