By Vikram Sood
Of the last thirty turbulent years, Afghanistan has seen active Soviet (Russian) involvement for about ten, US for about 18 years (in two spells), India for about ten (in two spells up to 1992 and presently) and the Pakistanis for all three decades.
The Soviets used 10 million landmines, caused 200,000 civilian fatalities and left behind 750,000 amputees, while a majority of the mines have still not been cleared. By 2001 about 8.26 million Afghans had fled to other countries, mostly to Pakistan, of whom some 4.64 million had already been (principally forcibly) repatriated to Afghanistan by that year.
The Americans sponsored the jihad, with help principally from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, in the 1980s and later dropped 1,228 cluster bombs between October 2001 and March 2002, which released 248,056 ‘bomblets’ of which 12,400 are estimated to be lying around unexploded. Yet, Osama bin Laden has not been found, while American legitimacy has plummeted.
The Pakistanis gave Afghanistan the gift of the Taliban and all that this has signified, from the destruction of the Bamian Buddhas, religious obscurantism of the worst kind, the spread of narcotics, and endless misery on both sides of the Durand Line.
India contributed a billion dollars of humanitarian aid focused on national capacity-building and today, according to recent ABC opinion polls, 74 per cent of Afghans see India favourably, while 91 per cent see Pakistan unfavourably (up 11 points from last year) and 86 per cent see Pakistan as playing a negative role in their country. And yet, the US, in a reflection of its incongruent policies, continues to be solicitous about assuaging Pakistan’s ‘sensitivities’. There was a time when US diplomats were interceding on Pakistan’s behalf to reduce India’s role in Afghanistan; even today, there are voices in Washington that seek to diminish India’s role in Afghan reconstruction. It is a measure of Pakistan’s brittle state that four Indian consulates, manned by not more than two dozen men, are a source of ‘insecurity’ to that country. It is also a measure of the imbalance of US policy that seeks to eliminate virtually the only success story in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are estimated to have achieved a permanent presence in 72 per cent of Afghanistan, up from 54 per cent last year, according to the International Council on Security and Development. These figures may be open to interpretation, but the general drift is not in question. The fact however is that the manner and speed of the takeover only suggests that unless the Taliban are stopped, rolled back and defeated, they will eventually secure themselves in the entire country. This will happen, not because the Taliban are popular in Afghanistan – they are not – but because the opposition to their depredations is neither cohesive nor sufficiently strong. As Andrew Cordesman says in his study, “The Afghan-Pakistan Conflict: US Strategic Options in Afghanistan” – the Afghan Pak war “has been a war that the US has allowed to slip from apparent victory into serious crisis.”
One of the major problems is that the Americans, in search of quick policy options, are considering opening negotiations with a section of the Taliban described, for the sake of expediency, as ‘moderate’ Taliban or ‘good’ Taliban. Should this happen, this would amount to a strategic defeat for the US, as it would be negotiating with weaker adversaries from a position of weakness, having failed to militarily defeat them. Pakistan, by being truculent and duplicitous with its main benefactor, will have achieved its strategic ambitions. If that were to happen, India would be the biggest geo-strategic loser in the Hindu Kush region.
The situation that prevails is the result of mismanaged wars fought since October 7, 2001, when the Americans went in with their cordite swatters, which only allowed the flies to escape in all directions. Nothing at all was tied up with the Pakistanis to prevent this from happening; in fact, the Americans assisted General Musharraf in allowing him to have his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Army and irregular contingents, active in Afghanistan, airlifted back to safety and deniability in Pakistan. From then on, to the premature diversion to Iraq followed by a general downgrading of the Afghanistan theatre, a situation has been allowed to evolve that shows the trends in all security and socio-economic development parameters in Afghanistan to be adverse. Kabul is more and more like the Green Zone of Baghdad. Only the northern road through the Salang Tunnel to Panjshir and Mazar-e-Sharif is considered safe; the one to Kandahar through Wardak is unsafe for Afghans and foreigners, barely 30 kilometres outside Kabul; the road to the Bagram Air Base is frequently attacked by the Taliban.
NATO forces may be able to defeat the Taliban in individual battles, but they are not able to hold territory, much less clear, build and develop. Counter insurgent forces may be able to win any number of battles but for the insurgent it is enough to be able to survive. No wonder, Jim Jones, the NSC Adviser, said in 2008, “Make no mistake. NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” This was echoed by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his testimony to the House Armed Forces Committee in September 2008: “I am not convinced we are winning it (the war) in Afghanistan.”
There are several problems in tackling the evolving situation in Afghanistan. Firstly, the troop/insurgent ratio is adverse and there is very little likelihood that this can improve in the near future. Secondly, sanctuaries in Pakistan extend not only to the Al Qaeda but to the various Taliban shuras (councils) from Quetta to Swat. There is the Afghan Shura of Mullah Omar in Quetta; the Waziristan Shura of Baitullah Mehsud; and the Swat Shura of Maulana Fazlullah. More such shuras will be formed in the future.
Besides there are still some important holdouts from the first Afghan jihad, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani; the former was a Taliban commander north of Kabul and is generally considered the father of suicide bombing. Father and son have created a force that includes several thousand Pakistan fighters, probably from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Another is Gulbuddin Hikmetyar and his Hizb-e-Islami, a long-time favourite of the ISI, who operates in eastern Afghanistan from his bases in FATA.
