"Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong; they are the ones to attain felicity".
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User Name: Usman_Khalid
Full Name: Brig (R) Usman Khalid
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: The War after the War

By Anatol Lieven

The two part article below is a realistic analysis of the prospects of a settlement in Afghanistan. There are three issues that require to be settled: 1) a UNSC Resolution on time table of withdrawal of NATO forces, 2) formation of an interim government, 3) provision of aid for reconstruction. A comprehensive settlement is neither possible nor even the best prospect. It is better to stretch the time table and give responsibility for each phase to different groups. The first is for the US and its NATO allies to determine; the second may be entrusted to the neighbours of Afghanistan; the third may be entrusted to international donors like China, Japan, EU and USA. At the moment politicians are in the saddle in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan and they are being defeated. After the first phase, the politicians would cease to be in command and different areas would fall under the control of different groups. If the neighbours of Afghanistan insist on a national government as pre condition for access to imports and exit from the country, and the donors insist on it before offering foreign aid, there will be pressure that would yield an equitable and durable settlement. The Afghans would have a lot to lose if they do not settle matters among themselves or co-operate with donors. +Usman Khalid+


An Afghan National Army soldier during an operation against Taliban fighters in Badakhshan Province

The attempt at talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban appears to have broken down for the moment. This is not unexpected, and is not in itself cause for despair. Almost every negotiating process in history aimed at ending insurgencies and civil wars has taken a very long time, and encountered numerous reverses along the way. Things are especially difficult because the conflict is not simply an insurgency against an “occupier,” but also a civil war between local groups, with one of them supported from outside. This means that negotiations have to be between three or more parties—the US, the Taliban, the Karzai government, and other anti-Taliban forces.

This kind of negotiating situation is not new: it was true in Northern Ireland, which involved the British, the IRA, and the Ulster protestant parties; in Algeria with the French government, the FLN and the French settlers in Algeria; and in Vietnam with the US, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Of course, one solution is for the outside power simply to abandon its local allies and reach a settlement with the enemy without them (of course, with face-saving provisions, but with the implicit understanding that these allies are being thrown to the dogs). This is what the insurgents always aim at—and what in Algeria and Vietnam they eventually achieved, after immense bloodshed: splitting the foreign power from its local allies or proxies. And this is precisely what Karzai and his supporters fear most, accounting for the sometimes hysterical nature of their protests against negotiations with the Taliban.

Seen from Kabul, there are good reasons to fear that the US will negotiate some sort of deal with the Taliban and quit Afghanistan entirely. According to unofficial statements from the White House reported in The New York Times, the option of complete withdrawal is one that President Obama is now actively considering. This would be in stark contrast to what had been hitherto planned—keeping bases, aircraft, drones, special forces, and advisers in place until at least 2024 to support the Afghan National Army and continue strikes against Al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Until now, the total withdrawal option has been ruled out largely out of the fear that it would repeat the experience of South Vietnam following the complete US pull out in 1973—where the local state left behind lasted barely two years before North Vietnamese victory. And of course, the latest suggestions from the White House are by no means an indication that the existing strategy will definitely be changed. Indeed, US officials have made it clear that floating the idea of total withdrawal is in significant part an attempt to put pressure on the Karzai administration to engage in the American-led peace effort. It also appears to be a strong warning to Karzai not to attempt to rewrite the Afghan constitution and somehow stay in power after his second term expires.

The fact that this “zero option” is now being mentioned at all however also reflects the Obama Administration’s growing concerns about the situation in Afghanistan after next year, and about the fate of the thousands of US military personnel who—according to existing plans—would be left in Afghanistan after most US forces withdraw. In particular, Washington fears that if the Afghan presidential elections that are supposed to take place next year fail to produce a legitimate and credible victor—or if Karzai decides to try to cling to power, a move that would also be regarded by most Afghans as wholly illegitimate—the result could be the implosion of the (in any case very weak) US-backed Afghan state, and either a military takeover, the disintegration of the Afghan military, or both.

