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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 10, February 27, 2010

Afghan Scenario: Growing Complexities

Monday 1 March 2010, by Mansoor Ali

The situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly complex with the passage of time.

The London Conference on the Afghan Problem decided at the end of January to work towards reintegrating the Taliban into the Afghan political mainstream. This has sent shock waves among Indian defence and strategic analysts as also in the corridors of power in New Delhi though some seasoned diplomats and foreign policy experts assert that there was no reason for the Government of India to feel surprised if it had been able to keep in touch with the ground reality in that country and not allowed itself to lose its vision as well as balance in its excessive reliance on the sole superwpoer of the day.

What this indicates is that the War on Terror in Afghanistan, that George W. Bush had launched with as much vigour as fanfare at the end of 2001 following the audacious 9/11 terror strikes on symbols of American might in the heart of the United States (that have been traced to the Al-Qaeda supreme Osama bin Laden currently enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban in the Afghan mountains, if not in the Pashtun dominated border regions inside Pakistan), is now being regarded by the Barack Obama Administration in Washington as unwinnable. Hence efforts have begun to find a “political solution” which, in the words of General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander on the ground in the country, “is the inevitable outcome”.

Just before the London Conference, Tony Karon wrote an analytical piece on the Afghan political scene in the Time magazine on January 27. That clearly brought out the Afghan complexities in bold relief.

Centcom commander General David Petraeus weighed in on the question of a political settlement in the Times of London Monday (January 25), warning that before a political resolution could be achieved, there would be some intense fighting to roll back the Taliban and disabuse them of the prospect of a battlefield victory. And (US Defence Secretary Robert) Gates has made clear that the movement’s leadership is unlikely to negotiate a compromise until it has been dealt some heavy blows on the battlefield. Still, Petraeus suggested, current outreach efforts that are limited to those Taliban willing to lay down their arms and accept the Afghan Constitution could eventually give way to direct talks with the Taliban leadership, possibly involving Pakistan.

All roads, in other words, point to a negotiated settlement.

This emerging consensus stems in part from the realisation of what Pakistan can do and is willing to do in the fight. The Pakistani military reiterated during Gates’ visit last week that it has no intention of going after the Afghan insurgent sanctuaries in North Waziristan. The Pakistanis claimed that their forces were overstretched by their offensives against the Pakistan Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan and that a new offensive is beyond their capability.

While the Pakistani military is willing to fight those extremists who challenge the Pakistani state’s authority, it is more inclined to view the Afghan Taliban as a potential strategic ally and asset. And dozens of visits from US officials over the past year have failed to persuade Pakistan to adopt Washington’s view that the Afghan Taliban are a menace to Pakistan. Instead, Pakistan continues to see its primary security challenge as emanating from India, which it views as the power behind the Karzai Government in Afghanistan. So right now, the Afghan Taliban and associated Afghan insurgent groups based in Pakistan are seen as Pakistan’s best hope for rolling back Indian influence and regaining some of the strategic influence lost when the Taliban were routed in 2001.

Instead of trying to crush the Taliban as the US had hoped it would, Pakistan is talking to the movement’s leaders and urging Washington to do the same. Pakistan hopes to orchestrate a political settlement in which the Taliban and other Pakistan-friendly Pashtuns would be given far greater influence in a new regime but would agree to share power with other communities and cut ties with Al-Qaeda.

And the language from US officials in recent weeks suggests that some version of Pakistan’s perspective may prevail....

The fact is that it has already prevailed. While the Karzai Government has discreetly reached out to the Taliban leaders, UN officials in Kabul openly called for talks with the Taliban and urged the Afghan authorities to have the names of several Taliban leaders struck off the UN terrorist-watch list to enable them to travel. In fact on the eve of the London Conference, the UN Security Council removed the names of five Taliban leaders from the ‘black list’ of 144 dangerous terrorists who figured in the sanctions regime under Resolution 1267.

There is thus not a shadow of doubt today that Washington and its allies are working for a draw on the Afghan chessboard and the original dream of overpowering and eliminating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has completely vanished from the comprehension of the US officials.