The other and major difficulty has been the Pakistani ambivalence in its dealings with the Taliban. As the creator of the force, it is difficult for the Pakistan establishment to see it destroyed without achieving its primary objectives in Afghanistan. Pakistan has consistently undermined US efforts in Afghanistan. The unintended consequence has been the growing Talibanisation of Pakistan and the actual ceding of territory and sovereignty to the radical Islamists west of the Indus. The Swat peace deal was dubiously easy, and it is difficult to accept that the provincial Awami National Party (ANP) Government in Peshawar would go ahead with such a significant move without approval from Islamabad. It is possible that the Pakistan Army wanted a way out of having to fight the Pushtuns and at the same time create a ‘moderate’ Taliban for the US. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this too will rebound on Islamabad and the US. The essential reality is that both – the Taliban and the jihadis on one side and the Pakistan Army, have the same slogan — jihad fi’sbillah – jihad in the name of Allah. They claim they are fighting for the same Allah, the same Prophet; so how does one expect any resounding victory?
As was expected, the Obama administration has set out a new policy for Afghanistan-Pakistan. But is it ‘new’ when it talks of the threat from Al Qaeda and does not mention the Taliban? The Obama AfPak policy is no different from that of George Bush, who spoke only of the threat to America from Al Qaeda. Obama made it quite clear in his reply to The Times of India correspondent at the recent London G-20 Summit, when he said, “we are very concerned about the terrorists and extremists who have made camp in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The question had been specific – “What is America doing to help India tackle terrorism emanating from Pakistan?” The evasiveness and the irrelevance of the response only reasserts known American positions. No help would be forthcoming from America for India.
On the other hand there has been a serious effort in the US to manufacture consent for the new slogan “Anyone who is against terrorists is with us” instead of the earlier slogan “Either you are with us or against us.” In essence they both mean the same thing – America is with no-one; the rest have to decide for themselves if they want to take on America’s declared fanatics or their own. The policy lays down two essential priorities – one, to secure Afghanistan’s south and east against the Al Qaeda; and two, to strengthen the Afghan forces so that this would enable the US to wind down its own combat operations. The Obama policy speaks of the Taliban in the context of the Al Qaeda with the Mullah Omar group as the irreconcilable lot, implying that the rest may be reconcilable, ‘moderate’ or ‘good’. It defies logic that a ‘moderate extremist’ exists; and if he does happen to survive, could he wield any real power that would deliver results? Such a person would, most probably, be outside the corridors of extremist power and would necessarily fail to deliver. An extremist has to be defeated because he considers anything else, including development and dialogue, as appeasement or a just reward for his extremism.
The fact that the new policy stresses on tackling Al Qaeda and not the Taliban only creates the impression that the policy is tactical and not strategic, as it does not seem to define how the Taliban, who wield considerable influence in over 70 per cent of Afghan territory, will be handled. The policy against the Al Qaeda demands a counter terrorist operation against non-Pakistanis; while the policy against the Taliban requires counter-insurgency operations against groups that include the Pakistani Taliban as well. The US AfPak policy document concludes by saying that, in the year 2009-2010, the Taliban’s momentum must be reversed, but only in Afghanistan, and that the international community must work with Pakistan to disrupt the threats to security along Pakistan’s western borders.
The Americans are once again going to miss the essential point, which is that, if there has to be an AfPak policy, there must be a consistent and unambiguous Al Qaeda-Taliban policy that includes tackling LeT and others like the JeM, who are the jihad’s Rapid Deployment Forces, available on demand for Pakistan’s western or eastern frontiers. The American problem has been that it is unable or unwilling to recognise the source of the problem. The problem is Pakistan’s unwillingness and therefore its inability to help and, equally, the US unwillingness to force the issue with the Pakistanis, who even today are playing for time. Should the Pakistani assessment be that the US is looking for short term solutions to long term problems, they are likely to be more intransigent and more demanding, knowing that they only have to wait it out.
Another crucial aspect that the US must consider is that, while it does have the capacity to unilaterally destroy some countries, it no longer has the capacity to reconstruct single-handedly. It would, therefore, need the assistance of regional powers and will have to accommodate their regional interests. In AfPak, the regional powers are Iran, Russia, India and China. The US must also readjust to the fact that Pakistan is part of the problem and not the solution. US intervention in Afghanistan serves Indian interests only if it takes into account Pakistani delinquency. As a long-term solution, the regional powers will have to think of the guaranteed neutrality of Afghanistan. This will be possible only after Pakistan has been disciplined through more sticks and far fewer carrots. If the neglect of Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US in the 1990s was a mistake, the present policy of pampering Pakistan is no better.
References in the US to getting India and Pakistan to talk in order to give Pakistan ‘adequate confidence’, can be attributed to the usual flawed American thinking and need not detract from India’s main concern to prevent a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. For this, it would be useful for the US to offer aid funding via India, to run projects in Afghanistan, which would provide a far better rate of utilisation of funds than is presently the case, and would keep the anti-American sentiment out of the equation.
It has been a bloody thirty year war in Afghanistan, during which the essentially tribal and conservative society, especially the Pushtun, has now acquired a thick layer of religious extremism. There has to be a long-haul solution spread over generations, with development and dialogue following, and not preceding, the military process. Since it is in India’s interest, as that of the rest of the world – with the exception of Pakistan – that the Taliban be rolled back, it is, perhaps, in Indian and American interests that the two countries co-operate across the board, and not on the basis of my terrorist first and your terrorist later. India also needs to reach out to Iran and the Central Asian Republics and not just concentrate on dealing through the United States.
Vikram Sood is Former Secretary, R&AW; Vice President, ORF Centre for International Affairs