Event ReportsPublished on Sep 17, 2010
The US is unlikely to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the unstated reason for its prolonged stay in the area is to ensure the stability of nuclear Pakistan.
Afghanistan-today and tomorrow

  •  The US is unlikely to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the unstated reason for its prolonged stay in the area is to ensure the stability of nuclear Pakistan.

  •  Both the US and President Hamid Karzai are not pursuing the goal of decimating the Taliban but only to weaken the insurgent group. Since the Taliban is not showing any signs of attrition, Karzai is not averse to sharing the government with the more malleable ones among the Taliban leadership.

  •  Pakistan, desperate to play a strategic role in Afghanistan, is least liked in the country whereas India, which has engaged only in development work, retains its popularity among the Afghan people and leadership.

These are some of the key conclusions which emerged during a discussion on Afghanistan: Today and Tomorrow organized at Observer Research Foundation(ORF),New Delhi, early this month. The discussion was led by Mr. Saeed Naqvi, a well-known commentor and Distinguished Fellow ORF. He presented salient points from his report on Afghanistan prepared after a week-long visit to Afghanistan. His conclusions were drawn from the conversations he had with some of the top Afghan leadership, including President Karzai and former Chief of Afghan National Directorate of Security Amarullah Saleh. Mr Naqvi also interacted with the supporters of the Taliban as well as the civil society.

The discussion was chaired by Mr. Jayant Prasad, Special Secretary (Public Diplomacy), Ministry of External Affairs, India. Participants included senior bureaucrats and academics.

Qualified Departure

Mr Naqvi believed that the July 2011 deadline set by President Barak Obama was not sacrosanct and was likely to be altered in spirit, subject to the ground situation in Afghanistan. It is highly likely that there would be a draw down---which means the US will withdraw part of the combat troops, leaving substantial numbers to hold the ground, which means bases and other vital installations. The bulk of it would probably retire to the six major bases – exuding power, but careful not to exert it, both internally and regionally. The “invisibility” of US troops may remove the target of Afghan Taliban’s anger. But there still remain concerns that these bases are crouched in a live, acrimonious theatre. There are, according to the Russians, about 30 US bases in Afghanistan, including those at Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandhar, Helmand, Shindand (Herat) and Mazar-e-Sharif. By the sheer volume of masonry and architecture,argued Naqvi, these bases were not temporary. These bases will remain. So, he asked, are we then talking about a qualified departure?

An extended stay in Afghanistan, with occasional rhetoric to the contrary –along with some tactical scaling down – would enable the US to keep a watch on the highly unstable nuclear Pakistan.  The war in Afghanistan is an important one, but primarily because of its impact on the second war being fought by the Pakistan Army against the Pakistan Taliban and, potentially, against Taliban-like movements in Punjab and other parts of the country. It would therefore be erroneous to imagine an America-free Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.

Situation & Perceptions in Afghanistan

President Karzai has the mandate to continue as President till 2014, but there are doubts whether the Afghan army and police would be able to take over the responsibility of maintaining stability and security by then. Two of the primary concerns of President Karzai include, the US not striking at sanctuaries of terror in Pakistan, and India not applying adequate pressure on the US to do so.  Karzai himself has become much more adept at power equations; his recent strident anti-US posturing has consolidated his support base in the Pashtun world.

Perceptions have considerable influence on events in Afghanistan. Pakistan is among the countries least liked. Afghans by and large perceive Pakistan’s military leadership to be at the helm of the affairs and they consider them as `trouble makers`. In the hate list, Pakistan is closely followed by Britain and Iran. The attitude towards Americans is a paradox, as there is anti-Americanism but anger against the Americans is dissipating because other targets of collective dislike have emerged. Perception management with news and media has helped on this front.

Taliban-Power sharing

The Taliban, accused of  sheltering Al Qaeda, have borne the brunt of the US retaliation after the September 11 attacks. The Taliban were ousted from Kabul in October 2001. The situation has changed since then. The Taliban plan today is to expand their control and influence over extended areas in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and they are succeeding. Power to the Taliban has been equated with power to Pashtoons. There is an increasing category of Islamist radical extremist Pashtoons either reared in madrasas on the Pakistan side of the border or drawn from the areas where the Taliban had traditionally recruited its cadre.  Karzai himself believes the Taliban expansion is Pashtoon expansion which is in his interest. His government thus has no interest in fighting them. Thus the suggestion for talks with Taliban could gather momentum which could lead to a clamour among Pashtoons for power in Kabul. The only outstanding issue could be the treatment of women, and in all likelihood this would also change.

Turbulent Future

The interchangeability of Pashtoon and Taliban could become the cause of a large scale ethnic cleansing with Pashtoon – non Pashtoon clashes erupting all over Afghanistan. Any step that focuses largely on the Taliban (Pashtoon) would cause North and West Afghanistan – Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmans, who constitute 60 percent of the population to join hands. In such an unfolding of events partition along the lines of ethnicity might also be a possibility given Kabul’s diminishing control over governance in South and East Afghanistan.

The parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, November elections to US Congress, the departure of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defence by the end of the year, augmentation in ranks of the Pak Taliban after the recent floods in that country, whether or not the Army takes over in Pakistan and the November 2012 US Presidential Elections could all have an impact of Afghanistan’s future.

Regional Players

The option of a “regional conference” on Afghanistan to underwrite the nation’s independence was discussed. It was suggested that Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan would not accept the Taliban in power. There has been no encouragement at any level from Washington on a regional conference. A UN Security Council resolution directing a process in Afghanistan could be the US’s preferred route.

Official estimates in Kabul are that in the North, on the Afghan side of Amu Darya, which divides the country from Uzbekistan, the gas deposits are in excess of 130 trillion cubic ft. This is just one of the hidden wealths of the country which is stoking major differences within ISAF – between, say, the Germans and the US. A theory gaining some credence in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif is that major interests in Iran and Afghanistan would not like the Americans to depart.

Mr Naqvi said as a potential target for military action because of its alleged nuclear ambitions, Teheran retains the capacity for massive retaliation so long as the Americans remain in Afghanistan, Balochistan and Iraq – just on the other side of the border.

Indian ‘Diplomacy by default’

India’s policy seems to have clarity of purpose and action. It commands a certain goodwill and respect among the people, including Pashtoons. India has ended up having played a good hand not only by “not making trouble”, but also by being genuinely helpful. Building of roads, hospitals, schools and providing training to Afghan Civil Servants, accepting students in Indian institutions, providing hospital facilities in Delhi, even the immense popularity of Bollywood has helped.

Afghanistan has gone through so much turmoil, that Indian support of Northern Alliance is an episode the Pashtoon has forgotten. Given this amnesia, the Indian profile has ready acceptance on all sides, a shining example of diplomacy by default. Its positive side is that undaunted development activity, which benefits the people, attracts and pleases them. Indian ‘diplomacy by default’ might have ultimately emerged as the only winner in the Afghanistan imbroglio, so far.

Report prepared by Akhilesh Variar, Research Assistant

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