Afghanistan may tip the balance against the US like it did for the USSR
0 comments | by Usman Khalid
US strategy in Afghanistan is under review. India and Pakistan have interests in the region and both are offering advice. If the US took India’s advice, Afghanistan would remain a pariah state and a menace to peace. Not just that, Obama may become a one term President resulting in proliferation of wars and collapse of the world socio-economic order.
Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was orderly and under a UN sponsored agreement. Yet it led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Surely the defeat in Afghanistan alone could not have caused the dissolution of an empire put together over many centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up it was still one of the two super powers with military power unparalleled in history. Afghanistan played the role of the last ounce that tipped the balance. While several generations had overextended Soviet role and power the perestroika generation discovered that the Russian standards of living was well behind that of the rest of Europe. They decided they did not want an empire; they wanted prosperity.
The defeat in Afghanistan also revealed that the military prowess of the Soviet Union was just as hollow as its prosperity. The display of its powerlessness tipped the balance. All the structural weaknesses of the state and the society which had been kept out of sight of the people to maintain a semblance of power and prosperity all showed up. At one time it appeared that it might be difficult to even hold Russia together. But wise leaders and rise in oil prices saved the day and Russia is back in robust good health as a society and a country.
The US is in a much worse position in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union was when it withdrew in 1985. The USSR was contiguous to Afghanistan and therefore had a secure LofC. The US started with the disadvantage of a very long and a very insecure LofC to the war theatre of Afghanistan. To make matters worse, the US Government and the press portrayed the war in Afghanistan as one between Islam and the West. Co-operating with the ‘US War on Terror’ was seen as collaboration. Any Muslim country that committed itself to war on the side of the US in Afghanistan was bound to be unpopular.
Pakistan, which had been a US ally of long standing, was faced with Hobson’s choice. Its troops fight alongside the US whose US drones and helicopters have killed thousands of Pakistanis. The US objectives are murkier than ever. The benign view is that the USA does not know who the enemy is. A more realistic view is that different power centres have different enemies and in the peculiar situation of Pakistan all of those are able to strike at their favourite targets usually unsuccessfully. Pakistan has two power centres – the military and the political class. The political class want money and support for their unpopular rule; the military wants to see the war end early. All the factions of the political class want US support. Until now the US was satisfied with the situation in Pakistan as it did not have to commit it to any side. But obsequiousness to the US has now begun to affect the prospects of success in Afghanistan where the Taliban keep extending their control despite the cruelty of their methods. Clearly, fear has proved to be a more powerful weapon than the battle for hearts and minds.
A review of the objectives and strategy is going on in Pakistan as well. Although Pakistan’s objectives continue to be early withdrawal of US and NATO forces; it fears that the longer the ‘targets’ are present the Afghans would keep shooting at them. Judging by its conduct in the past, the USA might turn on Pakistan at any time. Some in the US see Pakistan’s fear as ‘helpful’ because it precludes Pakistan denying the US vital land access to Afghanistan. But such views sustain suspicion, undermine military operations and make it impossible to evolve common objectives and strategies. The only country which is gleeful about the present situation in Afghanistan is India. Under American protection, India can engage in clandestine operations against Pakistan – particularly in Baluchistan – with impunity. Pakistanis view the situation with concern and suspect that it is the US that drives its joint efforts with India and Karzai’s Afghanistan against Pakistan.
The lingering air of suspicion in US Pakistan relations has undermined America’s efforts to leave the Bush era behind and build bridges with the Muslim World. During his election campaign and his first year in office President Obama showed awareness that he must convince the Muslim World that America is not its enemy. His efforts appeared genuine in intent and honest in content. But the ease with which Israel and its lobbies in the US were able to frustrate him on the minor issue of moratorium on new settlements in occupied Palestinian territories has not only discredited President Obama but also dwarfed the institution of the US President. His supporters are unhappy that he has not pursued his agenda with resolve. In any case his strategy in Afghanistan was founded on a misconception from the outset. The ‘surge’ to win a few battles spectacularly did not work. Afghan resistance which controls 75% of the territory does not appear to be eager to rush to the negotiating table. Any agreement with Hamid Karzai would not be worth the paper it is written on. As things stands now whenever the American leave they would leave it in the control of war lords and there will be a repeat of what happened after the Soviet Union withdrew.
