April Issue 2009

By | Economy | News & Politics | Opinion | Published 15 years ago

US President Barack Obama’s announcement, late last month, of a new policy direction for Afghanistan and Pakistan was preceded by talk of an exit strategy as well as by rumours that drone attacks would be extended beyond the present target areas, into Balochistan. In the event, the announcement itself did not directly address either of these areas. It did, however, signal an arguably more realistic approach to the region, which was immediately welcomed by the governments in Kabul and Islamabad.

Evidently, the more far-fetched fantasies of George W. Bush and his coterie of neoconservatives have been discarded by the Obama Administration. There is no longer any talk of fashioning a model democracy from the rubble of a country that has known no peace in more than three decades. This is sensible, not because democracy in Afghanistan is in itself an undesirable goal, but because any political system imposed from without is unlikely to prove sustainable. A clear majority of Afghans must be convinced of the virtues of democracy before it meaningfully takes root, and the experiences of the past six years or so — during which what is alleged to be this form of governance has been accompanied by death, destruction and deprivation — have hardly been conducive in that respect.

Obama has made it clear that the primary purpose of his nation’s military presence in the region is to destroy Al-Qaeda. Unlike his predecessor, he is disinclined to indulge in cowboy bluster of the “we’ll smoke you out of your holes” variety or to issue threats based on a Manichean dichotomy — “You’re either with us or you’re with the enemy.” He does, not surprisingly, talk about winning against Al-Qaeda, which is accused of having provoked the war through its actions of September 11, 2001. It may be worth reminding him, though, that there has never been any evidence of Afghan involvement in 9/11. The Taliban regime under Mullah Omar was an atrocious one on any number of counts, but the pursuit of terrorist goals outside Afghan borders was not among its sins.

It did, of course, provide sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his associates — and when the US demanded, after 9/11, that bin Laden be handed over, Mullah Omar was cheeky enough to demand proof of the Al-Qaeda leader’s guilt. That was deemed as sufficient cause for an invasion, and there is no indication that an alternative course of action was ever considered. An operation mounted by a couple of hundred special forces may well have succeeded in capturing bin Laden and his leading subordinates — a goal that the invasion has thus far failed to achieve.

The Taliban did not put up any significant resistance in October 2001: they simply melted away into the countryside or crossed the porous border into Pakistan and bided their time. It turned out soon enough that the occupation of Afghanistan was merely a formality for the Bush Administration: a pit stop on the road to Baghdad. In fact, some of its members, notably Donald Rumsfeld, were so keen to embark on aggression against Iraq that they were willing to overlook Afghanistan altogether.

Not long after the invasion of Iraq, a young Illinois state senator designated it a stupid war — an attitude that stood him in good stead as a presidential candidate a few years later. But Barack Obama never felt the same way about the Afghan war, and during the campaign for the presidency he talked about increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan and pursuing the enemy into its hideouts in Pakistan. Even so, during a military briefing before he became commander-in-chief, when Obama asked whether there was an exit strategy in place, he encountered an uncomfortable silence.

Even before last month’s policy announcement, it had been decided to increase the size of the military deployment by 17,000. That number has now been supplemented by another 4,000 military personnel, but the role of the latter will be to train Afghan security forces. The increased combat troops, it is said, will make it possible to undertake more ground operations and concomitantly reduce the number of air strikes, which all too frequently entail large numbers of civilian casualties — thereby bolstering the cause of the Taliban. Simultaneously, a sharper focus on training Afghan troops is ostensibly intended to enable them to take primary responsibility for national security four or five years down the line.

A civilian surge is also planned: a much larger diplomatic presence in the country will be accompanied by a stress on economic development — which is considered crucial to winning hearts and minds, and to supplanting the opium economy. Progress on both the latter fronts has been dismal. A large proportion of the development funds allocated by the US and other countries ends up as a lifestyle maintenance subsidy for NGO representatives or lines the pockets of contractors: as far as the vast majority of Afghans are concerned, the trickle-down effect is negligible. The war against opium cultivation has mainly been left to the British, and they haven’t been making a great deal of headway. There is only a dim prospect of spectacular advances in these areas, but it would be a significant achievement just to curtail the level of corruption.

The latter is a local concern, too — and President Hamid Karzai, who has rapidly been falling out of favour among Americans, is considered too weak to deal with it. The complaints against him are somewhat disingenuous, given his status as an imperial puppet — a stigma that repeated electoral laundering can’t wash away. According to one report, the Americans have been thinking in terms of reducing presidential powers by instituting a prime ministership and installing a more reliable puppet in that position.

