Unlike Bengal, there are only a few ways to get into Afghanistan, but like Bengal, there is no way to get out, except with one’s tail between one’s legs. Ask the British. Ask the Russians. Surprise is, the British have gone in again to ingratiate themselves with their American masters and also because they still suffer from Imperial delusions, even though they are on the brink of a collapsed economy. Some people love getting a beating.
America’s plan for Afghanistan should have been in five phases, namely, clear, hold, rebuild, transfer and withdraw. They could then still have retained the sort of influence in the country that they wanted, including using it as a monitoring-cum-rapid deployment base as well as controlling access to potential gas pipeline routes. Let us see their report card.
Clear: All America has managed is regime change by toppling the Taliban regime and putting Al Qaeda on the run. No more. The regime they have put in its place is ineffective, to say the least. They have not been able to destroy either the Taliban or Al Qaeda or even kill or capture their leaders, Mullah Omar or Osama Bin Laden, though some American sources contend that Bin Laden was killed in Tora Bora on December 13, 2001, which is not unlikely, but we have no confirmation of it. In any case, dead or alive, both Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have become metaphors and it matters little whether he is dead or alive or how disabled Al Qaeda is. It is too late for America to complete this first phase of the job now. However, it does seem that Al Qaeda may have shifted, or is in the process of shifting, its main base of operations to Yemen, which means further trouble for Saudi Arabia, just as proximity to the Afghan Taliban has caused so much trouble for Pakistan.
Hold: All America has is a tenuous hold over Kabul and certain Pushtun areas in southern Afghanistan where they mostly hide in their military bases. Yes, they have a hold on the minority non-Pushtun Northern Alliance areas mostly north of the Hindu Kush. The official line is that the Taliban control 25 percent of southern Afghanistan but their reach is greater, as they are an effective mobile guerilla force that doesn’t really need static bases.
Rebuild: Since America has failed to hold most of Afghanistan, it can hardly rebuild there. They may have spent a lot of money but they have rebuilt nothing. Their giving a lot of the rebuilding process to India makes matters worse, for a) it alienates vital Pakistan, without which American-NATO forces cannot get out of Afghanistan in one piece, and, b) India is interested less in rebuilding and more in wielding greater influence in Afghanistan than Pakistan (and thereby China) after the US-NATO withdrawal. It will only destabilize the region further, instead of bringing stability.
Transfer: Only after the rebuilding process can power be transferred to an acceptable, effective and preferably representative Afghan government. All they have now is a government headed by a Pushtun stooge installed as president after a dubious election while effective power over the central government still resides with America and even more power resides with the Taliban in the southern regions of Afghanistan. Such a government cannot deliver anything but grief. Their only ‘success’ is that the stooge’s brother has become the world’s largest heroin smuggler.
Withdraw: Herein lies a most interesting question, the answer to which will provide us with our most vital assumption. Does America really want to withdraw from Afghanistan? And what does it mean by withdrawal? I think America means somebody pulling their chestnuts out of the fire, which has to be Pakistan. However, they could make this a non-starter if they insist on including India and Iran in it. They certainly want to withdraw fighting troops from there and retain only a strike force, as they do in Germany, but still want Afghanistan to remain within their orbit of influence. They don’t want to lose Afghanistan and thereby their regional base for monitoring, intelligence and sabotage nor control of pipeline routes. What better location could provide a base for them? From Afghanistan, they can monitor China and create trouble there as in Xinjiang recently and Russia too. They can also monitor and be able to rapidly deploy troops to South Asia, Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East. The only better base for them would be Pakistan itself, with three huge ports, multiple air bases and runways and its much better infrastructure, particularly roads and motorways. But Pakistan is not Afghanistan and making it into such a monitoring, intelligence and rapid deployment base is a bigger tale than any America has dreamed so far, unless, of course, Pakistan lets it, which too is not outside the realm of possibility. Depends on the amount of desperation and the amount of money offered.
Philip Crowley, US State Department spokesman said as much on the eve of NATO’s Lisbon summit, that his country wished to hand over security duties to Afghanistan by 2014 and withdraw its own troops from the line of fire, but certainly not abandon the region or Pakistan or Afghanistan in 2014. Why else would they be building such a huge embassy, runways and bases there, if not for the long term? Oddly, while only those contributing troops to ISAF have been invited to Lisbon, Pakistan, which holds the key, is not there in any capacity. Said an analyst of the RIA Novosti newswire: “Much like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Pakistan will be present in the Lisbon summit – uninvited and invisible to all except the US.”
In trying to find a solution to the Afghan imbroglio we have to start with keeping five things in mind:
. 1. America wants to withdraw fighting troops from there, only retaining a rapid deployment force, as in Germany. America wants to retain a base there for monitoring, intelligence and sabotage purposes.
. 2. America wants Afghanistan to eject Al Qaeda from the country at all costs, otherwise no deal.
. 3. The above two demands will depend on the new leadership that replaces Karzai. It will have to have the proportionally correct representation from the minority Northern Alliance to be meaningful and effective so that it is taken seriously. One of America’s biggest mistakes was that they didn’t listen to Pakistan and effectively let the Northern Alliance wield power in the Karzai government, something that was hardly likely to placate, leave alone co-opt, the majority Pushtun.
. 4. Where will such a leadership come from? That brings us face-to-face with America’s second demand: throw Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. That’s not easy. Mullah Omar’s position was inflexible before the US invasion; it most certainly will have hardened by now. Ways will have to be found to marginalize him and ensure that the leadership of the Taliban falls into less inflexible hands. That’s easier said than done, certainly not as long as Mullah Omar is alive and able.
. 5. Supposing Pakistan succeeds in achieving the above, troops only from their army and other Muslim armies selected by Pakistan must be sent to Afghanistan not only to keep the peace but also to undertake security assurance, protection and even policing duties, if necessary. Troops from Iran means mischief with the Northern Alliance. Troops from India will mean the immediate exit of Pakistan, and without Pakistan, there can be no solution.
We have to remember: America, NATO, Karzai, India and Iran are part of the problem. Pakistan and the Taliban are part of the solution. So long as US-NATO forces remain in Afghanistan, neither will the country stabilize nor will the region, from the Middle East to Bangladesh. And militancy in Pakistan will certainly not go away.
If all this does not happen, the only option left for America in the not-too-distant future will be to cut and run and let the devil take the hindmost. He will.
(Gauhar is a free lance witer & a political commentator).
NOTE:This is a cross post.