India, is improving Chah Bahar, Gwadar has strategic edge over it. It not only provides huge space but also interdicts and dominates the East-West naval routes.
President Barak Obama is keeping option cards close to his chest even though thinning out of some troops and heavy equipment has already commenced from Afghanistan. He has not ruled out any of three possible options yet. One, US forces vacate Afghanistan by end of 2014. Two, US would continue sustaining essential operational posture beyond 2014 by dominating critical spaces through commensurate troops’ deployment with massive integral fire power, leaving the country side battles for Afghan National Army (ANA). Three, even though physical presence is wound up, support ANA with extensive technological and aerial means from the periphery of Afghanistan. Also strike a variant to possibly render operational punch through additional Indian forces deployment in support of ANA. One would recall, US has an operational base in Kyrgyzstan and potent military capability through its naval fleet that hovers near Persian Gulf.
Withdrawal from battle zones for the US forces has never been an issue. Iraq is the case in point. What is mind-boggling, as it happened in Iraq, is the spectre of bloodletting of Afghan rival factions, the soonest US troops leave that would far exceed in recent history if brutality was to be any measure. Iraq bleeds on sectarian basis now and Afghanistan would bleed on ethnic basis. Historic divide among ‘Pushtoons’, ‘Hazaras’, ‘Tajiks’ and ‘Uzbeks’ played at peak once Soviets’ forces withdrew from Afghanistan but it has exacerbated after US attack on Afghanistan over a decade ago when almost all ethnic entities opposed Taliban in support of US who are predominantly ‘Pushtoons’. Thus, opportunity permitting, thirst for revenge runs deep down their veins.
Internal Dynamics Of Conflict
After claiming to have broken al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan and decapitating it of its leadership, al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan. US now find war in Afghanistan a mere attrition on its war machinery and drag on realisation of its global policy objectives. Thus, there seems no ambiguity about the US intention of withdrawal that is in sync with its allies’ perception also.
Withdrawal feasibility is proven and as per laid down methodology US and ISAF forces would leave the arena but the trailing misery that would befall on people of Afghanistan may have no parallel. Execution of option ONE to achieve clean break from the war zone would lead to resultant vacuum, triggering massive infighting among the warring factions in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai would have the days numbered who survived over a decade under US security umbrella as a piece of Afghan symbolism but could never win the confidence of Taliban at any stage. In fact, they are not even inclined to negotiate any settlement at the forum where Hamid Karzai is party to the dialogues.
Enactment of option TWO would mean that attacks on foreign troops would continue. The US forces dominating the critical spaces would need to be nourished through air logistics. In other words enormous war stress will have to be borne by the US. Even more dangerous part is that when Taliban would see foreign forces resistance, beginning to melt down, it would inspire fence sitters to join Taliban hordes to storm US forces who would ultimately suffer from siege syndrome. The factions opposing Taliban in support of US and ANA would become ineffective, the former would prefer cocooning within their own territories to face Taliban and the latter would be plagued by the fear of retribution that Taliban would exact on them and thus their operational spirit would stand sapped.
Implementation of option THREE is a relative alternative of the previous two that would ensure US troops safety to leave battle zones through an organised withdrawal and also allow ANA to fill the vacuum while it receives technological and fire support from US war machine available on Afghanistan periphery. The success of hypothesis however, hinges on the assumption that ANA would hold the ground against Taliban and other factions if need be. Unfortunately that is fallacious for two reasons. Firstly, Afghan nationalism is so strong that just one appeal by Taliban to ANA to join them in exchange for amnesty would suffice. Secondly, an Afghan traditionally has been very poor regular soldier. Donning uniform and boots, an erstwhile lion behaves like a sheep though in ‘chapals’ ( foot wear) and ‘shalwar-qameez’ (usual Afghans dress) he leaps like a leopard on his target. The option would fail because ANA’s staying the ground is the rider clause which is precisely vulnerable to crumble first. In fact ANA desertions to join Taliban ranks may be speedier than the US forces departing Afghanistan.
Broad Based Negotiations Need of The Hour
Given the opportunity, in all three options, Taliban, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and the remnants of Soviet-era ‘jihadist’ parties would scramble to gain added elbow space by capturing additional territories to strengthen their bargaining position. The deadly turf war would exacerbate if no mechanism is in place before the departure of US forces from Afghanistan, the least desired would be the total cessation of hostilities when the guns drop silent. Wishing for such a scenario is one thing but achieving it is another.