There is however one big difference between the Afghan state and army today and some of the historical cases I’ve referred to. The French settlers in Algeria (the so-called pieds noirs) and the government of South Vietnam had nowhere else to go for help than France in the one case and the United States in the other. The present Afghan regime and its supporters can look to potential helpers that existed and were engaged in Afghanistan long before the US arrived on the scene—in the case of India and Iran, engagement in the area of what is now Afghanistan goes back more than 2,000 years. Russia and Iran supported the anti-Taliban forces in the 1990s; and large parts of the Indian establishment are now prepared to follow their example if the US pulls out, both to prevent Afghanistan becoming a Pakistani client state and base for anti-Indian terrorism, and to strengthen India’s economic position in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran.

But the prospect of Afghanistan becoming an Indian client state is also the greatest nightmare for Pakistan, the other regional power whose strategies and interests are critical to any Afghan peace process. If the US pulls out completely and India pours in arms, money, and advisers to prop up the Afghan National Army (ANA), then it seems certain that Pakistan would ramp up its support for the Taliban accordingly.

In my view, none of this outside aid would change the basic contours of the struggle in the long term. India cannot guarantee a legitimate and credible elected successor to President Karzai next year any more than America can. No amount of Indian or Russian aid would enable the ANA to reconquer the Pashtun countryside of southern and eastern Afghanistan; nor would any amount of Pakistani aid enable the Taliban to conquer the non-Pashtun nationalities of central and northern Afghanistan. What all this outside “aid” would do—as it has so often in Afghanistan’s tragic past—is ensure that Afghanistan’s civil war continues, perhaps indefinitely.

The desire in parts of the Indian security establishment to play a much bigger part in Afghanistan is owed in part to a belief that Pakistan’s Afghan strategy remains that of the 1990s: to back the Afghan Taliban to complete victory, in order to create a Pakistani client state. The real picture however has become much more complicated, precisely as a result of the catastrophic failure of Pakistan’s earlier strategy, and the Islamist revolt now unfolding within Pakistan itself.

Afghanistan: What Pakistan Wants

To understand Pakistan’s position in the conundrum of Afghanistan’s future, it is necessary to understand that in certain respects, Pakistan and Afghanistan have long blended into each other, via the population of around 35 million Pashtun that straddles both sides of the border between them (a border drawn by the British which Afghanistan has never recognized). The Pashtun have always regarded themselves as the core of Afghanistan, where they form a plurality of the population (Afghan is indeed simply the old Farsi word for Pashtun); yet around two thirds of Pashtun actually live in Pakistan, where they form the backbone of the present Islamist revolt against the state.

In the 1980s, the US encouraged this merger of Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun sentiment in order to strengthen support of Pakistani Pashtun for the Afghan Mujahedin. In the 2000s, this came back to haunt America, since most Pakistani Pashtun with whom I have spoken over the years regard the Taliban fight against the US and its Afghan allies in very much the same light that they regarded the Mujahedin fight against the USSR and its Afghan allies.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy today is essentially an attempt to reconcile the following perceptions and imperatives:

·         The need to appease Pakistani Pashtun opinion and prevent more Pashtun joining the Islamist revolt within Pakistan;

·         The fear that if the Afghan Taliban come to full power, they will support the Pakistani Taliban and try to recreate the old Afghan dream of recovering the Pashtun irredenta—the Pashtun areas of Pakistan—but this time led by the Taliban and under the banner of jihad;

·         The belief that the Taliban are by far the most powerful force among Afghan Pashtun;

·         The belief that Pakistan needs powerful allies within Afghanistan to combat Indian influence and that the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami are the only ones available;

·         The assumption that sooner or later the present US-backed state and army in Afghanistan will break down, most probably along ethnic lines;

·         Pakistan’s economic dependence on the USA and on the World Bank and IMF;

·         Pakistan’s strategic dependence on China, which regards Pakistan as an important ally, but which has also acquired potentially very large economic assets of its own in Afghanistan, and which certainly does not favour Islamist extremism.

If as a result of all this Pakistani strategy has often looked confused, contradictory, ambiguous, and two-faced—well, it would be, wouldn’t it?

All the same, at the moment, the basic elements of Pakistani strategy are pretty clear, and, crucially, there does not seem to be any important difference between the aim of the Pakistani army and the new government of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) under Nawaz Sharif: namely, a peace settlement in Afghanistan involving a new constitution and a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the non-Pashtun populations of Afghanistan, which used to be grouped in the so-called Northern Alliance.

