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US needs viable Afghan exit plan

GURMEET KANWAL Jun 12, 2011, 04.30am IST

Probably there are few people in the United States who understand the American foreign policy better than Henry Kissinger. So, when the former secretary of state, who changed the balance of power in Asia with his "shuttle diplomacy" in the early 1970s, says something about a conflict zone in our part of the world, one has to take it seriously. Kissinger wrote an interesting article on Afghanistan in the "Washington Post" recently. In the column, "How to exit Afghanistan", Kissinger argued that four conditions must be met to make the exit strategy viable: "A ceasefire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism."

Though Kissinger has argued his case well, none of the four conditions appears viable at present. Nor do these conditions look achievable in the 2014-15 time-frame in which the exit strategy is planned to be completed. As had been widely anticipated, the Taliban has launched a vigorous spring offensive and the US-led Nato-ISAF forces have retaliated with equal force. The Pakistan army has apparently learnt nothing from the killing of Osama bin Laden and continues to pretend that his presence at Abbottabad was a mystery. Instead of reinvigorating its efforts to eliminate terrorists who are undermining Pakistan's security, the army is still holding off from launching the long-delayed offensive against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan. Meanwhile, reports of US drone attacks against terrorists along the AfPak border continue to trickle in virtually on a daily basis despite the Pakistan army's strident protestations. While it is early days yet in this year's military confrontation, a continuing stalemate will be the most likely outcome.

A US Congressional study report, released on June 8, 2011, has found that nation-building efforts in Afghanistan are floundering as the massive economic aid programme lacks proper oversight and breeds corruption. It says that most local officials are incapable of "spending wisely". It also says that there is little evidence to support the view that even the "politically pleasing" short-term results will be sustainable once the drawdown begins. The report notes that the Afghan economy could easily slip into a depression as it is mainly a "war-time" economy that is a "huge distortion". It is well known, of course, that the US military conducts its own development programme in the areas cleared of the Taliban to win the people's support, irrespective of the aid programmes approved by the Afghan government.

The two-year-old efforts to move towards reconciliation with the so-called "good Taliban" have not made much headway. Secret talks being mediated by Germany between the US government and Tayyab Agha, said to be a close confidante of Mullah Mohammed Omar, are unlikely to achieve a major breakthrough as no one is quite sure whether Agha is actually negotiating on behalf of Mullah Omar or whether the Taliban are simply using the talks as a ploy to buy time. The Haqqani shoora, that enjoys ISI support and patronage, is not part of the reconciliation process as General Kayani's offer of his good offices to negotiate with the Taliban has not found any takers.

While regional efforts to secure peace in Afghanistan remain haphazard, these are likely to slowly gather momentum as the date for the drawdown of forces approaches. During a visit to Kabul in mid-May, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh endorsed President Karzai's "process of national reconciliation" and said, "We hope that Afghanistan will be able to build a framework of regional cooperation that will help its nation-building efforts." There is increasing realization even in Washington that there cannot be a lasting solution to the intractable Afghan conflict unless Afghanistan's regional neighbours provide reasonable guarantees of non-interference. Also, in the post-Osama environment, it is being realized that Pakistan is part of the problem and cannot, therefore, be part of the solution. Pakistan's sensibilities have been given too much weightage in the various conferences that have been held to seek a solution to the conflict.

There is so far no sign that the US and its allies are planning to make substantive efforts to put in place a viable international peacekeeping force to help the Afghan government maintain security after their own exit from Afghanistan in 2014. If this is not done, the Taliban will gradually seize one province after another, with covert help from Pakistan, and will eventually force the capitulation of the government – paving the way for their triumphant return to power. Conflict termination on such terms would signify the failure of President Obama's exit strategy. It would also mean that one more American intervention has gone hopelessly wrong.

The writer is the director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi


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