The bad news is that on the face there are three direct main parties to Afghan war which are US, Taliban (generally Pushtoons) and Karzai government that claims to represent all other ethnic groups. Under the surface there are enormous irritants and the one that stands out glaringly is the absence of all ethnic factions of Afghanistan from Doha initiative where the assembly effort is in place but it has not been able to take off. The soonest Taliban attempt to hijack the prerogative of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and other ‘jihadi’ actors like Harkat-e Islami etc, to speak for them, the peace mechanism would crash because Afghan society historically has not been sum total of inhabitants but it has always been sum total of tribes. Therefore US pretended ignorance and Karzai’s boast about the hypothesis that it represents all factions except Taliban is a misleading myth because all factions mumble mutely that by the time any evolved/agreed peace mechanism is put in place, Karzai government may not be there as Taliban would tolerate any one but Karzai.
War On Terror And Pakistan
Among the countries surrounding Afghanistan, Pakistan occupies a unique space. It is a NATO war-ally to conduct counter terrorism operations in its border areas adjoining Afghanistan. Though Afghan Taliban would not have approved widespread attacks on Pakistan military and Para military forces in FATA as well as deep in the country, the war on terrorism in US support did afford tremendous relief to US troop who had to battle with that much lesser number of Taliban after several thousands of them were tied down in border areas by Pakistani forces. The leading faction that has been claiming the responsibility of targeting military as well as civilians, called ‘Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’ (TTP) even blew up mosques and public markets that alienated them from the scale of sympathy which they enjoyed to begin with. Considerable segment of Pakistani masses, if they had been fighting US troops in Afghanistan, had soft corner for them when anti-American factor had played up at the peak.
Pakistan military and Para military forces performed remarkably, losing about 4000 officers, junior commissioned officers and other ranks; a staggering number, more than what US lost in over a decade in Afghanistan. Besides, the country suffered about 35000 civilians’ fatalities. Repeat of ‘do more’ mantra by US surprised Pakistani intelligentsia. US-Pakistan working relationship, even though claimed to the contrary, remained complicated all along. Whatever good will existed for US among the small segments of Pakistani society also became casualty to the US forces arrogance. Wiping off a Pakistan Army post by ISAF gunships and persistent drone attacks which could be streamlined to absorb the deadly criticism, are the tragic episodes that shattered the facade of bilateral harmony and respect among the two allies of war on terror.
For Pakistan, internal stability has become a challenge to achieve. The violence and corrupt democratic rule that followed on departure of a dictator in 2008 has thoroughly fractured the society. For the first time corruption went from billions to trillions figure. Judiciary, that had the army backing took some bold measures to save the national exchequer, was defied. PPP led government resorted to series of sinister moves that were aimed at crippling the highest judiciary without any remorse. An unprecedented attempt on a crucial pillar of the state by the government, instead of reinforcing judiciary’s resolve of implementing blind justice, justifies condemnation to any limit
Regional Geopolitics Within Pakistani Perspective
On the external scene while internal instability kept festering, straining national security assets to limits; Pakistan and India have remained at odds while paying lip service in ‘expressing’ the resolve to settle all issues. In reality, there has been total dead-lock on the issues that are the bed rock of mutual hostility. Some cosmetic effects-rendering measures like trade agreements to show-piece them to the world were drawn but basic hurdles remain. Kashmir Issue, Sir Creek, Siachin and recently the rivers water distribution are stumbling block that would prevent normalization of relations unless pragmatic approaches are adopt for their resolution. As if it was not enough, an Indian officer has spilled the beans that Mumbai attacks and earlier attack on Indian Parliament were stage managed by Indian government to malign Pakistan. It is a horrible act of jugglery that would find deletion from the memory of both the countries very hard.
Where the West is failing to see the sagacity of keeping Afghan arena de-politicised, is evident from its act of encouraging Hamid Karzai to seek Indian strategic alliance for arming Afghan forces and even deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan on the heels of US vacating the war zones. The entire move is aimed at punishing Pakistan but it also affords Pakistan a cause to resort to counter moves for securing its national interest against Indian pincer that might take shape on its eastern as well as western borders. Knowing the track record of Indian Army, it is least likely to deploy its troops, barring a few representatives under the guise of trainers/advisors but equipping option of ANA can be very much on the agenda. Of all, Taliban must be relishing the news because their long depleted armouries would find a replenishing source in shape of Indian arms. The proposition is weak if vetted from feasibility angles though US would want India to embrace the monster (violence) in Afghanistan for years to come.
Pakistan has critical geo-political location as it pivots between Central Asia, India, Iran, Afghanistan and China. It has long stretch of coast on Arabian Sea but has been lax in conducting its vibrant role mainly because of poor economy and its dependence on foreign aid. Negotiated loan package of over five billion dollars with IMF by recently installed PML (N) government might be hard to digest. The weakness has kept Pakistani political leadership prone to arm twisting when it is caught on divergent interests of powerful friends, say US and China. US observe no qualm and makes exponently clear that she does not like to see Pakistan in China’s fold. Also any large scale cooperation between Pakistan and Iran, like the contemplated Iran-Pakistan gas pipelines has to have US nod that would not come. Observers see US meddling and coercing Pakistan against the ethics of sovereign countries practices which is monumentally adding to ‘hate America’ numbers. US Counsel Generals in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are attempting to reach some not-so-anti-American segments of the society by throwing dinner parties, donations and attracting some youths but it appears woefully failed effort to woo popular public sentiment that is absolutely against America for such reasons as covered above.