That hardly sounds like a masterstroke, and it certainly did not figure in Obama’s announcement. However, the idea of overtures to supposedly moderate Taliban is now an officially acknowledged tactic. In fact, indirect contacts have been taking place for some time, notably in Dubai, with emissaries from the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. It has taken the US a while to realise that the so-called Taliban — the nomenclature covers more or less anyone who picks up a weapon against foreign or government forces, in the same way as mujahideen once did — are not an unvariegated species. They range from Islamist fanatics to nationalists, bereaved avengers, petty warlords and common criminals. Some of them will prove amenable to accepting bribes (it was suggested some months ago that Viagra was working better than hard cash as a means of gaining the favour of local potentates), just as Sunni militias in Iraq did, but they would probably require their coffers to regularly be topped up. That’s hardly an ideal tactic, however, in terms of reducing the incidence of corruption.

Others, it is hoped, can be co-opted into the political mainstream and persuaded to pursue their goals electorally. That may be an admirable goal but it also sounds like a fantasy, particularly when US intelligence agencies concede that their knowledge of command structures among the Taliban is exceedingly vague. On the face of it, negotiations and local deals are no doubt a better idea than open-ended combat. In practical terms, though, the viability of this alternative remains highly questionable — and the Pakistani experience in this respect isn’t terribly encouraging.

The US has not thus far addressed the incompatibility between encouraging such deals in Afghanistan and opposing them in Pakistan, but it must be conceded that the local agreements entered into by the Pakistani authorities over the past few years hardly stand out as an example worth emulating. None of the ceasefires negotiated by the Musharraf regime lasted beyond a few months and, more recently, the truce agreement in Swat was effectively tantamount to a surrender that will only encourage armed obscurantists in other parts of the country to believe that significant concessions can be won through violence.

Obama promised last month to increase aid to Pakistan but said it wouldn’t be a blank cheque, and that benchmarks would have to be achieved for the government in Islamabad to earn its keep. President Asif Zardari has never been reticent about expressing his views on his favourite subject: in his opinion, money — loads of it — is the key to dragging Pakistan out of the morass. Within a month or so of his election as head of state, he was seeking $100 billion as a panacea for the nation’s multiple woes. By that measure, the new American offer is a pittance. However, while Zardari may not be completely off the mark in claiming that the Islamist combatants are better equipped than the army, the US has lately reiterated its suspicions about a nexus between the ISI and the militants.

The New York Times quoted “a half dozen American, Pakistani and other security officials” in Washington and Islamabad — all of whom “requested anonymity because they were discussing classified and sensitive intelligence information” — as saying that “support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S Wing … of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence … There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections [scheduled for August].”

These are obviously extremely serious allegations, even though it is pretty much common knowledge that links between the ISI and Afghan Islamists date back at least to the days of the anti-Soviet jihad, and that the agency was instrumental in inserting the Taliban into the Afghan equation. Whether Pervez Musharraf was ever entirely serious about breaking this connection is an open question — but if he was, he did not succeed. A hamfisted attempt by the Zardari’s government to bring the ISI under civilian control was easily, and predictably, thwarted by the men in uniform. The Americans frequently deal directly with army chief General Ashfaq Kayani — a former head of the ISI — and one can only presume he has been confronted with the evidence in question. Whether he is unwilling to deal with the problem or incapable of doing anything about it, in either case the implications for Pakistan are exceedingly ominous. And the sense of impending doom is inevitably heightened by the debilitating disarray among the supposedly secular political players.

In the circumstances, an increased subsidy from the US is unlikely to make much of a difference. There can be no question whatsoever that the American military presence in the region has played a key role in destabilising Pakistan, and its perpetuation is inconducive to an outcome everyone can live with. However, at the same time, it is unreasonable to believe that a sudden exit by the US would somehow lead to a miracle cure.

It is almost universally accepted that the Bush Administration erred gravely in shifting its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, well before the regime change in Kabul could be consolidated. Few analysts of any ideological persuasion are willing to concede that the primary error lay in the invasion itself. Afghanistan clearly wasn’t headed in a hopeful direction under the Taliban, but any sort of transformation was unlikely to succeed unless the impetus for change came primarily from within the country.

Of course, in retrospect one would wish to reverse any number of historical events in that benighted country, beginning with the Saur coup of 1978. But the past cannot be undone and the precariousness of the future extends beyond Afghan territory. US envoy Richard Holbrooke’s favoured term “Afpak” kind of sums up the toxic package deal the Obama Administration has inherited from the Bush years. It does not have a particularly good idea of what to do about it. At the moment, the apparent intention is to concentrate on crushing Al-Qaeda and the uncompromising elements among the Taliban, in the hope of being able to pull out militarily, within the next four or five years. As things stand, prospects of success are dubious. The only flicker of hope comes from a tendency to give a great deal more thought to the issues at hand. Last month’s announcement followed a thorough two-month review of the Afpak situation. There is reason to hope that the process will continue, minus most of the mental blockages that hampered the Bush regime.

However, as it all turns out, there’s at least a small chance that Obama will conclude Iraq wasn’t the only stupid war launched by his predecessor. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian last month, “He can see that the occupation of Afghanistan has made every mistake in the invader’s handbook. It has been Vietnam for slow learners.”

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.