The US and its allies are facing yet another problem that undermines the legitimacy of their stay in Afghanistan; they are extremely hated by the common people in the country; and their opinion of the Americans has been shaped from their own experience. As the residents of Shinwar, a village in Nangrahar province, told The Times (London), “people hate the Americans from the bottom of their heart” and want them to quit Afghanistan much before the five-year deadline Obama has set for handing over security to the Afghans. That is because they were themselves witness to whatever the foreign troops did: in 2007, US special forces speeding along a busy road a few miles from the village suddenly opened fire, killing 19 persons and injuring 50. The unit responsible for this carnage was sent home after the local US commander described the incident as a “stain in our honour”, and almost $ 40,000 (£ 25,000) was paid in compensation. But these steps failed to win back the locals’ confidence and trust; Jerome Starkey wrote in The Times from Shinwar, “…trust, in Afghanistan’s conservative Pashtun belt, is hard won and easily forfeited”.

Incidentally, the observations of a retired British diplomat are noteworthy in this context. Gerard Russell, a former British political attaché in Kabul, feels the large foreign presence is adversely affecting the working of the Afghan Government.

There are many disadvantages to having foreign troops on the front line. It’s holding the Afghans back and saving them from the need to solve their problems themselves. Until the government realises this is a fight for its own survival it won’t make the tough decisions, and they won’t realise that as long as we [the international community] are in the way.

Against this backdrop, an eminent US scholar, Anthony H. Cordesman, in a report entitled “The Afghan War at End 2009: A Crisis and New Realism”, is of the opinion that the “strategy President Obama has set forth in broad terms can still win if the Afghan Government and Afghan forces become more effective” for which purpose he has called upon the NATO/ISAF to provide more unity of effort and aid donors to focus on the fact that development would not be achieved unless the Afghan people saw real progress where they lived in the near future. He says for eight years proper military resources were not extended whereas Afghan power-brokers were not dealt with sternly and corruption remained unchecked. In his view, “the Taliban have reached their present level of success largely through strategic neglect that created a virtual power vacuum in much of the country”. Pointing to a recent analysis showing that the Afghan war had reached a crisis stage by the time Obama delivered his first speech on the Afghan strategy in the spring of 2009, he underlines:

The NATO/ISAF and US may have continued to “win” virtually every tactical clash, but in ways that lost much of the country. They also fought in ways that inflicted serious civilian casualties and collateral damage, and in ways that provided any lasting security for the Afghan population…

The US failed to focus on the needs and security of the Afghan people. It also failed to properly resource the war and to provide effective leadership.

More broadly, the Afghan Government, and outside aid efforts failed to meet the basic needs of the Afghan people, or even establish a meaningful presence in many areas. Far too few resources were provided to create effective Afghan security forces, and they were treated more as adjuncts to NATO/ISAF than true partners.

The cumulative result of such mistakes, in his opinion, was that the US and its allies won largely meaningless tactical clashes while steadily losing the country and its people.

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Yet another dimension of the Afghan war relates to the manner in which the drug traffic is influencing its outcome. In his forthcoming book, The Road to Afghanistan: The US War Machine and the Global Drug Connection, Prof Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and an erstwhile Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, draws a parallel with the Vietnam war on this score. Excerpts from the book have appeared in the January 1, 2010 issue of Global Approach under the heading “Obama and Afghanistan: America’s Drug-corrupted War”. He writes:

…toleration of the (drug) traffic has led to another similarity with Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s: the increasing addiction of GIs to heroin, Afghanistan’s principal export. Despite the denial one has come to expect from high places, it is (according to Salon’s Shaun McCanna), not difficult to find a soldier who has returned from Afghanistan with an addiction. Nearly every veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom I have spoken with was familiar with heroin’s availability on base, and most knew at least one soldier who used while deployed.

And the reported easy availability of heroin outside Afghanistan’s Bagram air base, like that four decades ago outside Vietnam’s American base at Long Binh, points to another alarming similarity. Just as at the height of the Vietnam war, heroin was shipped to the United States in coffins containing cadavers, so now we hear from General Mahmut Gareev, a former Soviet commander in Afghanistan, that

Americans themselves admit that drugs are often transported out of Afghanistan on American planes. Drug trafficking in Afghanistan brings them about 50 billion dollars a year—which fully covers the expenses tied to keeping their troops there. Essentially, they are not going to interfere and stop the production of drugs.

