Originally Published 2009-12-31 00:00:00 Published on Dec 31, 2009
The people of Afghanistan have not forgotten what the Taliban did to them and their country when they ruled Afghanistan with Pakistan's political and military support. The Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: The way out Give guarantees for its neutrality
The people of Afghanistan have not forgotten what the Taliban did to them and their country when they ruled Afghanistan with Pakistan’s political and military support. The Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan.  Even the Pushtoons of Afghanistan want peace and security of life and property in their land.  This basic reality does not receive much attention in the U.S.  The U.S and NATO forces are not fighting an unpopular war: the Afghan people are their best partner; they and the local authorities need to be motivated and mobilized for more active cooperation. Humiliating an elected President - Karzai – is hardly the way to do it.  There are better and quieter ways of ridding the regime of corruption.

There is a fair sprinkling of Pakistani Pushtoons and other ISI agents and operators in the ranks of the Taliban fighting the NATO forces in Afghanistan. They are trained, armed and financed by the Pakistan Army and the ISI; without that support and their safe havens in Pakistan, the Taliban will collapse in no time.  The irony of this war is that nearly for a decade credulous US Administrations have been fighting the proxy and, at the same time, showering a bounty of money and arms on the barely hidden puppeteer.

Pakistan is a country of decent and peace-loving people struggling to create a democratic environment in which the Army and the ISI are brought under civilian control.  The elected government cannot possibly have any sympathy for the Terror Combine of LET-Taliban - al-Queda,  whose leaders and command centers are safely ensconced in Queta, Lahore and Karachi.  Pakistan Army created and nurtured the Taliban.: it is sheer naiveté to expect it to fight them or even to restrain them in their safe havens in Pakistan.

American fears of an endless war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s hopes for an early American retreat resulting in restoration of Taliban rule in Kabul are both greatly exaggerated.  There is no parallel here to the predicament, and retreat from Afghanistan, of the Soviet army.  That army was fighting to protect and stabilize an unpopular Communist regime.  The jehad, so-called, was supported not only by the Muslim world but also by the United States and European countries with lavish supplies of money and arms and manpower. There was no international support for the Soviet intervention : in fact Moscow’s intentions and motives were suspect even in friendly countries. I remember Indira Gandhi telling Brezhnev in Moscow in October 1982 that he should withdraw Russian troops from Afghanistan; the sooner the better.  Brezhnev had said Tarakki had been asking him for ten thousand Russian troops, that for a time he had repeatedly rejected the request but finally sent ten thousand troops, that now there were one hundred thousand of them there.  He added for good measure : I donot know what they are doing there : I want to get out of Afghanistan, you know the area better : show me a way.  Indira Gandhi had responded cryptically : Mr. Secretary General, the way out is the same as the way in.  In the following 2 days it fell on me to explain to the Russians her “meaning” - but that is a long story for another day.

In contrast to those times, Kabul, now has an elected government; and truly the Taliban enjoy the support of only one country – Pakistan – or more specifically Pakistan’s Army and ISI – all utterly dependent on the U.S for arms, money and other support.  This war can be brought to a successful conclusion in 18 to 24 months provided, in recognition of the stark and painful reality of Pakistan Army’s role in this war Washington suspends all arms and economic aid to Pakistan for two years.  The resources thus saved should be used for educational and other social development activity in Afghanistan.  Second, NATO forces should stop the flow of drugs out of Helmand province -  a major source of finance for the Taliban - ban poppy cultivation, compensate the cultivators and initiate alternative agricultural development programmes.

Concerns about Pakistan’s internal stability and peace or over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling in the hands of non-state actors are greatly magnified.  Nor is there a danger of the country falling apart : Pakistan’s Army and Police are strong enough to effectively deal with any such contingency or threat.  The electoral process will finally defeat and eliminate the religious radicals who are holding this large and potentially rich country to ransom.

In its endeavourer to end the war and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, Washington is mistaken in ignoring Afghanistan’s neighbours - Iran, the Central Asian Republics, Russia, China, and India.  They are all interested in Afghanistan’s integrity, independence, unity, peace and stability.  Afghanistan-related international conferences in Bonn, New York and Washington D.C. have produced little worthwhile result. 

The U.S should now take the initiative to convene a Conference, in Kabul, of countries sharing frontiers with Afghanistan plus, China, India, Russia, the EU and the UN Secretary General.  The Conference should have a one-point agenda: An Agreement guaranteeing Afghanistan’s Independence and Neutrality, and the stationing in Afghanistan of a small U.N Force for 10 years symbolizing the UN Security Council’s endorsement of the Agreement.  This same Conference could also help determine the size of Afghanistan’s armed forces and the ways and means of financing them for a decade or two. 

Such a conference, I believe, will have moderating effect on the Pakistan Army’s strategic ambitions vis-à-vis the gulf region and Central Asia and its periodic military adventures to subjugate Afghanistan for the fulfillment of those ambitions.

Pakistan is a solid land of sturdy, talented and hardworking people.  It has been impoverished by an over-sized and pugnacious Army.  In a globalizing world with softening frontiers, it is dangerous for the army of any country, especially a country of Pakistan’s size and importance, to be the decision maker of its foreign and security policies.  In the way of armies larger than the true needs of the countries to which they belong, the Pakistan Army is victim of the extravagant illusion that the world, and Pakistan’s neighbours, owe it larger territorial expanse and greater depth in strategic space.  This is the only army in the world which has, in the space of half century, provoked and fought 4 open wars and three proxy wars on both flanks of the country, putting the country itself at risk.

  Tragically, the Pakistan Army’s ambitions and its Afghanistan policy spell grave dangers for the country which it fails to see.  If its Taliban henchman succeed in recapturing Kabul, they will, once again, be faced with an unending civil war supported, openly or surreptitiously, by Iran, Afghanistan’s Central Asia neighbours, Russia and India.  Two possibilities could then emerge – both of great detriment to Pakistan. 

A prolonged civil war could involve the whole region in a conflict which Pakistan and the Taliban could not possibly win, and their defeat, or even a stalemate, would be followed by long-lasting resentments and sporadic conflicts.  Or, in the event Taliban rule is firmly established in eastern and southern Afghanistan, there will be irresistible revival of the demand for an independent Pushtoon state straddling the Durand Line.   This would, of course, be a tragedy for Afghanistan as the country would be permanently divided, but with such an unfortunate development will also begin the unravelling of Pakistan.

Neither eventuality would serve any Indian interest.  Peace and stability in the AF-PAK region, on the other hand, will facilitate the establishment of roadways, railway and pipeline networks which will carry people, goods and services between South-east Asia and India to Central Asia, Russia and Europe with great profit in trade and in transit fees to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Hopefully then, a day will also dawn when Pakistan will discover that India is its best friend and well wisher, not its enemy.

The initiative for a Conference of the kind proposed above should come, most appropriately, from the Obama administration.  But are the minds in Washington open to courses other than a troop surge and withdrawal under cover of a sham success, leaving Afghanistan to al-Queda and God?  Diplomacy involving Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours has not been tried.   It deserves a chance.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary of India.

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