To this end, the Pakistani military has put considerable pressure on the Afghan Taliban to join in the present peace process, and both the Pakistani military and the foreign ministry have sought meetings with the leaders of the former Northern Alliance to assure them that Pakistan is no longer pursuing its strategy of the 1990s, and does not want to see the Taliban win exclusive power in Afghanistan—if only because the Taliban would then be free to turn against Pakistan.

It is important to keep in mind how much Pakistan’s rulers and the Afghan Taliban loathe each other (with the admittedly important exception of some sections of the ISI who have been fighting alongside Afghan Islamists since the early 1970s). Many Pakistanis view the Taliban (and Afghans in general) as greedy, treacherous, primitive, and fanatical savages. For the Taliban, the Pakistani state and military (and non-Pashtun Pakistanis in general) are decadent, corrupt, treacherous, brutal, and greedy oppressors. Each side regards the other as inherently unreliable. This of course also means that for all the help that they have given to the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistanis cannot simply force them to accept a peace settlement that they see as contrary to their values and interests.

In the end, of course, peace will have to be made by Afghans themselves. That in no way absolves either the United States or the regional powers of their responsibilities, for Afghanistan’s dreadful experiences over the past forty years have resulted from a combination of Afghans failing to reach consensus, and outside powers backing different groups and stoking Afghan conflicts for their own purposes. These purposes have generally turned out to be contrary to their own long-term interests—as both the Soviets and the Americans found in the 1980s, Pakistan learned in the 1990s, and India will probably discover if it is misguided enough to try to replace the United States as the chief financial and military backer of the existing Kabul regime.

All the same, any lasting settlement will have to be between the Taliban (as representing certain permanent forces of ethno-religious Pashtun rural conservatism) and a mixture of forces representing the other Afghan nationalities and the technocratic elites of Kabul, including to some extent the commanders of the Afghan National Army. These are permanent forces in Afghanistan, which will still be there long after the Karzai administration has vanished into history and US forces have returned to America.

From this point of view, the indications so far are decidedly mixed. Last year, colleagues and I met with some of the more pragmatically-inclined members of the Taliban, who told us that they fully recognize that the Taliban do not have enough support to return to a “government of mullahs” and rule Afghanistan unilaterally, and that they will have to share power with other forces. More recently, however, briefings by other Taliban representatives have suggested that strong elements of the organization do believe that they can win an outright victory. In this regard, it is right to be worried by the Taliban insistence on the flag and sign of the pre-2001 Emirate of Afghanistan, because it may say something very important and worrying about the organization’s real willingness to share power.

At the same time, senior Afghan generals appear to believe that with US help—or Indian and Russian help if the US gives up—they can repeat indefinitely the experience of the Afghan army left behind by the Soviets when they withdrew in 1989: giving up most of the Pashtun countryside but beating off attempts by the enemy to capture the cities. In the previous case, this came to an end with the collapse of the USSR and the end of Soviet military and financial aid.

In one respect, we are in a much weaker position than the Soviets in 1989. They could leave behind a rather formidable Pashtun dictator, Najibullah Khan. We have committed ourselves to holding presidential elections in Afghanistan next year—with no credible leader to replace Hamid Karzai even remotely in prospect. The collapse of these elections could take the entire Afghan state and army with them. Already, a good many of the Afghan elites who are supported by the West are demonstrating their lack of confidence in the future of the current set up in Kabul by transferring their money, their families, and increasingly themselves to other countries. Particularly noteworthy is the apparent decision of dozens of Afghan diplomats to seek political asylum in the countries to which they have been posted. As a recent article in Der Spiegel notes, these diplomats are very often the children of high-ranking politicians and officials in Kabul—which says something rather awful about the nature of the regime that we have set up. According to Der Spiegel, there are many others who have refused to return to duties in Kabul, and have instead demanded an extension of their existing postings abroad until after next year’s elections.

As a Western taxpayer who has been paying the salaries of Afghan officials like them in an effort to help create a modern, democratic Afghan state, I find their behaviour reprehensible. I must confess that as a human being, I understand it all too well. ++

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