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Thursday, March 19, 2009

US spills Afghan war into PakistanBy M K Bhadrakumar From all accounts, the new Afghan war strategy of the Barack Obama administration is getting its final touches. The United States Chief of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said, "We're just about done." From available indications, the key American objective is two-fold: optimally getting Pakistani help in the fight against terrorism and, secondly, reducing American expectations for military victory. However, contradictions are surfacing already. To be sure, the role of Pakistan becomes critical in the period ahead and the political uncertainty in Islamabad complicates matters. The robust American attempts in the recent days at persuading the obdurate protagonists in Pakistani politics to conciliate must be seen in this perspective. But opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's tumultuous assertion of his worthy place in the top echelons of national politics brings an altogether new alchemy into US-Pakistan equations. Suffice to say that uncharted territory lies ahead. Therefore, the latest reports emanating from Washington regarding the possibility of the US administration contemplating moving military operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan to its province of Balochistan will certainly inflame Pakistani opinion. The reports also speculated that the US might resort to ground operations in addition to the Predator drone attacks on the tribal areas. Sharif is highly unlikely to endorse any such escalation of the war by the US and he is riding a high wave of popular support. Nor is the faction of the Pakistani civilian government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani - that is, even assuming that President Asif Ali Zardari might opt to remain a silent spectator. Without doubt, the Pakistani security establishment will have no truck with any such US policy that assumes the prerogative to violate Pakistan's territorial integrity. Needless to say, Pakistani public opinion, including the comprador class within its elite, will militate against any such US move. The reservoir of "anti-Americanism" is already overflowing in Pakistan. In sum, any expansion of the Afghan war into Pakistani territory will virtually derail whatever track the US administration might be contemplating on opening a political dialogue. Indeed, it seems more and more the case that the President Barack Obama administration lacks any clear-headed strategy in the war. This is also the growing regional perception, though only the Iranians may have openly articulated such a perspective at governmental level. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken the initiative for an international conference on Afghanistan, which is scheduled to take place at The Hague on March 31. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend the conference, which is in the run-up to the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be held on April 3-4. In other words, a timeline lies ahead for formally launching the US's new war strategy in Afghanistan. This was drawn up by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and apparently sets out 15 "goals", which include eradicating the safe havens of terrorists in Pakistan's tribal areas, bolstering the capacity of the Kabul government to ward off the Taliban challenge to its survival through a substantial build-up of Afghan armed forces, ensuring better governance by the Kabul government and ensuring that Afghanistan remained stable. It is a basket of tough "goals" to be sought within a three- to five-year timeframe. Evidently, the US has trimmed the grandiose objectives with regard to transforming Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy. The premise behind the new strategy is that the military alone cannot win the war. In a stunning public admission, Obama has publicly noted that the US is not winning the war, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he met recently, has gone a step further to doubt whether the war could ever be won. It increasingly seems that all that can be successfully sought is curbing the insurgency. Thus, as a recent BBC commentary put it, the reach of the military component in the new war strategy will essentially be to buy time, even as "less tangible counter-insurgency tactics" take hold. Principal among such tactics will be the tricky question of engaging the Taliban. Obama has taken a bold leap by underscoring the need to differentiate the "moderate" Taliban and to engage them rather than branding the entire Afghan opposition as "Islamic fundamentalists". This is a refreshing rethink. Political Islam is a many-splendored thing. Islamists of diverse hues fill up a colorful political theater today in the Greater Middle East stretching from the Levant to the steppes of Central Asia. They range from Salafis who rule Turkey to the Muslim Brotherhood and its various affiliates, to the Iranian regime, and to the violent fringe groups inspired by Osama bin Laden. The idea of opening the door to approaching the Taliban is not new. Through the second half of the 1990s right up to October 2001, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had preferred the option that through a carrot-and-stick policy, the US could have persuaded the Taliban to hand over al-Qaeda's leadership, including Bin Laden. Indeed, within the US there is today a chorus of opinion that elements of the Taliban might be amenable to reconciliation. The Europeans, especially the British, have been advocating a similar line for some