The end game in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s opportunity

When President Obama took office he ordered an interagency policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recommendations emerging from this policy review were issued in a White Paper in March 2009. The US is improvising its policy in Afghanistan based on this review and Obama’s subsequent policy interventions including the commitment to increase the force level in Afghanistan by another 60,000 troops during 2010.

However despite these changes no major improvement has occurred in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact the Taliban have become more aggressive and are in a far stronger shape now than before. On the Pakistani side there is a marked improvement so far in terms of the military’s dominance in Swat, Waziristan and other areas. Yet, even in Pakistan the seeds of re-start of violence are looming on the horizon unless policing improves sufficiently to provide security. In short there is no time for complacency. Events are unfolding very rapidly and the responses on the Pakistani side are slow.

In August 2009 the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen McCrystal leaked his views to the Washington Post. According to his somber analysis, an additional 40,000 troops were needed in Afghanistan immediately otherwise he feared the worst for US objectives in the region. Since then the General has received approval but is the US in a better position? The message from the ground and based on results of Operation Mushtarak being conducted in Marja in Helmand is not clear. Even the increased force level has not subdued the Taliban so far. In my view this is because fighting the Taliban has little to do with technology and fire power. The answer lies in enhancing security for the Afghan population. This can only be provided by better community policing and not activity by an expeditionary force that operates from camps leaving the community to fend for itself at night. He who controls the night will win in the end!

One reason of the failure to reduce the Taliban fighting capacity is the Afghan government’s own failure to improve governance, reduce corruption and control poppy cultivation; a combination of deficits that has turned Afghanistan into a narco-state and embarrassingly that too when the US forces are present. Secondly, given the weakness of the Afghan state both the government and the US military relies for support on indigenous strong men or warlords many of whom control large chunks of the narcotic trade or are accused of war crimes. How can this caste of men help in defeating the Taliban? Secondly, as time passes Afghanistan seems to be the battleground for gang warfare.

For instance Ahmed Wali Karzai the warlord in Kandahar is one of the strongest persons in Southern Afghanistan. Similarly, in the Tajik and Uzbek areas we have Marshal Fahim, Khalili and Dostum of a similar ilk; most of them are involved in the drug business and President Karzai is reliant on them for running Afghanistan. If the US has to rely on the goodwill of such shady characters for its counter terrorism effort how would it achieve the second objective of its policy that is, Promoting a more capable, acceptable and effective government in Afghanistan . Under such circumstances creating a strong Afghan state is thus not possible.

It is no secret that the Afghan National Army that is critically needed to create a strong Afghanistan is mainly recruited from the followers of warlords. A worse situation persists regarding recruitment of the Afghan police. In the latter case much of the reported strength does not exist as has been found by the US office of the Inspector General. Thus the objective to provide security to the Afghan population will not materialize. If that be the case then what will be the result of the operation at Marja or latter in Kandahar?

If Afghan nation building is rejected as an objective which now seems to be the case then the only option left for US would be to adopt a counter terrorism mode and not hope for any higher objectives since the necessary conditions in achieving them do not exist. Apparently the next configuration for the medium term for the US will be to reduce forces and locate some forces with the ANA and local warlords at strategic points like Kandahar in the South, Herat in the West, Kunduz in the north and Jalalabad and Kunar to the east. These forces will be supported by private security agencies who even today number more than the regular US forces!

Under such a policy the country side will be policed by the military on land and the drones in the air. Unfortunately, the actors supporting future efforts on the ground will either be the Afghan warlords or the private security providers and some elements of the Afghan National Army that are in league with the local warlord. This will not be something new. Afghanistan throughout its history has remained a loosely administered state where the central government’s influence was dependent upon its ability to distribute largesse to the regional strong men. In a sense the Bonn Accord advocating the creation of a strong central authority ruling the provinces from Kabul was thus against the lessons of Afghan history and something that the Afghan strongmen will do away with in practice.

President Obama is also looking at the Afghan war from the perspective of his re-election in 1212. If he gets bogged down in an unending Afghan war with a large number of troops and rising casualties as well as more taxes on the US citizen, he would then surely lose. The be-leaguered US President will face his first reality check in the mid-term elections in the US in November this year. If the Democratic Party does not do well, then it is a foregone conclusion that the US effort in Afghanistan will be curtailed and the US military will shape circumstances in Afghanistan for a quick withdrawal leaving some forces in an anti terrorism mode as discussed earlier!

What does this augur for Pakistan? At a minimum the heightened level of conflict in Afghanistan will push Pakistan to the center stage of US strategy. The US will have more need for Pakistan’s services  a situation where Pakistan can negotiate better outcomes for itself; the Pakistan military will definitely be asked to pull the US chestnuts out of the Afghan fire. The US will call for more assistance from the Pakistani intelligence to help her find a dignified space for a likely US withdrawal of its main force.

However, the full counter terrorism design for Afghanistan in a post US withdrawal scenario is likely to resemble a Waziristan type of configuration where a weak Afghan central state is kept in existence through a supportive network of strong bases that use aerial and Special Forces for maintenance of local control.

Under such a projection Pakistan must regain complete control and sovereignty over all its territory in FATA and the NWFP so that it is able to influence emerging events in Afghanistan. If we still have unfinished homework at the end of 2011 then the pressure from militants will mount and that will make parts of Pakistan look more like Afghanistan. – 

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