Sunday, October 11, 2009

Afghanistan: A Necessary Choice

The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to President Obama, was a distraction. The world's attention was focused on whether this is a just reward, given that the President, who assumed office on the 20th of January, had just 12 days work to show for it [when the nominations closed on the 1st of February]. The stated reason from the Nobel committee pointed to various initiatives and policy pronouncements by the President, including a clear commitment to nuclear disarmament and an intent to engage in Arab-Israeli conflict. The President himself was far more practical in his reaction and said that he was 'humbled' by the Prize and views this as a 'call to action'. It indeed seemed that President Obama had got the prize just for the act of winning the Presidency itself, which marked the pinnacle of achievement of Afro-American rights movement, which intensified in the last 40 years and became the Civil Rights movement in general. So, this prize is somewhat for the Barack Obama the symbol [one should not be surprised by this in an age when Marge Simpson has made it to the cover of Playboy]. To be fair, it is also for the Barack Obama the person, and the great hope he represents of healing the wounds caused by George W Bush's ideological wars. And, it is precisely at this point, Obama's job gets complicated, given the recent request by General Stanley McChrystal for more troops for Afghanistan.

So, imagine a President celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize in the Situations Room in the White House, weighing the options in the war in Afghanistan. We are at an interesting point in history, when even the American Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, admitted on CNN that the Taliban indeed has the momentum in Afghanistan. The Defence establishment in Washington has marshaled all their arguments in the support of an Iraq-style 'surge': that a withdrawal will be catastrophic and will aid to boost the confidence of the Global Jihadi movement; it will destabilize Pakistan and create an even greater danger for the region and the world at large; and, a withdrawal would look so much like the 1989, when Americans packed and left, and allowed a sense of betrayal take hold, which eventually culminated in 9/11.

While these arguments sound rather obvious, we have heard them before and the historical comparisons are actually less robust than they seem to be. In fact, the historical comparison with 1989 is exactly where the interventionist argument shows its true colour: It is currently engaged in a global semi-cold war with the Islamic Fundamentalism, and sees Afghanistan as the principal theatre where that needs to be played out. This isn't surprising, given that most policy-makers today learnt to see the world through cold-war goggles. But this is neither correct nor practical in the context of the current world.

The Americans decamped and left in 1989 not just because the Mujaheddin won in Afghanistan, but also because the Soviet army left and there was no chance of them coming back. The global Cold War was ending, and a new era of cooperation was dawning. It was a season of hope, then. Continuation of a war seemed wrong and unjust, and a continuing American presence had no global strategic importance. Besides, it is hard to see who would have felt betrayed at the time. The Mujaheddin won decisively and many of them were returning to their home country after a long period of exile, thanks mainly to a decade-long American effort. Afghans are one of the world's most freedom-loving people; it is hard to think that they wanted American guards to stand by while they were taking over their own country.

One points to the fact that the new Afghan administration was soon unravelled by corruption and internecine rivalry, but only the die-hard imperialists will reason that this happened because the Americans took the leave of absence. In fact, it will be more appropriate to say that the neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, all jumped in to control the Afghan affairs, and backed their favourite war-lords to farther their own influences. The only people who could have failed betrayed by the American withdrawals were the Pakistani Military, whose access to cheap money and advanced weaponry considerably reduced after the Americans lost interest in the region. It is also interesting to note that it is they, who, while enjoying a temporary peace dividend with India in the 1990s, turned their full attention to Afghanistan, encouraged the Taliban militia to defeat, with their direct and logistical support, all the other warring factions, and took over Afghanistan. Pakistan, indeed, was only one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban government, and was one of their key collaborators in the world affairs. The reason we are choosing to forget this piece of history and assigning the responsibility of 9/11 on the American disengagement is because it is precisely the same interests, American and Pakistani Defence establishments, are making both the arguments: they reasoned Americans should leave, then; they are reasoning now that the Americans should stay.

It is not in America's interest to stay. Afghanistan is playing the same trick on them as it did for the Soviets. It is an unimaginably difficult territory to hold for unbelievably little strategic advantage. True, it used to be the centre-piece of a global imperial map in the Nineteenth century. It was the flash point between the Czarist Russia and the British empire in India, and was crucial for the British oil interests in Persia and Bahrain thereafter. But that was a long time ago, and the world's military configuration and balances have changed significantly since then. It was a combination of imperial hangover, a false sense of history and a cosy media-military collusion which makes Afghanistan feel as important in the context of the US Military strategy.

Besides, as Richard Haas was making a point on Fareed Zakaria GPS recently, it is a strange argument that one has to remain engaged in Afghanistan to keep Pakistan stable. First of all, Pakistan has more unstable than ever since the US troops walked into Afghanistan in 2002. And, this has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan and has everything to do with the ruling elite in Pakistan. Pakistani establishment's long standing foreign policy is to cry wolf and keep the Americans variously engaged in supporting them with money and armament. The other part of the same stance is to refuse to be accountable. They wanted to keep inventing Global Cold War situations [and, indeed, create them] so that Americans hand out whatever they want and not question what they use those arms and money for.

It is therefore only fair that American administration today see this crisis as a Afpak problem, rather than a purely Afghan problem. However, there is a clear failure to understand the complexities of the Pakistani society and a tendency to relegate the issues as 'Pakistani Taliban' issues. The current American administration, which is trying hard to come out of the Bush-era ideological straight jacket, needs to make the distinctions on a more practical level and translate them into policy-making. It made no sense to go after Al Qaida and punish their sponsors, the Taliban government in Afghanistan, by bombing them out but also by funding and arming their principal patrons, the Pakistani Armed Forces and Intelligence establishments. Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that the Americans never got a clue where the key leaders of Al-Qaida went. They were indeed the most valuable assets Pakistanis hold, and they must remain at large for the Pakistani establishment to keep the US administration engaged and entertained.

So, in summary, the United States is currently waded itself into an Asian maze. Stanley McChrystal's solution is only near-sighted, and fails to take into account both the global priorities of America and ground realities of Afghanistan. Barack Obama may make the same mistakes as his predecessors, and the soviets and the British, by succumbing to the obvious and committing himself to more troops. But then, he may also realize that what happened in Iraq may not happen in Afghanistan. For a start, Iraq was far more down the road on nation-building than Afghanistan and had a far more manageable terrain; and more importantly, the promise of future in Iraq is clearer than to any Afghan at any time in history. President Obama may actually acknowledge that there is no hope of an US victory in Afghanistan in tangible terms; democratic nations tire of war far faster than a dispossessed people who has no other means of survival.

So, when a choice has to be made in Afghanistan, the United States may choose to do the unthinkable. Accept defeat - not of the US military, but of the US-centric view of the world - and call upon the powerful nations around the region, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, and create a 'coalition of the willing', not to fight the war but to build the peace. Of course, if such a situation ever arise, Pakistan will indeed be most unwilling to cooperate, and even it is arm-twisted to join, they may resort to double-deal this. This is a possibility one has to take into account and deal with, but Pakistan's choices would be far limited once China, Russia, India and Iran, all of which have competing interests, were called to cooperate. It is a hard choice for President Obama to make, but possibly only one which will lead to lasting peace as opposed to the lasting war. And, this is a choice only a Nobel Peace Prize winner can only contemplate.

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