VIEWED through today’s political telescope, Afghanistan’s future appears as turbulent as it’s past, and ominous for Pakistan.
Hope for peace in Afghanistan was aroused when President Barack Obama declared that US (and Nato) troops would be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014 and responsibility for security and governance transferred to the Afghan National Army and the Kabul government. Apart from being responsive to domestic American sentiment, withdrawal is sensible, since the principal US aim of destroying Al Qaeda ‘Central’ in Afghanistan has been largely achieved and the Taliban-Pakhtun insurgency is unlikely to be suppressed militarily.
The US secretary of state accepted the natural corollary-negotiations with the Taliban. Some well-publicised initiatives were launched for this purpose. Pakistan offered its help and conveyed the Kayani peace plan.
However, it soon became clear that at least some components of the US administration continued to believe that a political settlement could be militarily imposed on the Taliban. The consistently optimistic assessments of ‘ground realities’ in Afghanistan given by American commanders were contradicted by almost every other observer, American and non-American.
Unfortunately, the militarists’ case was massively reinforced by the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the ‘success’ of the sharply escalated drone strikes. Secretary Hillary Clinton declared recently that the US will simultaneously “fight, talk and build” in Afghanistan. Until last Friday, the US was able to cajole Pakistan into continuing its cooperation with this unwinnable and self-contradictory strategy.
It is obvious that the American plans to build a 400,000-strong Afghan army and install an effective government by 2014 are unrealistic and unsustainable. The US cannot achieve in two years what it has failed to do in 10. Nor is the US Congress likely to continue allocating over $20bn annually to subsidise the Afghan government and army. Without money, and without a political solution, it is likely that the Afghan army will splinter into rival ethnic militias and the Kabul government may simply disintegrate.
It seems that the US has doubts about its own publicly propagated plans. It is pressing Karzai to accept a ‘strategic partnership’ which — contrary to the Obama pledge — would allow the US to station an unidentified number of its troops for an undetermined period of time in Afghanistan after 2014 for ‘training’ and support to the Afghans. A permanent US military presence in Afghanistan will almost certainly mean there will be no real negotiations with the Taliban or other Afghan insurgents.
Since the US is unlikely to be able to suppress the insurgency with a smaller force than it has at present in Afghanistan, it will need to rely on continued support from the Northern Alliance to sustain its presence. The Afghan civil war would thus continue and even intensify. The rump American force would probably be stationed in protected bases, capable of punitive forays against the insurgents but unable to ‘hold’, much less ‘build’ in most of south and east Afghanistan. As in the past, most of the blame for failure would be transferred to Pakistan. Acrimony could escalate to actual conflict, as witnessed last week.
For this reason, and because of the threat of possible US military intervention from Afghanistan against its nuclear and strategic capabilities, Pakistan is likely to oppose the permanent American military presence in Afghanistan. Iran too must be concerned about possible US or Israeli strikes against its nuclear and military facilities and thus likely to be strongly opposed to an indefinite US presence. The opposition of Afghanistan’s two most important neighbours will render the continued US military presence in Afghanistan extremely difficult to sustain.
Given its proclivity to use force, it is entirely unclear if the US genuinely desires a dialogue with the Taliban. More likely, it wants, in Gen Petraeus’ words, to “whack” them to the negotiating table. This is unlikely to happen. And, so long as the Northern Alliance leaders and other warlords are confident of continued American dependence on them, they are unlikely to be amenable to any plan Pakistan or others propose for a political settlement with the Taliban. It is only if and when they see the imminence of total American withdrawal from Afghanistan that the hard-liners in the Northern Alliance will become open to an accommodation with their Pakhtun opponents.
Thus, it is not surprising that the Kayani peace plan — to start with a mutual halt in hostilities followed by dialogue and political accommodation — has not evoked active support from Washington or Kabul. Awaiting resolution of the policy contradictions in Washington, Pakistan has temporised so far: cooperating with a negative US strategy, while seeking to prevent the destruction of some friendly or non-hostile elements among the Afghan insurgents to retain a role in Afghanistan post 2014.
After last Saturday’s attacks on Pakistani border posts by Nato aircraft, Islamabad will no doubt seek to align its policy with its own national interest. Apart from the closure of the Nato supply lines and the Shamsi airbase facilities, this implies that Pakistan would limit cooperation with the US and Nato strictly to areas and issues where this serves Pakistan’s own strategic or tactical objectives. Hereon, Pakistan’s main objective is likely to be the full and earliest withdrawal of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan
A major dilemma for Islamabad is how to preserve those among the Afghan insurgents presumed to be friendly to Pakistan and simultaneously suppress the TTP with its anti-Pakistan agenda. The TTP, it is said, has been able to sustain its attacks on the Pakistani military from ‘safe havens’ across the border in Afghanistan. Reportedly, there is evidence that the TTP has received support from Afghan and Indian intelligence. Given this background, are negotiations an option with the TTP? The consequences of previous attempts were disastrous. Pakistan must also accord priority to eliminating the Chinese Uighur rebels reportedly detected among the TTP.
Iran is the third vital actor in Afghanistan. Prior to the US military intervention, Iran was the lead sponsor of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, with Russia and India in a supporting role. Iran maintains its links with the Northern Alliance and with Karzai. There are reports that it may also support some components of the insurgency. Iran can critically help or hinder a peace settlement in Afghanistan.
Given the emerging common threat they face from the US-Nato presence in Afghanistan, there is scope for cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran. In particular, each can press their respective ‘friends’ in Afghanistan towards mutual accommodation. A north-south power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, brokered by the two neighbours, can bring a semblance of peace to Afghanistan and create the conditions for the US to undertake a full, orderly and honourable exit.
The diplomacy required to promote convergence between Pakistan and Iran, despite their past rivalry in Afghanistan, and to convince the US that it is in its best interest to live up to its public pledge of full withdrawal from Afghanistan, can be conducted by a power with sufficient influence in Washington, Islamabad and Tehran. The UN is now seen as an appendage of the West and cannot play this role. The one power well placed to play this role of brokering peace in Afghanistan is China. In a China-led process, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey can play supporting roles to bring peace to Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN