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America’s exit strategy in Afghanistan

The US has publically endorsed the Saudi-British initiative for holding peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. The US has also for the first time officially declared that the Afghan problem needs to be resolved politically, through reconciliation. On Oct 9 US defence secretary Robert Gates said the US will be prepared for pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban, if the Afghan government chose to support them. These secret talks were held from Sept 24 to 27 in Makkah. This is the first official US declaration in which the Americans have spoken openly of not being averse to talks with the Taliban. Secondly, it has been learnt that Pakistan’s assistance has been sought in reaching a settlement. In return, Pakistan is likely to receive financial assistance from the Saudis. However, such help will be tied to implementation of security-related conditions which assist in the positive outcome of the peace talks. Iranian and Indian help has also been sought for reaching a favourable outcome. Admiral Mullen’s recent statement that India should have a role in the future security of Afghanistan should be viewed in this context. Thus, it can now be said that the outline of a US exit strategy is beginning to take shape.

     There are three geostrategic events that have forced a change in the US perception regarding its policy in Afghanistan. First and most foremost is the Russian resurgence as a regional power; second is the continuously worsening situation within Afghanistan. According to the Russian ambassador to Kabul, “The Taliban influence more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s territory and control up to 20 percent of it.” Tied to it is the worsening security situation in Pakistan; if Pakistan loses control over its territory it will severely affect the logistical system needed to support foreign troops in Afghanistan. Thirdly, the US and the Western economies are facing a financial meltdown which will reduce their defence capability to fight in Afghanistan; out of these the US has been seriously rattled by the Russian threat which has made it to encourage peace parleys with the Taliban.

     On the geostrategic front the globalisation and penetration by Western capital of resource-rich Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia has caused a growing resentment amongst their ultra-conservative and xenophobic populations. US behaviour has been made to appear as targeting Muslims. In Pakistan this perception was translated into support for policies that are Muslim-centric and which began with Pakistan’s shift to the “right” during the Mujahedeen war in Afghanistan. The first Iraq War convinced many Muslims into seeking solutions based on an Islamist worldview. This led to the rise of movements like Al Qaeda and a host of mirror organizations in the Muslim world.

     The Taliban were a product of this larger movement in Afghanistan. Afghanistan descended into chaos after the ouster in 1992 of Dr Najibullah, who had been the last USSR-supported Afghan president. The Taliban, who are a peculiar afghan conservative Muslim, tribal movement, had coalesced partially into Al Qaeda, which is an Islamic transnational ideology which was provided safe haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Bin Laden’s attack on the US on 9/11 was part of a well-thought-out strategy which had three main objectives. First, to force US troops to leave Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim countries. Secondly, to cripple the US financially so that it’s military and financial leadership could be eroded. Thirdly, to radicalise Muslim peoples so that an Islamic Caliphate could be established.

     Pakistan’s role has been extremely important in the birth of the Taliban; it was one of the three countries that had recognised the Taliban government in 1996. Pakistan believed that Afghanistan would be useful in a war with India and should therefore ensure that a pro-Pakistan government ruled Afghanistan. This tragic fixation on Afghanistan and India induced the Pakistani military to gridlock policy into seeking questionable goals. After 9/11, when the US attacked Afghanistan, Pakistan offered itself as an instrument to cripple the Taliban. Pakistan’s assistance to the US angered the Taliban and the sympathetic mindset of a substantial number of Pakistanis was radicalised. In FATA and the NWFP a proto-Taliban movement materialised which has challenged the writ of the government.

     Pakhtuns constitute about 43 percent of Afghanistan’s population and are its largest ethnic group  the Taliban government in Kabul reflected their demographic dominance. The seeds of a US-Pakhtun conflict were sown by the flawed Rumsfeldian battle plan for the occupation of Afghanistan. In many ways it reflected the acme of a neo-liberal and privatissed approach to war. It was a de-institutionalised cheap war based on a CIA plan where less than four hundred US Special Forces supported by the Northern Alliance troops provided by Fahim, Dostum and Khalili pulverised the Taliban and killed hundreds of them though the use of the US air force. When the Taliban were defeated in the north, they wanted to surrender to US forces, or even the ICRC, but this was refused because the US wanted to distance itself from violation of human rights committed during the conflict; the ICRC was also not allowed. Thousands of Pakhtuns were slaughtered in an invasion sanctioned by the UN and fought by the US and NATO forces. Many Pakhtuns from FATA and the NWFP fought alongside the Taliban and died under these terrible conditions after they had surrendered.

     The difficulty of reaching a settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan or within Pakistan is contained within this dynamic of spilling of Pakhtun blood during the October 2001 invasion. The perception that the Western forces wanted to eliminate the Pakhtun has become further entrenched with increasing collateral deaths caused subsequently. There have been so many innocent people killed in this war that one shudders to think how this matter can be resolved within the conceptual framework of “badal,” or revenge in Pakhtun society? The spate of suicide attacks in Pakistan is largely the consequence of collateral deaths which are being incessantly caused by military operations. Frankly, this is a dilemma to which there is no easy solution. If the military in Afghanistan or Pakistan does not challenge the feeling of ascendency in the minds of the militants there is a minimum chance of negotiating peace. However, the Catch-22 here is that the drive for ascendency or the Petraeus synonym for its “surge,” which may have worked in Iraq, will cause an increase in sympathy for the Taliban. The US must reconsider such an approach in Afghanistan, FATA and NWFP. It must use political and diplomatic interventions.

     Furthermore, the conflict needs to be concluded through a regional approach. The days of US unilateralism are limited because the emergence of powerful regional hegemons like China, Russia and India cannot be ignored. There is a need for the US to begin charting these issues in a collaborative manner with them while also including Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the role of India in Afghanistan needs to be cleared with Pakistan, or there will be problems.

     The US support for the Saudi-British initiative of peace with the Taliban should be welcomed. However, implementing an Afghan peace plan by placing Pakistan in a strategic vice by expanding an enlarged role for India in Afghanistan will cause distortions unless resolved earlier. Prudence demands that a “surge” should be postponed in Afghanistan if peace is to be won. An even better solution would be to discuss the issue of an increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan in the next session of the peace talks. Secondly, the Pakistani-Afghan peace jirga may be summoned to help the peace initiative. These measures could lead to an early peace in Pakistan too. –

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