Wednesday, November 03, 2010



Sushant Sareen

    It is by now quite clear that the US and its allies have run out of ideas in Afghanistan and appear to be committing the cardinal sin of reinforcing failure in the manner in which they are pursuing the war. Simply put, right from 9/11, the Americans have been fighting the wrong war and in the wrong country. This is not to say that the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001 was a mistake, only that it was not an end in itself. Liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban should have been only the first step in combating Islamo-fascism and terrorism that was symbolised by the Taliban / al Qaeda compact. A far bigger battle – to use Islamic terminology, Jihad-e-Akbar – was to confront the entire infrastructure (including the ideological streams) that gave rise to the forces of radical Islam. But this was a battle that was never joined, at least not in any significant manner.

Unfortunately, the Americans never seemed to realise that real problem lay in Pakistan, from where the forces of terror received support, sustenance and sanctuary, not to mention the ideological justification for jihadism. Ironically, the Americans enlisted the biggest source of jihadist terrorism – the Pakistan army – as an ally in the War on Terror. More than anything else, it is this fact that has led to a situation where the most formidable military machine that the world has ever seen is on the verge of an ignominious defeat at the hands of a rag-tag bunch of fanatics.

    As things stand, the current strategy of the Western forces in Afghanistan is not working. And yet if they are persisting with the non-strategy, it is with a hope and prayer that in a couple of years time they will have in place an effective Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) that can take over bulk of the security functions from them. If this happens, the West can drawdown their presence in Afghanistan and keep only a small force in place to assist and advice the ANA and ANP. But what if this is not how things play out? What is the fallback position? There are as yet no answers to this all-important, if troubling, question.

    One fallback position is probably the reintegration and reconciliation policy. Cut through the clap-trap, and this really means wooing the Taliban and entering into some sort of a deal with them. Here too the hope and prayer is that the Taliban agree to stick to the terms of the deal and do not try to re-impose their rule on the whole of Afghanistan. Perhaps the West can even live with this. But what they are adamant on is that the Taliban break-off their relations with the al Qaeda. But expecting the Taliban to sever their ties with al Qaeda is a delusion. The fact of the matter is that even if Mullah Omar himself agrees to expel the al Qaeda, he will be repudiated by the militant commanders who are currently fighting under his banner but who have in the last decade struck a very close relationship with the al Qaeda.

    In a recent TV interview, the former Pakistan army chief (only for a couple of hours) Gen. Ziauddin has revealed that way back in 1999 the Pakistan security forces were all set to catch Osama bin Laden. Ziauddin, who was then the chief of the ISI, has said that at that time the cabal of generals surrounding Gen. Pervez Musharraf – people like Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed and Lt. Gen. Aziz – had told him to lay off Osama because catching him would harm Pakistan's national interest. Even more important was the revelation that Mullah Omar had told Ziauddin that if he moved against Osama he will be killed by his followers. This was in 1999 when ostensibly the al Qaeda was living on Taliban mercies. Today, after a decade of fighting together against a common enemy – the West – only the most delusional mind will imagine that the Taliban will give up the al Qaeda.

    Clearly then, the reintegration and reconciliation policy has failure writ large on it. If anything, it will tantamount to defeating the very purposes for which the war was being fought. Worse, it will allow the Taliban to slide into power without, in a manner of speaking, a shot being fired. The big question then is what are the options before the US and its allies? One possible option is the 'partition plan' which has been floated by the former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill in his article "A de facto partition for Afghanistan". But there are serious problems with this plan.

For one, it is unlikely if the partition plan with find favour with any of the Afghans. Whatever their differences with each other, there is hardly an Afghan, whether Pashtun or non-Pashtun, Shia or Sunni, pro or anti Taliban, who supports a partitioning of Afghanistan. Secondly, the Blackwill plan advocates partitioning Afghanistan along ethnic lines and calls upon the US to defend the predominantly non-Pashtun West and North and leave the Pashtun-dominated South and East to the depredations of the Taliban. It ignores the fact that the geographical space that the Pashtun's occupy extends beyond the Durand line in the East up till the Indus river. In other words, a Taliban dominated Pashtun entity in Afghanistan will invariably extend into the Pashtun areas under Pakistani control which constitute a natural hinterland for the Afghan Pashtuns. Effectively, Blackwill's plan will not just partition Afghanistan but could end up splitting Pakistan along the Indus, with a Taliban dominated Pashtun state (de facto if not de jure) in the North West and an independent Baloch entity coming into existence in the South West of Pakistan.

Third, a partition plan in which the US and other foreign forces will continue to be present in Afghanistan, albeit in the North and West, will continue to give the Islamists from around the world a legitimate cause to continue with their war. Fourth, a war in Afghanistan between the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns will almost certainly destabilise Pakistan, the impact of which on regional and global security has not been catered for in the Partition plan. Fifth, a partition of Afghanistan will raise serious issues about how US will work its logistics lines for the 40,000 – 50,000 troops. While the cost of logistics for such a large force running through the Northern route will be less than the estimated $120 billion per annum being incurred presently, they will still be huge – around $ 40-50 billion.

All that the partition plan hopes to achieve can be better obtained through a 'firewall' strategy and that too at a fraction of the cost. Under the firewall strategy, all foreign forces will pull out of the Afpak region, i.e. no boots on the ground except for a handful of military advisors and intelligence operatives. The fallout of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and eventually Pakistan, will be contained by building a massive firewall around this region so that the Islamists and their Pakistani patrons stew in their own juice.

In large measure, parts of the firewall around Afpak are already in place; all that needs to be done is to further beef up these firewalls. On the Western side, Iran will serve as a natural firewall. Once the US quits Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan, the Iranians' problems with the Sunni extremist Taliban will erupt and force Iran to firewall its border with Afghanistan. In the north, the US can help the Central Asian States monetarily and technically to build up their capacity and their border defences to prevent the Islamists from entering their countries. In the east, India already has firewalled its borders with Pakistan and further efforts can be made to make the border defences foolproof. In the south is the Arabian sea where the US and India can work together to prevent the Islamists from breaking out. The aerial route can be blocked by enforcing an Iraq type no-fly zone by bringing into operation the existing UN resolutions against the Taliban. The only possible outlet will be China, which will face the dilemma of containing the Islamists who are active in Xinjiang and keeping its relationship with the West intact on the one hand and on the other hand staying true to its 'all weather friendship' with Pakistan.

Building the firewall around Afpak doesn't mean abandoning the region to the Islamists. All it means is that the Americans will fight the Islamists indirectly by backing all those forces that want to resist the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Finally, the firewall plan will build a far wider and probably more robust regional security alliance in which the burden of the US will be shared substantially by important regional players all of which will have a stake in keeping the Taliban and their virulence at bay.

The one big advantage of the firewall plan which will follow a withdrawal of US troops in the region will be that it will free the US from its dependence on Pakistan and put an end to the Pakistani game of 'looking both ways' on the issue of Islamic terror groups. With Pakistan losing its main leverage – the logistics supply lines that run through its territory – the US will be in a far better position to dictate terms to the Pakistanis to come clean on clearing the mess. The choice before Pakistan will be clear: either they end the double game and exterminate the Taliban and other Islamist militias that they have been promoting and protecting or else they pay the price for this policy.


    <1610 Words>                    4th November, 2010



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