Monday, October 24, 2011

Afghanistan: America running out of options ….

Hussain Saqib

Washington, after a sustained campaign of Pakistan-bashing has started sweet-talking again. But this should surprise no one, not the Pakistanis, who have become accustomed to this very familiar pattern of US behavior in Pak-US relations, particularly in relation to Afghanistan. Sweet-talk, coerce and sweet-talk again. The end-game has put Washington in such a complex situation that it has to employ all possible tactics to salvage from this ill-conceived misadventure. A decade after Washington’s invasion, occupation, and needless war in Afghanistan, events signifying sweet-talk-coerce-and-sweet-talk-again pattern have started unfolding at an amazingly quicker pace.

There was an attack on Kabul’s most guarded enclave called the Ring of Steel, housing US embassy and other offices. Then there was an unfortunate murder of the born-again prophet of peace, Professor Rabbani.  The US administration launched a sustained campaign of accusations against Pakistan for its alleged involvement in September 13 attack on American embassy in Kabul, and Karzai government pointed finger at Pakistan for its alleged role in Rabbani’s murder. Both the US and its puppet-regime in Kabul were acting in unison.

There was, therefore no surprise when US Secretary of State retracted and admitted in Islamabad that the US had no evidence to prove its allegations. Karzai did not lag behind and admitted that some sections of his administration were rather quick to blame Pakistan for Rabbani’s murder.  He even went as far as to say that if fighting started between India and Pakistan and Pakistan and the US, his country would stand by Pakistan.

How could one explain this sudden change of heart?

The United States is well aware that is now trying to make the maximum out of a lost battle. It wants an honorable exit and its continued presence in the region. The Afghanistan endgame, for the US, is actually outright defeat as it has not been able to achieve a single objective of its needless campaign despite losing lives, face and a staggering sum of $ one trillion in direct war costs. At this point, the Obama Administration is anxious to convert the military stalemate into a form of permanent truce, if only the Taliban were willing to accept what amounts to a power sharing deal that would allow Washington to claim the semblance of success after a decade of war.

According to an article in Foreign Policy Journal, President Obama seeks to retain a large post-”withdrawal” military presence throughout the country mainly for these reasons:

  1. To protect its client regime in Kabul led by Karzai, as well as Washington’s other political and commercial interests in the country, and to maintain a menacing military presence on Iran’s eastern border, especially if U.S. troops cannot now remain in Iraq.
  2. To retain territory in Central Asia for U.S. and NATO military forces positioned close to what Washington perceives to be its two main (though never publicly identified) enemies — China and Russia — at a time when the American government is increasing its political pressure on both countries. Obama is intent upon transforming NATO from a regional into a global adjunct to Washington’s quest for retaining and extending world hegemony. NATO’s recent victory in Libya is a big advance for U.S. ambitions in Africa, even if the bulk of commercial spoils go to France and England. A permanent NATO presence in Central Asia is a logical next step. In essence, Washington’s geopolitical focus is expanding from the Middle East to Central Asia and Africa in the quest for resources, military expansion and unassailable hegemony, especially from the political and economic challenge of rising nations of the global south, led China.
  3. There is another incentive for the U.S. to continue fighting in Afghanistan — to eventually convey the impression of victory, an absolute domestic political necessity.
  4. The most compelling reason for the Afghan war is geopolitical— finally obtaining a secure military foothold for the U.S. and its NATO accessory in the Central Asian backyards of China and Russia. In addition, a presence in Afghanistan places the U.S. in close military proximity to two volatile nuclear powers backed by the U.S. but not completely under its control by any means (Pakistan, India). Also, this fortuitous geography is flanking the extraordinary oil and natural gas wealth of the Caspian Basin and energy-endowed former Soviet Muslim republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

This panic on the part of American strategists on the 10th anniversary of what can be mildly termed as a misadventure is due to the fact that the US even after a decade of its stay in Afghanistan has not a slightest clue to the country it had dreamed to conquer. It has not been able to sell this misadventure even to those it had sought to liberate from the Taliban. A new survey by the International Council on Security and Development showed that 92% of 1,000 Afghan men polled had never even heard of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — the U.S. pretext for the invasion — and did not know why foreign troops were in the country. It had no idea that one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world — a society of 30 million people where the literacy rate is 28% and life expectancy is just 44 years — would fiercely fight to retain national sovereignty.

The Bush Administration, which launched the Afghan war a few weeks after 9/11, evidently ignored the fact that the people of Afghanistan ousted every occupying army from that of Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn to the British Empire and the USSR. It has now dawned on Washington that its $1.4 trillion annual military and national security expenditures are a major factor behind its monumental national debt and the cutbacks in social services for the people, but aside from White House rhetoric about reducing redundant Pentagon expenditures, overall war/security budgets are expected to increase over the next several years.