Similarly, thaw in Pakistan and India relations is least likely. India desperately needs to connect to Central Asia as its booming economy is terribly short of energy sources but is not inclined to make any concessions to Pakistan when major issues come up during the dialogue. Pakistan is aware that in 21st century when the power hubs have to shift from West to East; status-quo on thorny issues would dent India more than it hits Pakistan. The simmering standoff between US and China also sucks in Pakistan. China’s assuming control of newly built Gwadar seaport has been seen by US as a significant geo-political gain by China in the scheme of ‘pearls necklace’ exercise. Even though India, in the near vicinity is improving the docking facilities of Iranian sea-port of Chah Bahar, Gwadar has strategic edge over it. It not only provides huge space but also interdicts and dominates the East-West naval routes.
China naturally welcomes Pakistani support as a gesture of reciprocity. The way China has been supporting Pakistan at the international level of friendship is very encouraging but again Pakistan’s bad economy and poor governance sap its geo-strategic lustre to attract or deepen the friendship. China’s war on terrorism in its south-western province of Xinjiang would remain a thorny issue about which China suspects, adjoining Pakistani territories have become the launch pad of terrorism. Uyghur fighters seeking right to self-determination is an historic issue that the free world generally does not connect with the latest state of terrorism but China is adamant to suppress it and even brutalise it if need be. The rightist political parties in Pakistan welcome friendship with China but on Xinjiang issue, if there has to be a point of aligning among the two, political support would tend to lean in favour of Xinjiang Uyghur. The episode would keep challenging the diplomacy wizards on both sides to prevent relationship glitch between two friends. Political pundits also notice that receding war on terror in Afghanistan would mean added Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang.
Afghanistan under President Karzai has remained fractured for the absence of any charismatic leadership that US and allies would have supported. Intensely whispered as the western lackey, on CIA pay roll and besmeared with connections with drug barons, he survived well during NATO’s occupation as they mutually reinforced each others ‘politico-military objectives’. Finding his role threatened ever, he spews venom against Pakistan, even at time against US. Over the years he has mastered the art of power play despite having no power at all. Pakistan, as an international expediency has also learnt to bear with him though none trust each other. President Hamid Karzai’s fate whether peace or war, is severely threatened in post-American era, and perhaps he knows it.
Yet his nuisance value to impede or sabotage the dialogues because of being US front man cannot be denied. Here is the point that US must relegate his ability to hinder dialogues and also reject his claims that he represents all other factions except Taliban. Instead the dialogue manifesto must be expanded to include all ethnic entities for purposeful progress in this direction. Such exercise needs to be done on war footing so that when ISAF/US forces depart, the blueprint of the agreement emerges strong enough by then that each ethnic group including Taliban must leave the table as satisfied participants.
US attempt to prevent operational vacuum by coaxing India to induct troops as fulfilment of strategic alliance obligation is a dangerous proposition that would leave lingering distrust among Taliban as well as the violence intact. Only triggers would change. In other words spectre of perpetual misery for the people of Afghanistan would loom on the horizon. The move would also intensify the tension that already runs deep in the Subcontinent between India and Pakistan who have fought three wars since independence in 1947.
Summing up Afghans psyche, an analyst made interesting remarks about Afghans. He said Afghans are at the best of their peace when they are at war (with foreign powers) but also added that when they are fighting no one else, they fight among themselves. What one draws out of this age old saying is that brokering peace in Afghanistan is the responsibility of warring factions of Afghanistan for the sake of Afghan people. Precisely for the same reason, Taliban and erstwhile rival factions have got to demonstrate the will to pardon each other by denouncing any threat of revenge or retribution. Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India or its northern neighbours should have no role except as facilitators of peace mongering dialogue environments in their individual capacities because peace and stability in Afghanistan would lead to lowering of conflicts temperature elsewhere in the world. They could at best inspire the warring factions to hold grand ‘jirga’ (assembly) under influence of some eminent Muslim scholars whose names must be approved by all warring factions. Peace brokering between US and Taliban should resort to inclusive strategies otherwise parties, not associated with dialogues would find a cause to take their own position which may not foster peace efforts. In the land of folk-lore, myths, mystics and tribal traditions, aim at holding grand ‘jirga’ where all factions are represented and see its magic. Doha should remain its possible rendezvous.
@ Author is a retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army, holds Master’s as well PhD degree in International Relations and has authored a book. Writes frequently, has participated in several national and international conferences/seminars on invitation. ([email protected] ).