The Afghan conundrum - Zafar Hilaly - Thursday, February 03, 2011

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General Kayani’s visits to Kabul; the good rapport between Karzai and Zardari; efforts by an active Pakistani ambassador in Kabul to mollify, if not befriend, the powerful Ahmed Shah Masud faction that dominates in Kabul; the visit of the Afghan High Peace Council to Islamabad; the formation of a high powered Joint Pak-Afghan Commission to negotiate peace and, not least, the grudging acceptance by Washington of Pakistan’s pre eminent importance to the outcome in Afghanistan all, admittedly, offer a better prospect for peace than has existed before. And, yes, the mists of suspicion and acrimony that have blanketed Pak-Afghan relations appear to be lifting somewhat.

It is no less true that Musharaf’s departure has been a boon for relations. The Commando’s aggressive attitude, his brusque nay offensive manner, the sneer that he reserved for Karzai when talking to or about him though well received at home understandably caused umbrage in Kabul. Karzai may be an American ‘stooge’ but he retains a mite of pride and many a time that is all that stooges have left, which is a good reason not to prod them where it hurts. Kayani’s temperament, in contrast, is better suited to handle the sensitivities of key Afghans like Karzai.

However all these gains are no where near as decisive to the improved atmospherics as Karzai’s own changed attitude towards his American mentors. Faced with incessant criticism and pressure exerted by the likes of Ambassador Eickenberry, General Petraeus and the late Holbrooke, who made no bones that America would be better off without him, Karzai is now openly defiant. But rather than personal antipathy, the primary cause for Karzai’s frustration is the maddening fixation that the US military has on winning which Karzai, equally adamantly, believes is not possible. Nor does he believe that his country can any longer afford to bear the cost in lives and suffering. Warring, therefore, he says, must be accompanied by a strategy of engaging with the Taliban and immediately, rather than later. It’s a replay of the old Vietnam conundrum. American generals craving victory, ask for more time and troops while the politicians want out, and pronto, from an unpopular war.

By taking on the Americans, Karzai is dangerously close to burning his boats with them, so much so that it is now a toss up whether the Americans ‘get him,’ first, like they did Diem in Vietnam, or a Taliban suicide bomber. In any case his days appear numbered.

The souring of Karzai’s relations with Washington has not been a bad thing for Pakistan. It has forced Karzai to seek a better understanding with Pakistan and to join in a search for a negotiated settlement rather than an outright military victory which Petraeus unrealistically craves. A united front, if they can forge one, should help both in persuading Washington to heed their advice rather than to plough its lonely furrow, as is its wont. An added blessing for Pakistan is the opportunity it affords to persuade Karzai to abandon his strategy of leaning overly on India or hatching conspiracies with India that endangers Pakistan’s security.

Karzai has had a lot of time to weigh the cost-benefit outcome of playing off India against Pakistan and benefiting from both. It must have occurred to him that playing such a game in a civil war situation when a negotiated settlement is inconceivable without cultivating better ties with Pakistan is foolhardy. He must know that Pakistan’s support can never be wholehearted unless its military’s fears regarding India are addressed.

In that sense the current Afghan war holds many a lesson for Pakistan too. In the past our effort to ward off the strategic threat posed by India has led to ham-handed interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. It should have dawned on our military that Pakistan’s security interests are best served not by helping the Taliban to regain their lost power but rather by facilitating reconciliation among the major ethnic groups and through closer economic cooperation with Kabul. Instead our policy of exclusively promoting the Taliban only alienated friends (Iran) and further antagonised opponents without increasing our clout with the Afghan Taliban.

Unfortunately, all the positive gains flowing from Karzai’s change of heart and Pakistan’s more skilful handling of the Pak-Afghan dynamic will likely be lost because of the tricky question of accommodating the Afghan Taliban in a future Afghan set up but more so because the two main protagonists, America and the Taliban, continue to harbour delusions which make prospects of a settlement remote, if not, frankly, impossible.

In the case of the US, its populace has been wrongly spooked into believing that if US forces depart altogether then another 9/11 like attack on mainland America will occur and hence, the need for a fairly substantial US military presence in Afghanistan even after combat operations cease in 2014. In support of this proposition a huge base building American surge is underway. Billions are being expended on constructing military airports and encampments. One forward operation base in Paktita province alone will have a storage space for one million pounds of ammunition and related infrastructure.

Needless to say such a malign presence, as opposed to benign and economically beneficial long term US political and civilian involvement, will Afghanistan will be unacceptable to the Taliban. In due course, it may also arouse suspicions in Pakistan. But what it will certainly do is to ensure that the war continues and so too the destabilisation and further radicalisation of Pakistani society.

The Taliban’s strategy appears no less myopic. They have yet to abandon their ambition of regaining their pre 9/11 dominance and that means their totalitarian ideology as well. They forget that even if the US were to depart the forces that are being trained and expanded to defend Kabul’s writ will be more formidable, both in size and capability and also in terms of external political support, than the rag tag warlord led militias they were able to defeat. Nor are the Taliban willing to concede that they are by no means as popular among the Afghan pushtuns and that the ten years that have elapsed since their ouster have brought about changes in Afghan society that would make their ideology much less acceptable than it might have been during the chaos of the 1990s.

Faced, therefore, with a situation in which American phobias are pitted against Taliban obstinacy and fanaticism, the future offers nothing but further instability and violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only a settlement based on a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the creation of an effective mechanism for compliance will peace return, however, this seems as far removed from reality today as improbable fiction.

The writer is a former ambassador.


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