The recent visit of Secretary Clinton to Islamabad and her sudden change of tone, and heart, was no surprise to anyone. It clearly suggests that, for its economic compulsions, the US wants to get out of the Afghanistan mess it has created itself, as soon as possible. It wants to do so without compromising on its broader objectives and its interests in the region. It seeks to broker a peace deal with the Taliban factions through Pakistan and is pressuring Pakistan to push Haqqanis, the most powerful of Taliban, to the negotiating table. It thought Pakistan could arm-twist Haqqanis into submission through a military operation in North Waziristan.

Pakistan maintained its firm stand and on its refusal, the US now wants Pakistan to facilitate reconciliation with Taliban to enable the US to leave Afghanistan with some grace, if not a loser. It was Pakistan which facilitated direct US-Taliban contact in one of the Gulf states earlier this year. That meeting apparently ended as a total fiasco forcing the US to use Pakistan again. But talking with militant groups has been a long-standing effort by the United States as it prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and Clinton herself said there had been U.S. overtures to the Haqqanis. Now she wants Pakistan's help.

The US thinks that Pakistan, for a variety of reasons, has the “capacity to encourage, to push, to squeeze ... terrorists, including the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban, to be willing to engage on the peace process”. This reflects the reality that the United States is desperate and is running out of options in Afghanistan.

This explains the clear pattern of sweet-talk, coerce and sweet-talk again. The barrage of allegations by senior US officials and Karzai administration were clearly a part of coercive tactics to force Pakistan to fall in line. The futility of these tactics has now made them pursue the alternative course of sweet-talking Pakistan into doing the US bidding. This sudden change of heart is, therefore, not so sudden. It is what is required for facilitating Obama administration to put up a face good enough to go for reelection. And it can put up a threatening face again if the circumstances so required.

Related article:
The five per cent serpent  (The Express Tribune)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Anti-US alliance of the Cold War: What else is common between India and Afghanistan?

If history is any guide, India has an extra-ordinary preference for puppet governments in Afghanistan. Both India and Afghanistan were active allies of USSR against the US during the Cold War. Now when the reins of power are again in the hands of another unpopular and foreign-supported regime in Kabul, India is active again to gain some sort of foothold in Kabul. In fact, both India and Pakistan are trying to outsmart each other for a major chunk of influence in post-US Afghanistan. Pakistan has a national security objective in having a decisive say in Kabul; Afghanistan is its immediate neighbor, its backyard. India is trying to overtake Pakistan for Kabul race precisely for the same reason; Afghanistan is Pakistan’s immediate neighbor. India has its strategic interests in Kabul because while in Kabul, it can encircle Pakistan and imperil its Western borders in order to keep it in line and establish its hegemony in the region. It has already opened a number of border posts, called consulates, along Pak-Afghanistan border which are busy pumping money to intensify Pakistan insurgency and label Pakistan as sponsor of Afghanistan unrest.

India has a bigger dream to realize through its presence in Kabul. It wants to keep China at leash by keeping it away from this confluence of cross-roads leading to Central Asia. It has made heavy investments in building infrastructure in this war-ravaged country.  On this point, the US and India have converging interests. If the US, therefore, has to make a choice between India and Pakistan for a suitable heir to Kabul throne, it would more probably pick India.

The realist politics are driven by nothing but the selfish national interests and thus, have very interesting political dynamics. India was an anti-US ally of Soviet Russia in the Cold War era. It was a bitter critic of the US supporting Afghanistan insurgency when Communist forces occupied Afghanistan. The then government of Afghanistan, largely unpopular, was in Soviet camp. India and the then-Afghanistan were allies. It is for this reason that in that popular revolt against Soviet Russia, India was opposed to the Mujahideen who were funded and equipped by the CIA.

Look at the irony of history. Pakistan was a committed US ally in the war against Soviet Russia. Without Pakistan’s support, Mujahideen could not drive Russian forces leading to disintegration of Soviet Union, a goal the US wanted to achieve at all costs. Pakistan has always remained on the right side of the US during the cold war and paid dearly for that. With the changing scenario, it now finds itself in the woods after having earned American fury despite fighting US “war on terror” for 10 years. The loss of human lives alone of Pakistanis, branded as collateral damage, is 4000 military men and 35000 civilians. Such are the ways of international politics. India, despite having remained aloof, and largely unhurt, in the war or terror, is now preparing to take the reins of power after the endgame in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s present government is a replica of the pro-Russia regime of 1970s and 1980s; unpopular, unrepresentative and supported by the occupation armies. For these reasons, it needed the political support of USSR and India then and of the US and India now. The best way to sustain this support is to accuse Pakistan for anything and everything happening in the country.

It will be very interesting to look at the Indian interests in Afghanistan as perceived by Indian analysts. According to an article in Foreign Policy, India is a significant player in Afghanistan. It has the world's fifth-largest aid program there, having committed $1.5 billion in developmental assistance. It has played a key role in reconstruction and has developed training programs for Afghan civil servants and police. India has made these investments in the country because its policymakers are keen on ensuring that a radical Islamist regime does not return to the country, that Pakistan not wields a disproportionate influence on any future government, and that Afghanistan might serve as a bridgehead for India's economic ties to the Central Asian states.

