The US forgets that the weak have one weapon: the errors of those who think they are strong. It misjudged its own strength in Afghanistan, just as it did that of the Taliban. And, having bitten off far more than it can chew, it is stuck for an explanation for its lack of success. That’s essentially the problem that all US emissaries face, including the straight-talking Joseph Biden.
In many respects, Biden resembles his Pakistani counterparts. Like, for instance, his body language, which often belies the words of his carefully-crafted speeches; actually, his discomfiture with written speeches as a whole. But chiefly that, like them, he suffers from dentopedology, which is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it. That said, on this particular visit it was mercifully not evident. In fact, his candour was refreshing and welcome.
A major hurdle in coming to grips with America’s Afghan policy is that the US mission statement is forever evolving, depending on what is needed to keep pace with the mood swings of the American electorate or the changing balance of opinion among its distraught decision-makers. It evolves and devolves, from nation-building; to ushering in democracy; to defeating Al-Qaeda; to worsting the Taliban (but only the “bad” Taliban); to stopping their “momentum,” to “reversing the trend” – and, sometimes, all of the above. It switches from US combat troops leaving in 2011, to not doing so till 2014, and not even then, according to Biden, if Karzai “were to ask for them to stay.” (This latest Biden utterance, which was discounted in Washington, brought his foot dangerously close to his mouth.)
US policies are equally evanescent towards Pakistan. From conducting Special Forces operations within Pakistan, to having boots on the ground, to “not having a single boot tread on Pakistani soil”; to breaking up Pakistan, to not breaking up Pakistan; to being happy with Pakistan, to warning Pakistan that “US patience is wearing thin.” Only in one respect has American policy been consistent, and that is demanding of Pakistan to “do more,” and more, and more – although one suspects that this too might change from “do more” to “do it all.”
Headlines, following Biden’s visit, varied from “US patience on North Waziristan wearing thin” to the subject not really being discussed, as the US was “already familiar with Pakistan’s stance on the matter.” Needless to say, the matter must have been discussed, with Biden making not merely a routine but a passionate reference to the delayed operation in North Waziristan. He would have been gravely remiss had he not done so, because, according to Petraeus, the success of the ongoing and spluttering “surge” depends on it.
At his press conference and in his meetings, Biden also addressed some of the points raised in the paper Gen Kayani handed over to Obama. He had some reassuring words about the US-Pakistani partnership, all of which are welcome. There was the inevitable reference to the need to fight and not nourish terrorists – an impression that has sadly gained wide currency following Taseer’s murder – lest Pakistan be consumed by them.
What neither side addressed, however – because neither wants to for its own selfish reasons – is the increasing hold that extremism is acquiring in Pakistan. This is due mostly, but not exclusively, to deteriorating economic conditions at home but also the war in Afghanistan. And this is because some would prefer the American presence in Afghanistan to be endless, because if it were not for the war the attention, the economic largesse and the military assistance being lavished on Pakistan by America would be missing.
As one American commentator said: “Were it not for Afghanistan and the nukes Pakistan could become a Congo, for all we care.” Unfortunately, that is what Pakistan will resemble if the Americans remain in Afghanistan, and the war continues to consume as much of our attention and resources to the exclusion of other spheres of life. The fact is that the Americans are as much a part of the problem as the Taliban, with the important difference being that whereas the Taliban have nowhere else to go, the Americans do. And they should go – as soon as possible.
Were they to do so, no “dominoes” would fall, just as they did not after their defeat in Vietnam, despite American forebodings to the contrary; nor would the likes of the Taliban stand a chance of getting within hailing distance of our nukes, the Pakistani army is far too strong for that. In fact, much of the poison would be drained from the current wound that is festering on account of the war; and in the absence of drone attacks or, better still, with the drones in Pakistani hands, the TTP would face a stronger, local, Muslim and no less an implacable foe in Pakistan. The score or so Al-Qaeda leaders remaining in the hills could be handled a lot more easily by US Special Forces operating from bases in the neighbouring Central Asian republics or from carriers at sea. And of course by Pakistan itself, if it came to that.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, power, like water, would find its own level. The Taliban would be hard-pressed to impose their will and Pakistan would be demented if it were to interfere in Afghanistan, having got its fingers burnt as badly as it did earlier when our Napoleons and Bismarcks considered it a launching pad for a similar venture in Central Asia. Of course, provided that other regional powers and India, in particular, did not get up to mischief.
Although the cunning Afghans would likely pit India and Pakistan against each other, in the hope of benefiting from the rivalry, if it ever came to a choice between India and Pakistan only a man as short-sighted as Karzai would prefer to throw in his lot with India, considering the difficulties that Pakistan could create for him; and knowing that, if he did, without the Americans around to save his bacon, it would amount to a death wish.
A similar scenario, with a few variations, such as the retention of two bases in Bagram and Kandhahar by the US, was what Biden had suggested to Obama in September 2009, before it was shot down by the Pentagon-wallas and Biden was made to look like a loose canon. Nevertheless, it is to what the US will probably revert to after the surge fails and the American electorate, already tired of the Afghan war demands an early end to combat operations.
Needless to say, by that time thousands more Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis would have been killed to no avail. Viewed thus, Biden is a far more astute and farsighted a visitor to host than American generals, whose last decisive victory occurred in World War II, not counting the “mother of all battles” that really never occurred in Iraq.
NOTE:This is a cross post.