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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 21, May 15, 2010

Afghanistan - Guarantees are the Best Way Out

Friday 21 May 2010, by H K Dua

Afghanistan has always been a prisoner of its geography and history and this imponderable has blocked its emergence as an independent and sovereign nation with a will of its own. Its strategic location could have been an asset for the region and the world; on the contrary, it has turned out to be the cause of its troubles and long spells of political instability.

Other nations have often found it tempting to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs and play games—great and not so great—on its terrain. Its people, always weak and divided, could just watch what others were doing to them. They could not stop other countries playing with their lives, or future.

The time has come for other nations, particularly countries in the region like India, Iran and Pakistan, and the United States, Russia, China and the European Union, as also Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia, to think afresh, sit together and discuss how Afghanistan can be helped to live on its own, without fear of interference from outside. An effort aiming at an international concert on Afghanistan ’s future has become urgent in view of President Barack Obama’s growing impatience for pulling US troops out of the country before making a bid for another term.

Whether Dr Manmohan Singh discussed the idea with the US President during his recent visit to Washington D.C. or with President Hamid Karzai, who was lately in Delhi, is not known, but India should not be shy of discussing with other nations the possible scenario in Afghanistan, after the US and NATO troops have gone home, leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan.

It is not that during the last couple of years major countries have not been discussing ideas of the future of Afghanistan after the US troops have been pulled out. These discussions, however, have been vague and somewhat non-serious, mainly because the US and NATO have been bothered more about tackling the immediate situation than sorting out the future uncertainty facing Afghanistan.

President Obama’s keenness for re-election is understandable, but walking out of Afghanistan leaving behind a dangerous vacuum to be filled in by elements of the wrong kind will amount to abdication of statesmanship and responsibility the US had chosen to undertake after 9/11. One idea that has been in the air, but not pursued by those who ought to have, is about giving international guarantees to Afghanistan recognising it as a neutral nation with the assurance that no power, in the neighbourhood or otherwise, would be allowed to interfere in its affairs.

Although no two situations can be alike in international affairs, Austria has been cited as an example in exploratory consultations. Austria has indeed been able to buy several years of peace guaranteed by the other European powers.

President Karzai, it is said, does not like the term “neutrality”, but he is bound to welcome the idea if durable peace can be restored in his country riven by years of strife.

Semantics are not really a problem for diplomats, who have a way with words. Another term can be thought of which guarantees peace to Afghanistan, shields it from outside interference, and underscores its status as an independent and sovereign nation.

After their experience with Afghanistan and its chequered history, most nations would like to assure a neutral status to it so that its independence and sovereignty are not violated by any outside power.

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There is, however, an exception—Pakistan—which predictably is opposed to any such thought. This is mainly because it undercuts the very concept of the “strategic depth” Pakistan avows to acquire in Afghanistan.

The concept of “strategic depth” is deeply flawed, outdated, against the basics of international law and clearly unsuitable for the needs of the 21st century world. Also, it has the potential of considerable mischief.

Embedded in it is the intention to interfere in Afghanistan, tendency to covet its territory, or guiding its affairs by placing a quisling in command in Kabul. The very nature of the thought is bound to be unwelcome to Afghanistan and other countries in the region, and will be a source of recurring tensions.

The immediate victim of the strategic depth idea is bound to be where the depth—whether political or territorial—is sought to be acquired. This is evident nowhere else than in Afghanistan where the Taliban, created by Pakistan, has played havoc with the country, its polity, plural culture, political stability and even the daily life of the people.

The Taliban regime and the sanctuary it provided to the Al-Qaeda in the border areas in the 1990s are in fact the cause of the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan and the current war there.

Pakistan’s military rulers have perhaps not yet realised how dangerous it is to play with such dangerous concepts in the conduct of international affairs. They could have learnt from what Talibanisation has done to Pakistan itself. Raising forces like the Taliban for creating trouble in the neighbourhood might be a self-satisfying pursuit, but in the long run it will be untenable in today’s world.

For Pakistan’s top brass not to feel the heat from the violence it has spread in the country is somewhat surprising. The military rulers have simply forgotten the basic lesson that playing with fire is always dangerous in any neighbourhood.

More surprising is a Pentagon representative’s statement after recent talks with Pakistan’s leaders that tended to subscribe to Islamabad’s keenness for strategic depth. Maybe the US’ need for General Ishfaq Parvez Kiyani’s assistance in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan made it necessary for it to make expedient noises.

Judging from the psychology of Pakistan’s military leaders it will be difficult to sell the concept of a neutral Afghanistan to them, but international powers cannot afford to give it up if they want to see Afghanistan and the region free from trouble.

The thought of a neutral Afghanistan is still nascent and will take some time to mature for active discussion at an international conference. At present the US, the key actor in Afghanistan, is only keen to induct a section of the Taliban—the so-called “Good Taliban”—into the Karzai Government so that it can pull out its troops in a couple of years.

It will, however, be unwise for the US and other nations not to look beyond the withdrawal of troops. Unsettled Afghanistan will always be a problem for the region and world.

(Courtesy: Hindustan Times)

The author is a former editor of Hindustan Times and is currently a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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