India can do anything to ensure that a representative government does not return to Afghanistan, if it gives some space to Pakistan to wield some interest in Afghanistan.  According to the article, India fears that a reconstituted Taliban regime would allow a host of anti-Indian terrorist groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, to find sanctuaries and training grounds in Afghanistan. Some astute New Delhi-based analysts also worry that a resurgent Taliban may actually help broker a peace agreement between the Pakistani regime and Pakistani domestic terrorist groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. That, they argue, could redirect the collective wrath of various jihadi organizations from internecine conflict and focus it on India, and more specifically Indian-controlled Kashmir. Finally, they are concerned that a Taliban-dominated regime would forge links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other jihadi groups in Central Asia, thereby adversely affecting India's quest for access to energy resources and markets in the region. Yet New Delhi also sees the writing on the wall but it will not easily walk away from Afghanistan.

India is counting on its historic ties to the Northern Alliance, which is a representative body of Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities and which India opposed in Afghanistan Jihad of 1980s.

According to TIME, with the U.S. looking for an exit, India is trying to figure out what its role in Afghanistan's uncertain future will be. U.S. counterinsurgency strategy aims to "clear, hold, build and transfer" a stable Afghanistan back to its people. The Indian government hopes to aid the "build and transfer" part of that effort by helping to develop Afghanistan's infrastructure and institutions.

Whatever New Delhi does, it can expect truculent opposition from archrival Pakistan, which has long tried to influence what happens in Afghanistan, primarily to ensure that the country's power players are friendly to Islamabad. Its suspicion of India's regional intentions is plainly revealed in several cables released by WikiLeaks. Pakistan's press routinely accuses India of sending in spies in the guise of doctors and engineers, and Islamabad claims that India's four consulates are bases for espionage and for funneling aid to separatist rebels in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Pervez Musharraf, a former Pakistani President, is convinced New Delhi is responsible for providing insurgents with weapons. "The Afghans have nothing," he told Time, "so it must be the Indians."

While discussing India’s Stake in Afghanistan, The Journal of International Security Affairs writes in post 9/11 Afghanistan, India’s interests have centered on three broad objectives: security concerns, economic interests and regional aspirations. India has revived its historical, traditional, socio-cultural and civilizational linkages with the objective of a long-term stabilization of Afghanistan. As part of this effort, India has supported the nascent democratic regime, seeing in it the best hope for preventing the return of the Taliban. India is also looking beyond Afghanistan’s borders, working to revive Afghanistan’s role as a “land bridge” connecting South Asia with Central Asia and providing access to strategic energy resources. Along these lines, India has actively promoted greater trade and economic integration of Afghanistan with South Asia through the regional mechanism of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

With the establishment of an interim government in Afghanistan under President Hamid Karzai in 2001, India announced that it would provide $100 million in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. Since then, India has followed a policy of high-level engagement—characterized by a range of political, humanitarian, cultural, economic and infrastructure projects. India today ranks overall as Afghanistan’s sixth-largest bilateral donor country, having invested heavily in a range of key sectors of the Afghan economy and pledged to do so to the tune of $1.3 billion more in the years ahead.

There is indeed a critical security concern to India’s involvement in Afghanistan, however—specifically, the possibility of terror emanating from the extremely volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan border and spilling over into India. A strong, stable and democratic Afghanistan would reduce the dangers of extremist violence and terrorism destabilizing the region. Since 9/11, New Delhi’s policy has broadly been in congruence with the U.S. objectives of decimating the Taliban and al-Qaeda and instituting a democratic regime in Kabul.

Today, however, a resurgent Taliban and mounting instability have worsened the outlook for Afghanistan. In the coming days, India’s “aid only” policy is bound to face new challenges—and adapt to them. While Delhi resists putting “boots on ground,” it will need to widen its web of engagement in the rapidly-shrinking political space in Afghanistan. India must revive its traditional Pushtun linkages and at the same time re-engage other ethnic groups as it attempts to strike a balance between continuing support for the Karzai government and increasing its engagement with other factions. By doing so, India will position itself to influence Afghanistan’s evolving political sphere, and serve as a serious interlocutor in the intra-Afghan and inter-regional reconciliation process now underway.

India has no cultural ties with Afghanistan as being claimed by the Indian analysts. Afghanistan, a country of Muslims has ethnic ties and cultural similarities with its immediate neighbors. India is trying hard to ensure continuation of minority-dominated puppet government in Kabul, like it did in 1970s and 1980s, as any popular government chosen by majority Pashtuns will not let India achieve a foothold with the sole objective of using Afghanistan as bridge for its strategic objectives, regional ambitions and its access to resource-rich Central Asia.