April 17, 2013

The Afghan puzzle

Chintamani Mahapatra, April 15, 2013, DHNS:

The Afghan war has cost the US more than half a trillion dollars national debt, budget deficit and, of course, thousands of American lives.

The Obama Administration has made it amply clear that the US forces will leave Afghanistan by end of 2014. However, deadly war has not ceased in Afghanistan. Will Afghans be able to manage their affairs after foreign forces leave?

The end-game is softly unfolding, even as behind-the-scene negotiations are inaudibly taking place. How will India handle the situation in coming months and years? India already seems to be in an election mode. Amidst corruption exposes, economic downturn, and off-and-on turmoil in UPA coalition, New Delhi these days has not as much of focus on foreign affairs. Domestic politics will largely consume attention of Indian leadership well until the elections due in 2014.

Pakistan may be in a better position, since national elections in that country will take place this year. There will be less political uncertainty in Islamabad during Afghan transition. China is luckier, as ten-year political transition in Beijing was over last year. Nor is Russia going to witness any political uncertainty in coming few years. 

The big question is how and how many American forces will leave Afghanistan in 2014 and in what condition. Slow recovery of US economy and resilience of the Taliban make it abundantly obvious that Washington would not risk carrying on the war in that country.

Afghan war has cost the US more than half a trillion dollars, a huge national debt, a large budget deficit and, of course, thousands of American lives. Yet victory to the United States is not in sight. 

The Taliban leadership has shown no great eagerness for dialogue with the US. In fact, the Taliban are patiently waiting, so that Nato forces leave their country with war-weariness. In a stalemate, the insurgents generally hesitate to make compromises. The Taliban thus are not in a hurry to end the war and trying to push foreign "occupying forces" to the corner.

What are the future scenarios of Afghanistan? It is hardest to predict anything in Afghanistan. The US Administration does not seem to be united on withdrawal time-table and the modalities. Taliban seem to have been embroiled in internal differences among the moderates and the hardliners. Pakistan no longer enjoys the comfort of dealing with a Taliban it created and put about a hundred Taliban behind the bars for attempting to negotiate with President Karzai or the Americans. 

Nonetheless, among the multiple scenarios, the first one is Afghanistan becomes the second Vietnam for the Americans. They just cannot carry on a losing war and; instead of dealing with head-strong Taliban leadership; they make a deal with Pakistan and get out of the country. In that case, Pakistan-backed Taliban are back to power in Kabul! The second scenario is the US successfully strikes a deal with a faction of the Taliban that are not under the influence of Islamabad and puts in place a coalition government that would allow Washington to station about ten thousand trainers in Afghanistan and end the major military operations. 

The third scenario suggests that the US successfully persuades Pakistan to rope in the like-minded Taliban factions for dialogue and for creation of a broad coalition government consisting of pro-US Afghan factions and pro-Pakistan Taliban factions.

Common factor

All three scenarios have one common factor—the Taliban will be an important segment of any future government in Kabul! In the first scenario, the implications of old Taliban returning to power in Kabul can be disastrous for regional peace and stability. The Kabul regime may return to its old ways, claiming victory over the mighty US-led Nato forces, and executing Jihad with ever more zeal and ruthlessness. 

The outcome of the second scenario will make Pakistan isolated and irrelevant. The US-backed Taliban government would receive political, military and economic assistance from Washington and its allies. Elements of Pakistani establishment will unquestionably resort to policy of destabilization towards Afghanistan, while political leadership in Pakistan may seek to stabilize domestic socio-political conditions. A new kind of proxy war may actually begin between the US-backed Kabul regime and Pakistan-supported dissident Taliban. 

But the million-dollar question is whether the Obama administration will be able to carry the Congress with such a plan. Section of the American political elite is dead opposed to any nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. However, one cannot rule out this scenario. The reason is very simple. American people and property will continue to be vulnerable to attacks by extremists and jihadists. To prevent that continued US engagement with a new Kabul regime is essential. Significantly, many Americans realise that Afghanistan became a safe haven for Al Qaeda partly as a consequence of American abandonment of that country after the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989.

The third option seems to be less hazardous than the other two. The Taliban, Pakistan, present Afghan government and the US together may arrive at a broadly acceptable solution. However, this is not going to be unproblematic. First, the Taliban will demand a larger share in government formation. Secondly, the present Afghan political elite will be unwilling to surrender power completely. Thirdly, the US will most likely ask for a democratic solution that may not be acceptable to all Afghan factions. 

In other words, the Afghan puzzle is too convoluted to solve. In whatever form the Americans leave Afghanistan, peace is unlikely to return. Regional stakeholders worry that the situation may actually get worse in post-American Afghanistan. The right kind of solution lies in involving all stake holders in the dialogue process. But Afghanistan's neighbours seem to be out of the loop in the quiet diplomacy currently undertaken by the US. Unless India, China, Russia and Central Asian Republics are involved in the peace process, an appropriate solution cannot be devised.  

(The writer is with the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi)


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