Gareev’s charge has been repeated in one form or another by a number of other sources, including Pakistani General Hamid Gul, a former ISI commander:

“Abdul Wali Karzai (the brother of the Afghan President) is the biggest drug baron of Afghanistan,” he stated bluntly. He added that the drug lords are also involved in arms trafficking, which is “a flourishing trade” in Afghanistan. “But what is most disturbing from my point of view is that the military aircraft, American military aircraft are also being used. You said very rightly that the drug routes are northward through the Central Asia republics and through some of the Russian territory, and then into Europe and beyond. But some of it is going directly. That is by the military aircraft. I have so many times in my interviews said, ‘Please listen to this information, because I am an aware person.’ We have Afghans still in Pakistan, and they sometimes contact and pass on the stories to me. And some of them are very authentic. I can judge that. So they are saying that the American military aircraft are being used for this purpose. So, if that is true, it is very, very disturbing indeed.”

Another slightly different testimony is from General Khodaidad Khodaidad, the current Afghan Minister of Counter-narcotics:

The Afghan Minister of Counter-narcotics says foreign troops are earning money from drug production in Afghanistan. General Khodaibad Khodaibad said the majority of drugs are stockpiled in two provinces controlled by troops from the US, the UK, and Canada, IRNA reported on Saturdy. He went on to say that NATO forces are taxing the production of opium in the regions under their control.

I do not accept these charges as proven, despite the number of additional sources for them. None of the sources quoted here can be considered an objective source with no axe to grind, and worse charges still are easy to find in wilds of the Internet.

However, the charges are plausible, because of history. Just as in Vietnam and Laos, the United States made its initial alliances in Afghanistan with drug-traffickers, both in 1980 and again in 2001; and this is a major factor explaining the endemic corruption of the US-sponsored Karzai regime today. There should be an official Congressional investigation whether the United States did not intend for its Afghan assets, just as earlier in Burma, Laos, and Thailand, to supplement their CIA subsidies with income from drug-trafficking.

In short, the impasse the US faces in Afghanistan, in its efforts to support an unpopular and corrupt regime, must be understood in the light oespect, Obama would bring a change.

The question remains: how many Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis will have to die, before we can begin to end this drug-corrupted, drug-corrupting war?

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What do all these signify? The Western public opinion, and notably that in the US, is exerting intense pressure on Obama to end the War on Terror in Afghanistan due to the heavy casualties it is inflicting on the soldiers who are also subjected to considerable corrupt influence flowing from drugs. At the same time Was

What do all these signify? The Western public opinion, and notably that in the US, is exerting intense pressure on Obama to end the War on Terror in Afghanistan due to the heavy casualties it is inflicting on the soldiers who are also subjected to considerable corrupt influence flowing from drugs. At the same time Washington has to find a face-saving formula before it withdraws from the battlefield leaving the Afghans to fend for themselves. Hence the calls, overtures and efforts for a negotiated settlement by striking deals with the “moderate” Taliban leading to eventual talks with the Taliban leadership.

However, these moves from the side of the US —by broadly accepting the Pakistani approach to and perspective of the Afghan problem—have caused legitimate concern in both New Delhi and Moscow. This was articulated by both sides during the discussions visiting Secretary of the Russian Federation’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev had with the new National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, in New Delhi in the beginning of this month. While the talks covered counter-terror cooperation which both sides wanted to expand, they did exchange views on Afghanistan in the wake of the proposal for reconciliation with the Taliban. As the IANS reported,

The fluid situation in Afghanistan, in whose peace and stability both India and Russia have vital stakes, figured prominently in the discussions...

Both India and Russia are not comfortable with accommodating the Taliban in any power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan and have resented any distinction between the so-called good and bad Taliban.

India and Russia have been inching closer in their assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and believe that the Taliban are linked to the Al-Qaeda and pose a threat to regional stability and security.

The two countries had backed the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban regime late 2001 and are opposed to any arrangement that may lead to the Taliban reclaiming power in Afghanistan.

The Afghan problem is expected to figure prominently in the course of the talks Russian PM Vladimir Putin is to hold with the Indian leaders when he comes to New Delhi in the first half of March. Indeed South Block, which had conspicuously cold-shouldered the Kremlin for several years when it came to discussing regional as well as international affairs due to its new-found love for and proximity to the White House, especially during the Bush presidency, is now being compelled to consult its old and time-tested friend in such a vital matter knowing full well that Moscow represents one of the few nations in the wide world New Delhi can fully trust and rely on.

The growing complexities of the Afghan scene have thus also given a new impetus to Indo-Russian cooperation to offset the adverse consequences of the changing US strategy in Afghanistan on our region. This is one of the most positive features of the events in our region and needs to be reinforced without hesitation or equivocation in the days ahead.

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