Afghanistan – What Went Wrong and What Comes Next

The increasingly prevalent view, although not officially articulated inside the Washington DC Beltway, is that the Afghan war seems militarily unwinnable and politically uncertain. The choice now is not about winning and leaving but to select from some very poor options after the US has been involved in its longest overseas military engagement. By 2014, it will have run into its thirteenth year.

Admiral Mike Mullen recently warned that 2011 would be bloodier than 2010 and at the current rate of loss another 1,500 young men and women will die by 2014.  The US treasury will have spent another $ 600 billion by then. Other parameters do not look healthy either. The primary aim of the US in the Afghan theatre is to make America safe from terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan. European and American public opinion is swinging away from this war and the Europeans are anxious to leave. There is little possibility that by 2014 either the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police will be ready to take over the responsibility of ensuring Afghanistan's security and law and order across the country. The United States is looking at a strategic stalemate.

Following recent upheavals in the Middle East, US policy makers are anxiously watching the entire region, from the Maghreb to the Saudi Peninsula and even Iran and Pakistan. The replacement of regimes in the Middle East may not all result in US-friendly governments given the undertones of both the anti-American sentiment and Islamic fervour in these regions. In the early days of the 21st century, where power equations are changing and there is intense discussion of the implications of the rise of China and its interests in the Middle East, this must be a matter of additional concern in Washington.

The region is energyrich and also home to some of the most radical Islamist movements that arise from the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region as well from the Middle East. US interests in Afghanistan have come under increasing stress in recent weeks over the Raymond Davis affair. America’s most important ally in the region, Pakistan, is witnessing another round of increasingly vocal anti-American sentiment amidst growing sectarianism, violence and instability. US patience with Pakistan is running low and the cancellation of the US-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral is a direct result of this impasse on the Davis issue.

Today, the entire region from the Oxus to the Indus has become extremely unstable with an unending wave of Pushtun-led violence in Northern Pakistan and in the Punjab province. This does little to help the execution of a complicated and a difficult war against an elusive enemy in an environment sullied by acute mistrust between the US and Pakistan.

The war against terrorism was well begun in Afghanistan in 2001, but it quickly ran aground because of changed priorities. Consequently, it became a wrong war in the wrong place impeded by an unreliable ally. With inadequate boots on the ground no amount of aerial attacks was going to provide the ability to clear and hold territory so essential in a counter insurgency campaign. Inexplicably, US policies have been more of the same; a paucity of ideas that believes in funneling more funds to Pakistan either as a reward for services believed rendered or in the hope that they will rendered. In the process, Pakistan has acquired a veto power over US policies in AfPak. Since the US considered Pakistan to be part of the solution rather than the problem, Pakistan became an indispensible ally even as it pursued a course directly contradictory to US and NATO – even global – goals in the region. If there has to be any attribution to reasons of failure, this American inability or unwillingness to understand Pakistan’s strategic ambitions and attitudes would be the most crucial factor responsible for the present US position in AfPak. 

The predicament is that the US cannot permanently maintain the present force level, the casualty rate or the cost of the war. It also does not thus have the luxury of time to put together a viable local alternative. Departure from an unsettled region will only lead to further instability and a conceivable  civil war reopening old animosities between the largely Pushtun south and east against the other minorities – the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. A prolonged conflict in the region seems the more likely course. Intervention by outside interests in Afghanistan will inevitably follow.

It is sometimes forgotten that in the ultimate analysis, the Taliban are Pushtun who live on both sides of the Durand Line which was a demarcation made due to British imperial interests of the time. These interests divided the Pushtun between Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province under British control.  In recent years there has been an upsurge in anti-Pushtun violence in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, in Karachi, the country’s largest city and in FATA, which has seen repeated US attacks. It may not be long before there is an upsurge of a demand for Greater Pushtunistan once the foreigner and therefore common enemy has departed and the Pushtuns internalise their several problems swept under the carpet by preceding regimes. Pushtun assertiveness will almost certainly lead to retaliation from Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups. Religious obscurantism combined with ultra-nationalism can be a very explosive mix. Of course, given Afghanistan’s complex tribal structure it is not easy to predict the future.  Most certainly, however, any change in the configuration of the Pushtun belt will have its repercussions on Pakistan.

Faced with limited options, it might be considered a satisfactory, if not a good solution, for Washington DC to be able to come to an agreement with the ‘good’ Taliban assuming that: they exist, they are less fundamentalist and they are therefore more benign than other parts of the Taliban. The war in Afghanistan was not just against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda but against the medieval obscurantism that they represent. Today, one discerns dialogue in the west that seems to suggest that the Taliban are not such bad fellows after all; they have a regional (i.e. Afghan nationalist) approach and are merely fighting against foreign occupation. The implication is that once this cause disappears then the Taliban angst will disappear and Afghanistan can be left to them. This is a dangerous rationalisation and does not take into account Pakistani ambitions, the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine or the criminal narcotics-warlord nexus. Accepting this deal is accepting the mindset and the short route to rapid Islamisation of the region and beyond.

A solution can be possible only if four aspects are seriously considered. Pakistan must be reined in and made to understand that it is less indispensible to US interests than it makes out. The US must accept that it can no longer determine the fate of other countries on its own and has to reach out to other neighbouring countries like Iran and others who have important stakes in the stability and independence of Afghanistan (i.e. Russia and India).  Additionally, the US has to use more of the stick and less of the carrot when dealing with Pakistan. The narcotics criminal warlord nexus must be severed. This cannot be done without adequate agricultural relief work and pacification of Kandahar, where the challenge is greatest. To deal with Afghanistan effectively, there has to be closer US and NATO engagement with Russia and separately with Iran, however unpalatable it might appear today. We must evaluate if there can be any agreement amongst all nations about non-interference in Afghanistan and whether will Pakistan continue to remain a considerable part of the problem.

Whatever happens in the next few years, it must be accepted that the nature of the region will change, perhaps forever. A stable Pakistan may have been able to exercise reasonable influence on a much weaker Afghanistan. However, Pakistan is itself in a mess of various kinds, where one hears increasingly intolerant and violent religiosity with ethno-political fissures. It is doubtful whether Pakistan would be able to either control or bring stability to the region.  Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth is more likely to end up as a strategic quagmire. What we are looking at is a very unstable and turbulent region.

Given that more troops cannot be committed, funds may be in short supply and that the discourse in the US and the West has changed, what are US options? How does one define ‘Mission Accomplished’ when all of the options are poor or even impossible?

Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s plan is effective:  withdrawal of ground forces substantially and then hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics. Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s Plan B for Afghanistan is really an extension of this. He suggests a withdrawal of American forces substantially from the Pushtun south and east and a concentration of US forces in the north and northwest as bases for striking against targets. Blackwill’s plan leaves some sizeable forces in the region protecting American interests though it also means an admission that the war as presently configured is unwinnable. Within this plan is dialogue with the Taliban, reduction of US dependency on Pakistan and an informal coming into being of a Pushtun homeland. Both Biden and Blackwill realise that the essential problem is in Pakistan.

Any amount of readjustment or reevaluation of US policies and priorities in Afghanistan will not succeed unless there is a similar reevaluation of its policies and priorities in Pakistan.

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