VIEWED through today’s political telescope, Afghanistan’s future appears as turbulent as it’s past, and ominous for Pakistan.
Hope for peace in Afghanistan was aroused when President Barack Obama declared that US (and Nato) troops would be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014 and responsibility for security and governance transferred to the Afghan National Army and the Kabul government. Apart from being responsive to domestic American sentiment, withdrawal is sensible, since the principal US aim of destroying Al Qaeda ‘Central’ in Afghanistan has been largely achieved and the Taliban-Pakhtun insurgency is unlikely to be suppressed militarily.
The US secretary of state accepted the natural corollary-negotiations with the Taliban. Some well-publicised initiatives were launched for this purpose. Pakistan offered its help and conveyed the Kayani peace plan.
However, it soon became clear that at least some components of the US administration continued to believe that a political settlement could be militarily imposed on the Taliban. The consistently optimistic assessments of ‘ground realities’ in Afghanistan given by American commanders were contradicted by almost every other observer, American and non-American.
Unfortunately, the militarists’ case was massively reinforced by the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the ‘success’ of the sharply escalated drone strikes. Secretary Hillary Clinton declared recently that the US will simultaneously “fight, talk and build” in Afghanistan. Until last Friday, the US was able to cajole Pakistan into continuing its cooperation with this unwinnable and self-contradictory strategy.
It is obvious that the American plans to build a 400,000-strong Afghan army and install an effective government by 2014 are unrealistic and unsustainable. The US cannot achieve in two years what it has failed to do in 10. Nor is the US Congress likely to continue allocating over $20bn annually to subsidise the Afghan government and army. Without money, and without a political solution, it is likely that the Afghan army will splinter into rival ethnic militias and the Kabul government may simply disintegrate.
It seems that the US has doubts about its own publicly propagated plans. It is pressing Karzai to accept a ‘strategic partnership’ which — contrary to the Obama pledge — would allow the US to station an unidentified number of its troops for an undetermined period of time in Afghanistan after 2014 for ‘training’ and support to the Afghans. A permanent US military presence in Afghanistan will almost certainly mean there will be no real negotiations with the Taliban or other Afghan insurgents.
Since the US is unlikely to be able to suppress the insurgency with a smaller force than it has at present in Afghanistan, it will need to rely on continued support from the Northern Alliance to sustain its presence. The Afghan civil war would thus continue and even intensify. The rump American force would probably be stationed in protected bases, capable of punitive forays against the insurgents but unable to ‘hold’, much less ‘build’ in most of south and east Afghanistan. As in the past, most of the blame for failure would be transferred to Pakistan. Acrimony could escalate to actual conflict, as witnessed last week.
For this reason, and because of the threat of possible US military intervention from Afghanistan against its nuclear and strategic capabilities, Pakistan is likely to oppose the permanent American military presence in Afghanistan. Iran too must be concerned about possible US or Israeli strikes against its nuclear and military facilities and thus likely to be strongly opposed to an indefinite US presence. The opposition of Afghanistan’s two most important neighbours will render the continued US military presence in Afghanistan extremely difficult to sustain.
Given its proclivity to use force, it is entirely unclear if the US genuinely desires a dialogue with the Taliban. More likely, it wants, in Gen Petraeus’ words, to “whack” them to the negotiating table. This is unlikely to happen. And, so long as the Northern Alliance leaders and other warlords are confident of continued American dependence on them, they are unlikely to be amenable to any plan Pakistan or others propose for a political settlement with the Taliban. It is only if and when they see the imminence of total American withdrawal from Afghanistan that the hard-liners in the Northern Alliance will become open to an accommodation with their Pakhtun opponents.
Thus, it is not surprising that the Kayani peace plan — to start with a mutual halt in hostilities followed by dialogue and political accommodation — has not evoked active support from Washington or Kabul. Awaiting resolution of the policy contradictions in Washington, Pakistan has temporised so far: cooperating with a negative US strategy, while seeking to prevent the destruction of some friendly or non-hostile elements among the Afghan insurgents to retain a role in Afghanistan post 2014.