It is becoming increasingly urgent for the US to seal a deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over US troops remaining on Afghan soil, particularly since US President Barack Obama must also be seen to be fulfilling his promise to the American people that the withdrawal will happen before his second term expires.
Karzai has the power to sign the deal, but he has used one excuse after another to delay doing so. Karzai's fears do not derive from the implications of residual international forces staying, in fact he needs this. Rather, the issues behind this delay are geopolitical and concern possible fall outs with neighboring countries.
The last thing Karzai needs is another proxy war between a Pakistan-sponsored Taliban and a Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance supported by Russia, India and Iran.
Americans are driven by self-interest, yet they have a knack of getting involved in conflicts without planning a clear exist strategy. Defense and other commercial interests take over once the fighting starts, and the logic and purpose of the initiation is often lost with devastating consequences to themselves and the world.
The hardliners and media spinners of the United States Congress then take the reins to whip up failures and quickly assign responsibility as a potential issue in the election cycle. This gives hardly enough time for generals to do the required job. You can think about the number of examples, such as Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, where that is the case.
Epicenter of terrorism
The US, being unable to root out the epicenter of terrorism in Pakistan and Middle East due to heavy economic reliance on Saudi oil and transit facilities from Pakistan, finds itself in a "no win" situation.
Since most of al-Qaeda has moved on to the Middle East, declaring a victory and getting out is the only option left for the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Robert Gates, a former and loyal defense secretary in the Bush and Obama administrations, has clearly pointed out the disadvantages of advertising the "pull out decision" in advance.
The enemies did not have to do anything but simply wait it out. Neighboring countries are watching these events in horror and preparing for another round of war in Afghanistan. This is a prime example of going into the region to stabilize the country and yet leaving it more destabilized.
Karzai and Central Asian neighbors
Hamid Karzai lived with this nightmare and saw how impotent Americans were in dealing with Pakistan and the Taliban, so why put all your eggs in one basket? He sees the endgame like some of his neighbors do, with Kabul "left holding the empty bag".
President Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan announced last month that a US $1 billion Kyrgyz-Russian arms deal is ready to be signed and implemented. The cargo contains artillery pieces, tanks, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and other military equipment.
Atambayev was quoted on December 16 as saying that this was a possible reason for a "foreign army attack" on Kyrgyzstan. Most astute observers believes that this is linked to the final status of Afghanistan and the US's desire to sell the left-over equipment to Central Asian countries at bargain basement price to maintain some leverage there.
From a practical stand point, Pakistan is anxious to allow the Taliban to do their dirty work and destroy as much as they can of the equipment.
After gaining the Loya-Jirga's approval, Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to sign the deal with Karzai; however, Karzai had different ideas. He seems to trust Indian judgment better, so he dashed to New Delhi.
India has watched nervously Obama's hasty declaration that it would get out of Afghanistan by 2014. This is quite the contrary to repeated US pledges made to India on the subcontinent's stability.
Under pressure from the US-Israel Lobby, India had bent to American wishes by curtaining oil imports from Iran. For India, it is a closer and secured supply. India has civil relationship with Iran and shares the same security concerns against Wahhabi Islam. Sunni Wahhabis are as much as a threat to India as to Iran.
Karzai's clever mind
In spite of Karzai's zigzagging and erratic statements, he has a clever mind and is trying to shop around for the deal possible for Afghans. Karzai's expectations are not only personal but also for his country.
The uppermost thing occupying his Pashtun mind is how to redeem his Pashto nationality? Afghanistan has been used as a geopolitical theater for over 30 years by big powers.
Pakistan has used Afghanistan as its colony by training and parking the world's deadliest terrorists there. Karzai has so far refused to play an American serenade. He has consulted Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Iranians to take a measured geopolitical reading. He has become a kind of a shopper looking for the best deal possible.
Afghanistan was a poor country when it separated from the British. The victim of his own geography, it remains a land-locked country with enormous natural resources without access to trade routes and sea ports.
Afghanistan provides a critical passageway to oil rich Central Asia that everyone covets. Iran and India are two that comes to the mind.
Afghanistan for its own reasons does not want a permanent US presence as a part of its "Asian pivot". India prefers US's presence to prevent terrorism emanating from Afghanistan's soil with Pakistani support as well as check mate China making inroads into subcontinent. There is ambivalence there on all sides. US-China trade is robust in spite of their differences. India's trade with china will equal the US's very soon at nearly $100 billion.
Pakistan has successfully deflected US by ignoring all its demarches and the fact that the US is still heavily dependent on Pakistan's transits facility for a safe passage makes things harder.
For the time being, it is compelled to oblige Pakistan. Tomorrow is a different day. Pakistan has no interest in stabilizing Afghanistan as it regards the country as a bulwark against India. Despite various promises to the US to bring the client Taliban to the table to forge a peace deal between Karzai and the Taliban, the US had not seen any concrete results from Pakistan. Previous attempts were repeatedly sabotaged by the assassination of peace envoys, attacks on US forces, the blowing up the Indian embassy and temporarily halting the supply line to US forces.