time. Russia and China, too, are open to the idea. Iran prevaricates. Thus, Obama has essentially echoed an idea whose time may have come. But then, "Taliban" is a very complex phenomenon. Its Islamism is rooted in traditional Islam and "anti-modernist" ideology and it subscribes to an innovative form of sharia that mixes Pashtun tribal codes, or Pashtunwali, with radical Deobandi interpretations of Islam. The admixture further includes traces of Wahhabism introduced by the Taliban's Saudi financiers and pan-Islamism of contemporaneous "jihadi" movements. The Taliban ideology is radically different from the Islamism of the Afghan mujahideen who drew inspiration from mystical Sufism native to Afghanistan and the Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan. Thus, while a division between the "moderate" and "extremist" Taliban may well exist, the issue is whether distinguishing it is going to be practical. The point is, as Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban minister and Guantanamo Bay internee pointed out, "If the Americans are thinking ... that they want to distinguish between the hardline and moderate Taliban, it will not be acceptable to anybody, because it is like telling two brothers that you love one and want to play with him, while you want to kill the other one." Besides, the "Taliban" comprises, apart from hardcore neo-Taliban as such, an assortment of elements drawn from Pashtun tribes, sub-tribes and clans who may or may not be allied to the Taliban, plus local mafia, criminal gangs, plain warlords and even erstwhile mujahideen. And some of them outside of the pale of neo-Taliban can be very important interlocutors. For example, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party of Afghanistan. His party still remains an important political force. As a Moscow commentator put it, Hekmatyar's position differs considerably from that of the Taliban. "While [Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar insists on complete withdrawal of the international peacekeeping forces from Afghanistan, Hekmatyar urges their replacement with troops from Muslim countries. This idea is popular among some strata of the public and should be taken into consideration." Then, there are other aspects.
One, talking to the Taliban - even if they be "moderate" Taliban - will be perceived by the Afghan public as a search for compromise with the neo-Taliban. It conveys a mixed signal in a war where "winning the hearts" of the people is half the war. On the one hand, the US is sending more troops, arming local tribes and is training an Afghan army to fight the Taliban, while on the other hand, the Americans are talking peace.
Two, the Taliban are sensing that they are not losing the war, which is tantamount to winning the war. Why should they negotiate? What is it that can be offered that they find difficult to reject?
Three, even if theoretically it may be possible to peel off "moderate" Taliban, there is no certainty that they are sufficiently strong as collaborators for the stabilization of Afghanistan. In fact, the high probability is that hardliners will continue to destabilize the country.
Four, the hardliners are much closer to al-Qaeda than ever before. To borrow the words of Peter Bergen of the US think-tank New America Foundation, "The upper levels of the Taliban have morphed together ideologically and tactically with al-Qaeda." Without doubt, the Taliban's rhetoric increasingly resounds with references to Iraq and Palestine. Finally, the Taliban leadership is largely in Pakistan. Negotiations become meaningful only if the Taliban shura is engaged. But the elusive shura is unlikely to be impressed, as the US is negotiating from a position of weakness or stalemate. Thus is born the idea that there ought to be a "smart policy" whereby in the first instance the US will be escalating bombing raids in Pakistan's tribal areas and inflict a lot of pain on the Taliban. The US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, who pilots this "smart" policy, has appointed Barnett Rubin, Afghan policy expert, to coordinate the approach to the Taliban. It seems the process of talking to the Taliban will be an ugly thing to watch. Rubin wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article that in a "grand bargain", the US would end the military action when and if the badly mauled Taliban saw reason and agreed to "prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism" and that the resultant agreement would "constitute a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda". Such a heavy US footprint, as Holbrooke envisages, can only play into the hands of the Taliban, as it is sure to inflame ethnic Pashtun nationalism. If the objective is to ensure greater participation by ethnic Pashtuns in the government, it could be gone about differently by facilitating an open, nationwide intra-Afghan dialogue. The US should resort to the tried-and-tested method of achieving national accord, which means convening a loya jirga, or grand council. There is no real alternative when the country's political elite is hopelessly disunited and there is hardly any consolidating force in the society or any leading national party. The Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai is meandering, cut adrift by the Obama administration, and neither its mujahideen opposition nor the Taliban can replace it. This is a deep systemic crisis. Talking with the moderate Taliban is necessary, but it no longer suffices, as it would have done in 2002 or 2003. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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