Monday, 19 October 2009

Afghanistan: What Next?

The Americans bombed Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in retaliation for having sheltered those responsible for the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre. Since Afghanistan was already in the stone-age, having endured the Soviet occupation and a long stretch of in-fighting among various groups of Mujahideen after the Soviet departure, there wasn’t much to bomb, but that didn’t stop the Americans from dropping ordinance. Having paid the Al Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban, back with the same coin, the Americans landed their aeroplanes on Afghan soil and set up bases with avowed intention of planting democracy in that part of the world. And that was the beginning of the current set of troubles.

When Obama campaigned for Presidency he sort of implied that Afghanistan was a just fight, though Iraq wasn’t. The upshot of that assertion has been an increase in the number of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan and a concerted effort to extricate from Iraq. Obama has also tried to get US coalition partners to commit more troops, but with the exception of the UK, no other country has been willing to do so.

It was not Obama who sent US troops to Afghanistan. If 9/11 had taken place when Obama was in power, the US reaction would very likely have been different. May be the US would only have bombed Afghanistan and would not have tried to occupy it. George Bush most probably had colonial ambitions and wanted to discharge the ‘white man’s burden’ in Afghanistan. What Obama has inherited is an hornets’ nest and though the US would really like to exit Afghanistan if possible, and as soon as possible, without destabilising the whole region, it is unable to do so. However, if the US were to depart just like that, the Taliban will take over the whole of Afghanistan in no time. The civil war in Pakistan will intensify and Pakistani Taliban will be at a huge advantage. This means the US must stay on until they can leave without destabilising that region. For this reason, Obama talks about democracy taking root in Afghanistan. For the US, a democratic Afghanistan is one where the Taliban don’t have much support, where there is popular demand for an elected government, an Afghanistan which will not destabilise the rest of the region, especially Pakistan, after the US’s departure, an Afghanistan that will be an American ally or at least, not be an Islamic fundamentalist state.

Afghans have shown no great appetite for democracy. In a terrain bereft of democratic shoots or even roots, where most Pashtuns are either sympathetic to the Taliban or are the Taliban, the best foot the Americans have been able to put forward has been in the form of Hamid Karzai, a man who isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.

As US and other coalition casualties mount in Afghanistan, Obama will be under increasing pressure to pack up and leave. My opinion of Obama has always been that he is a man of principles who also likes to avoid causing offence. A man who likes to please as many people as possible. If things don’t change in Afghanistan (and the Taliban show no indication of wanting to change), Obama might want to consider various options. And what could those options be?

1. It’s well known that Iran supplies funding and technology for Iraqi insurgents, especially Shiite insurgents. What is less well-known is that Iran also supplies weaponry to the Taliban, though they are predominantly Sunni and there is no love lost for Shiite Iran. The US could strike a deal with Iran whereby Iran is allowed to fulfil some of its nuclear dreams (without actually producing or acquiring nuclear weapons) and in return, Iran totally stops the flow of money and technology to Afghanistan. Iran might be allowed to conduct a nuclear test or two and Ahmadinejad will be allowed to strut and strike a pose in front of his people. Such a deal with make Israel very unhappy and there will always be the fear that if Iran is given a nuclear inch, it’ll take a nuclear mile. If this strategy is to work, Israel must not be allowed to attack any of Iran’s nuclear sites. Without Iranian support, the Taliban will suffer to some extent. However, as long as the border with Pakistan is not sealed, and it cannot be sealed, the Taliban will be able to breathe.

2. Supplement US troops with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia which are officially American allies, but are not hated by Afghans. I’m not sure how keen the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be to shed blood in Afghanistan. More importantly, by joining the Americans, they are likely to be tainted in the eyes of the Afghans. Of course, additional manpower will not do any harm to the coalition struggling to hold Afghan territory, but it will be very difficult and even expensive to persuade Indonesians and Bangladeshis to send troops to Afghanistan. If this can be achieved, the US might be able to get the necessary breathing space to carry out necessary reconstruction and build up the Afghan national army.

