The Afghan Conundrum

Posted in Afghanistan | 18-Feb-09 | Author: Pradeep Kaushiva

Afghan children walk next to a convoy of U.S. army armoured vehicles patrolling near Peshad village, Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan, February 14, 2009.

As the Obama administration settles down to catch the tasks at hand by their forelocks, it would need to prioritise them in their order of criticality. Undoubtedly, at priority one itself there would be a number of issues. If recession is the first domestic as well as the first global issue, Afghanistan would surely rank as the first among foreign policy issues.

It is reasonable to expect that the support-infrastructure would have been actively evaluating the Middle East situation ever since Candidate Obama threw his hat into the ring. And, after the heady results of the election, the President Elect's think tank would have zeroed in on the fact that the centre of gravity has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan. This was a mixed bag of fortunes in that the rhetoric of election speeches could give way to managing Baghdad away from the main focus of global eyes but it also required management of Kabul in the midst of a gathering storm. As would happen by definition, Barack Obama's dream run ended on 20 Jan 2009 because anticipation is the stuff of dreams whose realization is often is the start of nightmares. President Obama's transition to the world of realpolitiks completes the background against which to view the appointment of Special Representative Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan & Pakistan and shifting of Middle East boundaries eastwards to include both these countries.

As the calendar inches closer to marking the end of new administration's first month in office, President Obama's team must be fully updated on the internal version of the global strategic scenario. Inability to learn from successes is a common enough human failing but refusal to draw lessons from failures can be catastrophic as the yetto- be doused Bushfire in Iraq shows. Non pre-determination of the desired end state in Iraq, showed complete disconnect from history which records no successful dismantling of empires or colonial administrations. Even a purely military action on foreign soil requires an elaborate exit plan- it succeeds only if drawn up prior to ingress as done by India in 1971 in Bangladesh and fails if not drawn up as by India in 1986 in Srilanka. Surely Iraq was more than a mere military operation just as Afghanistan is. Each step in the latter direction needs to be caliberated for every nuance if a long term solution is the strategic objective. And, a short term or a limited scope approach to Afghanistan imbroglio is foredoomed to failure as a closer look would indicate.

History is substantively influenced by geography. Strategically located, the Khyber Pass dominated the land route to South Asia from Europe as well as from Central Asia. Afghanistan's rugged terrain, particularly the north which shares borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; is often compared to Taliban without clarifying which of the two is more hostile. Just like island settlements in the maritime domain, villages & families tend to be close knitted in the naturally rough mountainous regions. In Afghanistan they are ferociously intolerant of external domination.

A lot of media space has been devoted in recent times to the history of Afghanistan. Still, it bears recalling that Afghanistan has existed as a separate entity since 1747, largely as the focal point in the imperial Great Game and as the strategic buffer for control of Central Asia. Although its current borders evolved around 1880- 1901, Afghanistan never really shaped up as a nation in terms of the Westphalian notion. It's constituent Pashtun (38 %), Tajik (25 %), Hazara (19 %), Uzbek (6 %), Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch and other small ethnic groups; even in this 21st century remain largely innocent of the Anglo Saxon prescriptions which the remainder of the world has mostly come to accept one way or the other. The Chieftains have managed to retain fierce loyalty of their tough, hardy, rugged and resilient followers who value their own culture, tradition, religion and tribal instincts above everything else. Two facts of the region's history in the last 150 years stand out. Firstly, that no foreign influence- from the British Empire to the Soviet Union, succeeded in dominating it for any reckonable length of time. And, secondly, indigenous leaders' experiments to splice it together as a monarchy, republic, theocracy or even a communist state; also failed due to power struggles, bloody coups & unstable transfers of power. There has been a lot of external "help" in the more recent times as Mujahideen were funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to agitate against the communist PDPA regime. Pakistan's ISI provided not only a channel for this but also supported the native mujahideen. Al- Qaeda evolved from a non Afghan organization comprising international recruits accommodated in guest houses in Peshawar and given paramilitary training at camps in Afghanistan to help the Afghan mujahideen. The radical islamist movement in general and al- Qaeda in particular drew from the madrasahs set up throughout Islamic world with generous financial support from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, to augment the Pashtun numbers, the Taliban movement arose among the ranks of rural Pashtuns educated at madrasahs in Pakistan. This link up of CIA- ISI on one hand and Mujahideen- al Qaeda & Taliban on the other; is President Obama's major discomfort of inheritance if not a burden of history. He cannot disown it or discard it. Yes, he can- own it up and move ahead.

As the President, strategic interests of USA are no doubt his primary concern and responsibility. He would readily see that tales of the hydra-headed monster of terrorism need to be followed to where its heads are buried. Targeting of US citizens in the 26/11 outrage should convince even a doubting amateur that homeland security measures in the mainland can be only a very limited comfort if they be successfully threatened elsewhere. The war on terrorism needs to be truly global for it to succeed. And, no war can be won through appeasement of the opponent's collaborator just as there can be no permanent settlement with a blackmailer. AQ Khan's release from jail last week needs to be followed up legally to bring him to the global book as an international criminal- extradition should not pose a problem as the State of Pakistan now has no case against him. US can take the lead in this for it is her citizens and strategic interests that are endangered most by the nuclear proliferation directly resulting from the thefts and clandestine sales by Khan.

Special Representative Richard Holbrooke would undoubtedly have a clear mandate and a wide enough scope within which to tread his way through the most lethal security minefield existing on this earth today. His experiences in Europe, impressive as those are, should not mislead to the notion that there is any similarity between the two situations. Military superiority will not subjugate the Afghans, wheeling-dealing with Chieftains will not unify Afghanistan, propping up a puppet will not administer Afghanistan, patronizing poppy cultivation will not support Afghan economy, overlooking Pak intransigence will not make them friendlier, tolerating the breeding ground of global terrorism will not make the world safer. And, only for the myopic strategists; none of this has anything to do, even in its remotest connotation, with Kashmir. It has everything to do with Afghanistan & Pakistan as it affects them, their neighbours, the Greater Middle East region, the entire civilized world and it affects the US of A.

It is clear enough that a comprehensive solution of the Afghan conundrum would include economy revival, infrastructure development, primary education, health care, administrative structuring, national reconciliation etc etc and training for each one of these. It would exclude or reject exploitation of internal differences in pursuit of external interests and appeasement of anyone supporting or even tolerating terror training. The solution should do all this and much more to support preservation of Afghan identity, culture and unique way of life. President Obama would by now be cognizant that there is a lot in common between the global interests of USA & India. And, that the two actually converge at the regional level. The conflict or contradiction at the sub regional level is a relic best left for analysis by future generations. The time to move ahead together is now and the place to make a new beginning is in Afghanistan with whom India has historically had close cultural and friendly ties based on mutual trust. On the Indian side, the UPA government cannot leave the Indo- US collaboration initiatives for Afghanistan to be drawn up by the incoming government after the general elections. It must believe that it would come back in power, put its act together and engage all concerned accordingly. And, do so without delay.