Barack Obama, by pre-announcing the withdrawal date for domestic reason, removed the incentive for enemies to negotiate. This also demonstrates to countries like India, Afghanistan and others that the US is not dependable ally and its guarantees have expiration dates attached. Pakistan continuously reminds his erstwhile ally the US that support in getting concessions from Indians on Kashmir is needed as a "quid pro quo" before Taliban and ISI-run terrorist training camps and charities are shut down.
This phobia of parity with India drives the Pakistani mentality. After losing three wars, there is nothing left in the tool box except subversion and infiltration. The nuclear war sometimes mentioned by hard-nuts is unthinkable and the world will not allow that. If Pakistan wants to compete with India it should do so in the economic sphere. However, such normalization is a long way off.
In addition to that, there is a huge trust deficit between all parties in the region. Most ordinary Afghans believe that the US and Pakistan are jointly responsible for ruining their country during and after the Cold War. India wants a step-by-step approach with Pakistan as Pakistan has repeatedly signed agreements after losing wars and then reneged on them. Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf tactically agreed to that approach with India but never implemented the final solution to Kashmir.
The most-favored nation status granted to India still remains unimplemented by Pakistan. After three wars and abandonment of the Simla agreement, India has no desire to believe in Pakistani sincerity without some valid proof.
Pakistan has violated ceasefires and mounted terrorist attacks on Indian soil at home and abroad repeatedly. None of these people were brought to the justice after pledging their cooperation.
US-India ties have not made much more concrete progress either, after few military deals and lifting of nuclear embargo that India always felt was the US's obligation and responsibility.
Indians have a reason to get upset with inconsistencies in American foreign policies. When Americans arrested a New York-based junior Indian diplomat on questionable grounds, they conveniently forgot to inform the Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, who happened to be in Washington at Foggy Bottom headquarter for scheduled consultations.
Sujatha Singh during her visit was pressed to exert India's influence on Karzai, to "fall in line". Sujatha rightfully declined on the grounds that Afghanistan is a sovereign nation. The intended visit was to brief Sujatha Singh on recent incident of the ceasefire violation by Pakistan and to make an urgent request to accelerate the normalization process. India reminded Americans again that while they are following a step-by-step agreement between the two countries, trade liberalization has not taken place and ceasefire violations have increased.
In addition to that imbroglio, Pakistan has made no progress to bring criminals to Justice for the 26/11 attack in Mumbai in 2008. The India side also complained about stalling techniques and denial of access to the American triple agent David Headley. After all, "Trust but verify" is an old adage of Ronald Reagan, the former American president.
With 2014 election approaching in India, nothing concrete can result and this is the same reason that was probably given to India by Pakistan when it was granted the most-favored nation status by Asif Ali Zardari. None of these nations had anything to do with what may follow from Obama's self-declared "pull out date".
Karzai is in no rush to sign any deal. Karzai, after getting the expected approval from a Loya Jirga, embarked on a world tour to feel out regional allies. He visited Islamabad, Delhi and Tehran and held talks. This sounds all-too familiar to the tactic adopted by Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq that led President Obama to order the complete pull out, with minimum or no advisory role. It appears that Tehran gave Karzai the same advice and suggested either not signing the deal or including a clause that would allow Karzai to remove the Americans on demand.
India balances on a tightrope
India's position will continue to remain ambiguous until clear picture emerges as to what role Pakistan will play in the Afghanistan endgame. Pakistan has no interest in normalizing relations with India unless in return it gets its own slice of Afghan pie.
India, on one hand has a thriving economic and military understanding, if not an entirely active relationship, with the US. Israel, on the other hand has emerged as the second-largest defense supplier for India, including technology transfers. India depends on Iran for its energy needs, ports and infrastructure to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, Indians and Persians have a civilization relationship that is more enduring than their relationships with any other powers and their interests over Afghanistan coincide.
Israel too has strong relationships with both India and Iran, but prefers now that no one in their wider region acquires nuclear weapons other than themselves. After all, it was Achemenians emperor who freed Jews from the captivity of Babylon.
Israel can use India's good offices with Tehran to normalize its relationship with Iran. Iran has some influence on Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas and this is probably also on the mind of Obama. The permanent war situation serves no one's interest. Israel's right should be guaranteed with a separate home land for Palestine. This is the only way out for all sides after colonial power left their legacy of divide and rule.
Why so much drama and anxieties on so many fronts the US is facing? The departure of a junior Indian diplomat from US soil is the least of the complex issues. What causes the most anxiety in the minds of American policy-makers is questioning what the other side is up to when regarding the Indian-Sino relationship or India's refusal to participate in what appears to be a military "Asian Pivot" that the Chinese regard as provocative.
As a facet of the pivot on Asia, the US would like to have a permanent military base in Afghanistan to keep an eye on all the major players like Russia, China, Iran and potential adversaries including Taliban and its allied terrorists. Chinese military activism against has increased on disputed islands and territorial waters of South China Sea. The unsettled boundary dispute with India and neighbors is also very much alive. A deal between Afghanistan and the US lines up with the many other issues caught within the geopolitical sphere of the US pivot to Asia that need to be resolved - and quickly.
Bipin Shah is a US-based freelance historian and writer. His primary areas of interest are ancient history of India, geopolitics and national security.
(Copyright 2014 Bipin Shah)