Saturday, July 02, 2011




US President Barack Obama’s ‘way forward in Afghanistan’ speech should really have been titled ‘way out of Afghanistan’. Leave aside the elegance of Obama’s oratory and his steely resolve to defeat the Al Qaeda and not allow terrorist safe havens from where attacks can be planned and launched against the US and its allies, his drawdown plan – starting July, the US will pull out 10000 troops by end of the year, another 23000 by September next, and after that a steady withdrawal of troops to complete the transition of handing over security to Afghan forces by 2014 – is, in essence, a plan for an orderly retreat from Afghanistan.

Far from enhancing security in Afghanistan and rest of the world, Obama’s cop out from Afghanistan will effectively reverse the tenuous gains made by the ‘surge’. With the easing of the pressure that was being put on the Al Qaeda/Taliban forces in Afghanistan and their patrons and supporters in Pakistan, there is likely to be yet another resurgence of the Islamists in the Afpak region. What is worse, the resulting rise in Islamist violence will be inversely proportional to the determination of many of their opponents in Afghanistan and Pakistan to stand up and fight against their virulence. This is so not only because some of these purported opponents have always adopted a rather ambivalent attitude towards fighting the Taliban, but also because with the Americans trying to cut deals with the Taliban, it makes a lot more sense to switch loyalties to the perceived winners of the war.

The entire Obama plan is predicated on a few assumptions about how the situation in Afghanistan will evolve over the next couple of years. The first assumption is that after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ties that bound the Al Qaeda and Taliban have been greatly loosened. Hence, the UN resolution delinking the Taliban from the Al Qaeda, which the Americans believe will help in pushing the ‘reconciliation process’ forward by giving an incentive to the Taliban to sever their links with the Al Qaeda and join the mainstream.

The problem with this assumption is that, one, the Taliban consider themselves as the mainstream; two, with the Americans giving the impression of throwing in the towel, there is greater incentive for the Islamists to go for broke rather than enter into power sharing deals, which in any case will be observed more in their violation; three, if even before 9/11, Mullah Omar felt that he couldn’t move against the Al Qaeda, what are the chances that now, after a decade of fighting together against a common enemy, the Taliban will give up the Al Qaeda? If anything, any move by Mullah Omar to break relations with the Al Qaeda could well end up in his being repudiated by his followers, many of whom are far more radicalised today after over a decade of close contact with the Al Qaeda.

The other faulty assumptions implicit in Obama’s speech are: a) peace in Afghanistan is not possible without a political settlement; b) since the drawdown is taking place from a ‘position of strength’, the security situation in Afghanistan will continuously improve, or at least will remain manageable, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be able to take over the responsibilities of the ISAF; c) while the US will withdraw the bulk of its troops, it will still maintain a few bases inside Afghanistan which will provide the necessary back up support to the ANA.

Frankly speaking, the refrain that ‘war is not a solution’ and that ‘talks is the only way out’ is utter nonsense. The fact of the matter is that talks are useful in preventing a war, not in ending a war. Wars are always decided on the battlefield, and in the minds of men. The political settlement reached on the negotiation table reflects nothing but the result achieved on the battlefield, sometimes an outright victory for one side and at other times a stalemate. Of course, there are instances where advantages gained on the battlefield have been lost on the negotiation table – Tashkent 1966 and Shimla 1972 come to mind, where India did not press home the advantage in the fond belief that its magnanimity will make Pakistan give up its compulsive hostility towards India. In the case of Afghanistan, while the war appears to be a stalemate, in reality by suing for peace with the Taliban, the Americans have tacitly conceded defeat, or at least that’s the way the Islamists will see it. Under these circumstances, the chances of any acceptable, much less long lasting, agreement being struck with the Taliban is bit of a pipedream.

The ‘position of strength’ from which the Americans are starting the drawdown is a somewhat half-baked proposition especially since the drawdown isn’t likely to be accompanied with a concomitant improvement in the security situation. On the contrary, as the US troops withdraw, the Taliban are likely to regain effective control over many of the areas which the Americans abandon. The ANA, which is still a work-in-progress, just doesn’t have the capacity to prevent a Taliban comeback. This brings us to the third assumption i.e. the US will maintain a presence – three or four military bases – in Afghanistan. This is clearly an untenable proposition. Unless the US can rid Afghanistan of the malign influence of the Taliban/Al Qaeda, it will not be able to maintain its bases in Afghanistan.

Weighed down by political and economic compulsions, perhaps the war in Afghanistan is no longer sustainable for the US. If so, then why prolong the torture for three years, and spend another $ 300 billion on a lost war? It makes more sense to follow Thomas Friedman’s advice – lose early, lose small – and put in place an alternative plan which is cheaper and more effective in controlling the global and regional fallout of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan will, no doubt, constitute a major setback to India’s quest for a stable and friendly Afghanistan. But India’s fears of Afghanistan once again becoming a base for terror directed against India are misdirected. This is so because any terrorism emanating from Afghanistan can enter India only through Pakistan, as indeed it did before 9/11. In other words, India’s problem is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the malevolent impact that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will have on Pakistan that should worry India more than anything else. Far from providing ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan, Afghanistan will actually become a ‘strategic black hole’ for Pakistan if the Islamists hold sway in that hapless country.

With the US withdrawal, not only will an already tottering and economically bankrupt Pakistan get militarily sucked in to Afghanistan but will also have to bear the economic burden of an economically unviable Afghanistan. To not put too fine a point on it, Pakistan's descent into failure (or if you will, jihadist utopia) will only hasten when the mess left behind by the Americans falls on its head. At the risk of belabouring the point, India’s problems will really start with Pakistan’s failure. The only hope is that Pakistan realises the folly of its ways and moves resolutely and with sincerity against the Islamists. The problem is that it might already be too late for Pakistan to change course. For India, which will find itself on the frontlines of the post-Afghan withdrawal Global War on Terror, the big challenge will be dealing with Pakistan's transformation from a quasi-jihadist state into a fully jihadist state.


<1260 Words> 30th June, 2011



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