America’s last frontier? M Saeed Khalid - Friday, April 29, 2011

Soon after the US started bombing the Taliban and their cumbersome guests in 2011, I called on a South American president to brief him on Pakistan’s stance regarding the latest turn of events in Afghanistan. At one point during my presentation, the president waved his hand and said something I was expecting least. “I know, Afghanistan has been a place of quarrel in history”, he said, completely changing the context of the interview. Nine years on, I can only add: well said Mr. President, because we are no closer to settling the quarrel in Afghanistan.

What is the fatal attraction that pulls invader after invader to this rugged landlocked terrain, only to leave exhausted without fully realising their objectives? Several of them conquered the land but never succeeded in subjugating the people. Not surprisingly, a French commentator once asked why the west was helping the mujahidin to combat a European power (the Soviets) when the Afghans could resist the invaders on their own because they simply ‘love to fight’. Since 2001, it has been the turn of the latest imperial power to bite the dust in Afghanistan. Yet, until recently, President Obama characterised the war in Afghanistan as just in comparison to the unnecessary invasion of Iraq.

President Obama, having justified the mission in Afghanistan, ordered a surge in men and materiel as demanded by his generals, telling them at the same time to start thinning the forces in Afghanistan from July 2011. And there lies his dilemma. Obama cannot ignore the misgivings his commanders have over a unilateral draw down of forces which could negate the idea of a just war and weaken America’s capability to deliver decisive blows to her designated enemies. Hence, the growing tendency to intensify the so called war on terror in Pakistan. Some Americans openly tell their administration that Al-Qaeda having relocated, US military operations should be directed at their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The US military has its own reasons to sustain their involvement in Afghanistan up to and beyond 2014, the year designated for handing over responsibility for security to the Afghan forces. Nobody knows how effective the Afghan military and law enforcement forces will be in keeping control over the Taliban, local warlords, drug barons and other small time chiefs who can erect road barriers in no time. An outside security force will be needed to serve as a deterrent to all those who are hoping to benefit from a reduced profile of foreign forces.

An unstable Afghanistan will offer a strong temptation to the jihadis of different hues, who are now marking time in Fata or the Central Asian countries to regroup in Afghanistan, multiplying threats all around. Finally, we should not underestimate the desire of America’s military industrial complex to continuing the operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is only by assessing the impact of these multiple factors on America’s geo-political calculus in Afghanistan that Pakistan can plan its own strategy for striking a good bargain with Washington. The Pentagon and the CIA do not like the ideas of scaling down operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they cannot overrule the political compulsions of a president preoccupied with his re-election in 2012. Nor can they dismiss the chain of reactions in Pakistan over their aggressive posture in this country. The logical conclusion would therefore be that while the US might scale down operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan over time, their military presence in Afghanistan would continue and we should not expect any let up in pressure on security forces in both countries to pursue their operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Admiral Mullen, therefore, opted to lay his cards on the table by emphasising that 2014 is not a definite date for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

It is time for a pause by all those who are busy forecasting a US rout followed by their departure from Afghanistan. Just like a power sharing formula between Karzai and Mullah Umar may not materialise any time soon, the war in Afghanistan is not ending quickly either. We should start looking at the US mission in Afghanistan as more in the nature of the last rather than the new frontier. Thirty years of warfare have changed the Afghan people unlike earlier wars in that country. The ongoing military operations and training programmes by western forces, supported by reconstruction and development activities by the UN system and NGOs could end up transforming the country as well as the Afghan society.

The economy is growing as a very traditional society is increasingly exposed to satellite television and the internet. The Afghan people may soon start thinking in terms of taking their destiny in their own hands. Just imagine the Afghan youth raising slogans in the streets against the foreign forces, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, Hamid Karzai, Mullah Umar, Haqqani, Hikmatyar and the whole lot of them, with Afghan forces standing on the sidelines.

The writer is a former ambassador.


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