The question is why should the Americans care and what can they do even if they did care. The conventional wisdom is that the US merely wants to ensure that Al-Qaeda did not find a safe haven in Afghanistan once again. That objective has been achieved. The USA has no way of ensuring they do not return but the neighbours of Afghanistan have the will and the ability to ensure that. America can and should work with them. But if America’s real aim is something else it would soon be evident as India takes its seat as a member of the UN Security Council for two years. Actually it is no secret what India wants. It wants the USA to remain entangled in Afghanistan and be viewed by the Muslim World as an enemy. If the Obama Administration adopted the Indian recommendation that would have huge implications for the United States as well as the wider world.
America has two choices in Afghanistan. One is to accept what Pakistan’s military has been saying for a long time i.e. it is the best interest of America to withdraw early and work for a peace agreement with the neighbours of Afghanistan and the war lords Taliban as well as non-Taliban. The other option is to dig in for a long haul in Afghanistan with defeat and ignominious withdrawal a certainty.
Polls in the USA are predicting that the elections in the US due to be held in November may result in the Democratic Party losing control of the Congress. That would set President Obama on course for being another one tern President. The nightmare of America would not end with that. By present trends, the Republican who would win the presidential election would be so right wing and belligerent that he/she could strike many more Muslim countries. The Republican successor of Obama would be real wrecker – a Boris Yeltsin who got his instructions from Tel Aviv. That would be a dream come true for those who aspire for Armageddon in their life time.
It may be already too late for the Democratic Party to win the mid term elections. But it is still possible for President Obama to win a second term if he presented clear choices to the American people who are sick and tired of war. He must stand out as the candidate for peace. To be that he must deliver on complete withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan before the end of his first term in office. US military victory is well nigh impossible but a defeat would be deadlier for Pakistan than Afghanistan which is already devastated by three decades of war. If the Americans accepted the recommendation of Pakistan, our country would have a stake in its success. Pakistan and the USA working together for America to maintain a benign civil presence in the region is an objective all Pakistanis can be comfortable with. But that entails a huge challenge.
The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand it would entail a public information effort to drive home the point that the Taliban had control over more than 75 % of the territory including Kabul and Kandhar but their legitimacy was based on ‘conquest’ alone. If the Americans left Afghanistan without an agreement with the ‘resistance’ the Taliban prospects of ever gain power would evaporate. They might be able to conquer somewhat less of Afghanistan at huge cost but they would still be without legitimacy and international recognition. As a land locked state put together by conquest would a pariah state. A landlocked pariah state can play no role other than being a menace to its people and the region. The Americans are offering the resistance a negotiated peace. That would give them international recognition and legitimacy. If they did not accept the offer Afghanistan would indeed be a menace for all its neighbours. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been the supporter and well wishers of the resistance in Afghanistan. But if it did not accept the advice of its sincere friends, Afghanistan would be on its own condemned to perpetual civil war.
The other challenge comes from the ineffectiveness of the corrupt governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. America now has two unpopular governments – Zaradri and Karzai regimes - that it cannot dump or support wholeheartedly. There is still hope in Pakistan where the robustness of its judiciary and the military may prevent excessive damage to other institutions of the state. But one hesitates to make a recommendation for Afghanistan. The Soviet Union resorted to assassination of its erstwhile lackeys - Hafizullah Amin Babrak Karmal - in similar circumstances. What would the US do?
A wrong decision in Afghanistan may not just result in Obama becoming another one term President. He may be followed by Netanyahu as President albeit with a different name; Sarah Palin or Joe Lieberman would do just as well as wreckers of the world. ++
The writer served as Brigadier in the Pakistan Army. He is the Chairman of London Institute of South Asia