3. US troops can be replaced with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia. If they replace the Americans rather than supplement them, the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will not look too bad in Afghan eyes. Also, people in Indonesia and Bangladesh might not resist the idea of sending troops to Afghanistan as much as they would if their soldiers are seen to be helping American troops. However, I am not sure how good a job the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be able to do on their own. Without drones and hi-tech bomber planes answering calls for help within minutes, it’s unlikely that the Taliban can be kept at bay. In fact, if the Americans are replaced by Indonesians and Bangladeshis, there’s a very good change that the Taliban will be in control of Afghanistan very soon after the US departure. Of course, the US could give those weapons to the Indonesians and Bangladeshis and train them to use those weapons, but I doubt if the US would want to do that.

4. Persuade India to send troops to Afghanistan to help American troops. Indian soldiers will be hated as much as the Americans and may suffer as many casualties. In order to persuade India to put its soldiers in harms’ way, the US might ‘persuade’ Pakistan to accept the Line of Control in Kashmir as the international border and give up all claims on Indian administered Kashmir. US drones flying over Af-Pak might direct some of their fire over training camps for Kashmiri militants. Indian politicians might be able to sell such this solution to India’s population. However, this solution would be very unpopular in Pakistan. Any such settlement over Kashmir would be temporary and will last only as long as the Americans stay in the neighbourhood. China will not be happy with this, since a secure northern frontier will tilt the balance of power in favour of India.

However, in my opinion, if implemented, this plan has as much chance of success as supplementing US troops with Indonesians and Bangladeshis. By sheer numbers, Indian troops supported by US technology and troops will be able to keep the Taliban at bay. Let’s assume, this is maintained for a period of five years, until the next Afghan elections, by which time, a reasonably strong Afghan national army can emerge and reconstruction and redevelopment can be carried out. If the Afghans manage to elect a strong government in Kabul that is relatively progressive, stable and strong, Afghanistan might revert to the sort of peace it had when it was ruled by King Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. Though this option has a good chance of success, I just don’t see Obama even considering the possibility of seeking Indian troops for Afghanistan and siding with India on Kashmir.

5. The Americans and their allies could just pack up and leave, after declaring that their objective of brining democracy to Afghanistan has been achieved. After the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, the Soviet protégé Najibullah managed to hold on to power for a surprising four years. The only reason why he was finally finished off was because of the enormous amount of Pakistani support for the Mujahideen. If the Americans were to just leave, just like the Soviets did, it is anybody’s guess as to how long Hamid Karzai will be able to hang on to power. The Taliban are bound to expand the territory they control – but will they be able to obtain sway over the whole of Afghanistan? In my opinion, they will, over a period of time. This process will be quicker if they can convince the Pakistanis to help them. To get Pakistani help, the Taliban must be willing to renounce any plan to capture power in Pakistan.

The ISI is mostly probably cursing itself for having allowed the Taliban to shelter the Al Qaeda. If Mullah Omar hadn’t permitted Bin Laden and his fellow nutcases to use Afghanistan as a base, no one would have given two hoots about Afghanistan. Pakistan would still have its ‘strategic depth’ in the west and Kashmir would be boiling. If the Americans were to pack up and leave, the ISI would want to just turn the clock back. Afghanistan would be run by the fundamentalist Taliban, while Pakistan would be modern and free from fundamentalists. This would be a dream ending for Pakistan, especially the ISI. However, would the Pakistani Taliban who currently control large swathes of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province be willing to give up their plans and either lead a quiet life or migrate to Afghanistan? Having tasted power, I doubt if Pakistani Taliban can ever be persuaded to give up their plans to capture power in Pakistan itself. They might pretend to do so for a temporary period till they capture the whole of Afghanistan, but sooner or later, civil war will return to Pakistan.

China will be very unhappy and uncomfortable if the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. As long as the ISI had control over the Taliban, very little external support was available to Uighurs in China’s restive xinjiang province even though many Uighurs have fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Recently the Al Qaeda openly called for a holy war against China. However the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities. The Taliban are much more realistic than the Al Qaeda. Will Pakistan be able to convince the Taliban to not support the Uighurs in China after the Americans vacate Afghanistan? They might be able to. It all depends on how quickly memories of the current rift fade and how quickly the clock is put back.

We currently live in a very interesting period in time. Let’s see how events in Afghanistan unfold.

If the Americans leave, can the ISI and the Taliban turn the clock back?

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