By Vikram Sood
I DON'T do quagmires”, Donald Rumsfeld had once declared rather grandly. He didn’t believe in exit strategies either. Yet, eight years later with casualties rising to a little more than one death a day in Afghanistan and expenses crossing US $ 450 billion, in December 2009 President Obama, referred to July 2011 as the date by which the US would begin to pull out of Afghanistan . This state has been the result of a policy that presumed that military supremacy was an unqualified good born of American superiority. Great though the power of the American military machine might have been, it was not great enough to solve problems such as global terrorism of the al Qaeda variety. America needed help of friends, demonised its own supporters like President Karzai, it chose other friends wrongly and declined others’ advice. Consequently, it ended fighting the wrong war at the wrong place with wrong tactics.
The declared US objective has been to take out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan so that they do not become a threat to the US and its allies. Yet the Al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan; it is mostly in Pakistan with sanctuaries in Yemen and Afghanistan. It is the Taliban that is mostly in Afghanistan with sanctuaries in Pakistan, so the result is that the US has been fighting an obscurantist section of an ethnic component of Afghanistan whose objective has been to throw the foreigner out and seems to be succeeding. The Taliban now represent, by and large, the Pushtun sentiment in Afghanistan and they are spreading into Kunduz in the north as well. It is possible now that the US will re- evaluate its policy towards Pakistan following the killing of seven CIA operatives inside the CIA camp in Khost; an attack that originated with the Pakistan Taliban. This act highlighted not only the dangers of counter terror operations but also that the level of commitment in the opposition to the US was very high. The US now wants to achieve something in eighteen months what has not been possible in eight years.
The second review of the US policy by Obama has probably been the result of the failure of the US and British offensive in Helmand last summer accompanied by reports that the Taliban had begun to make inroads outside the south and east which they already control, while the security situation in Herat had deteriorated.
The coalition failure in Helmand has been interpreted by most Afghans as victory for the Taliban and also drew more recruits to the Taliban. It is impossible to distinguish them from ordinary villagers and it would be a mistake to conclude that they are resented by the Pushtun population. Coalition forces have remained far too inadequate and ill motivated to allow for an effective clear and hold policy.
The Al Qaeda’s objectives and tactics are different from the Taliban’s.
While the Taliban has become an insurgency seeking liberation of its lands from foreign occupation, Al- Qaeda seeks the end of the West’s influence in the Muslim world and the end of the West’s local supporters and allies. Al- Qaeda does not seek to control territory. But the organisation needs sanctuaries to survive.
Since al- Qaeda seeks Western targets, its operatives need access to training facilities, cities, international connections and the media.
For this reason, Pakistan is currently the main base, with limited sanctuaries elsewhere.
It is difficult to predict if and when the US will change its decades old policy of pardoning Pakistan all its transgressions. What we need to take into account is that one of these days the US will carry out its much vaunted but ridiculously inadequate much delayed surge, declare mission accomplished and thin out. Its longterm policies are dictated by election year compulsions. Once the coalition forces begin to pull out a few things will inevitably happen as other interests try to fill the empty spaces.
Pakistan will naturally assume that its moment has come again and it could now acquire its much dreamt of strategic depth, throw the Indians out and be the overlord in Afghanistan. The Iranians are unlikely to remain idle spectators as a Sunni Wahabbi neighbour is going to be an unsettling factor for them.
The Chinese have already begun to move in with their commercial and resource interests into Afghanistan as they would see an opportunity to move closer to the Persian Gulf, given their steady relations with the Iranians.
They also need to keep the Islamist extremists away from sensitive areas like Xinjiang. The Central Asian Republics and Russia have their concerns about the dangers of Talibanised ideology spreading into their countries. Finally, the absence of a strong centralised authority will only create more confusion in a country that has been run on drug money and foreign doles.
Pakistan’s exultation may be temporary.
Unable to control its own territory it is unlikely to be able to run Afghanistan in the way it may want to. It does not have the resources to do so and the US will not sub lease Afghanistan to Pakistan this time.
The other very real danger is that the Pushtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, joined together in a common fight for decades, may well ask if they fought all these years only to end up being minorities in both countries. The departure of the Coalition Forces will only add to the instability of the region and India needs to prepare itself for this eventuality.
There have been subtle suggestions made in recent months that are designed to create illusions of grandeur in us. These suggest that as a power rising towards its destiny as a major power, we should be playing a more active role in our neighbourhood, especially in Afghanistan.
Some have suggested that we could send in a brigade as a token. This is dangerous talk. The cost of maintaining a brigade is enormous and could be as high as Rs one crore a day. Add to this the logistics, air support, artillery cover, not to mention the other vital aspect, intelligence cover. Surely this intelligence would not come from the Taliban. Others suggest that we should have no problem in equipping, stationing and supplying several divisions of troops in Afghanistan. In a series of articles in this newspaper in January 2009, Manoj Joshi had cited reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General to show how inadequately equipped our forces were. The situation could not have altered dramatically since then.
It is true that there is goodwill for India in Afghanistan for our contribution to its infrastructure. This will dissipate rapidly once we are seen as an occupation force. It will not be difficult to create this impression particularly as we have no means of influencing opinion in Afghanistan, there being no media presence of our own there. Instead, we should follow the Chinese model, of gaining influence in Afghanistan without firing a single shot or losing a soldier. We need not make our policies Pakistanspecific all the time.
We should look for a role in the region beyond the current troubles but we need not prove this by sending in our troops hoping to succeed where others have failed. We may develop a two- front war strategy but we are hardly capable of fighting a three front war.
We should be prepared to train Afghans in India, in whatever discipline and numbers they want this. We should offer additional infrastructure building, taking care to match this with the Afghan capacity to absorb.
We need to ask Afghans what they want and not decide ourselves what we want to give. We need to co- ordinate with Iran, Russia and Central Asia in our endeavours. Post US, there has to be a regional agreement ensuring peace and neutrality in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing
Source: Mail today, New Delhi
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