Saturday, June 19, 2010

If you can't ride two horses at once, get out of the circus

There is a distinct feeling among the players and observers of the Afghanistan scene that we are now approaching crunch time. It is not just that the US is now finally ready to sharply escalate the battle, even though it has set itself an impossibly short period of one year in which to regain the momentum and thereafter commence withdrawal.

The stakes are high for many of the players in the new Great Game. That is the reason why, according to Wednesday’s The New York Times report, Pakistan has upped the ante by unleashing its private army, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, against Indian interests in Afghanistan. But many observers believe that after the London Conference that decided to accommodate the Taliban into a new Afghan structure, New Delhi is effectively hors de combat.
The news coming out of Afghanistan is confusing. It is not just the fog of war, though there is a great deal of that there as well. It is also the inevitable consequence of a complex struggle that pits the United States-led coalition against the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance, along with side battles between alliance partners Pakistan and the US, and the strategic struggle between Pakistan and India, the US versus Iran and, finally, Pakistan against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. With so many variables at play, is it any surprise that things are as perplexing as they appear?

To understand what is happening in Afghanistan we need to understand the aphorism of the Greek philosopher Heracalitus that “you cannot step into the same river twice”. Of course the original fragment attributed to him has a more complex interpretation, but its simpler version means that the Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of 2001.


It has witnessed a great deal of flux. Neither, of course, is the US the same country that went to war then riding a crest of global support in the wake of Nine-Eleven. It has undergone the disaster in Iraq, the sub-prime led economic crisis all of which have eroded its political will to stay the course in Afghanistan, leave alone the money to fund the enterprise.
As late as October 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates declared that the US was in Afghanistan for the long haul. Yet six months later when President Obama delineated his Afghan strategy, he set the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing the troops back home.
Obama’s statement laying out the date in which the US withdrawal will begin, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. It gave hope to the beleaguered Pakistan Army that if they could maneuver a little longer between the US and the Taliban, they would soon be dictating terms in Kabul. The needless controversy over Karzai’s election has alienated the one major Pakhtun leader who was with the western alliance. It has shaken the alliance itself with many of its European allies wanting out, or refusing to commit themselves to the required escalation.
In the coming months we will see how the endgame planned by Generals Petraeus and McChrystal works out. One of the world’s great strategic thinkers Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once observed, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. That is what seems to be already happening to the ambitious US plan to carry out a quick surge in its capabilities in Afghanistan, followed by an intense offensive involving military power and political reconstruction to break the Taliban’s hold in the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, followed by a triumphant withdrawal, beginning July 2011.
The two-month old operation in Marja in the Helmand province led by the crack US marines has failed to provide a decisive outcome. So, the US has postponed or altered the plans of its long-awaited offensive in the neighbouring Kandahar province.


This is, of course, good. Persisting on a time-line which is not working would be folly. Speaking in Brussels last week, the US commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal conceded that the Kandahar operation was not going as planned and that the operation which was to have begun in June and ended by August will now go on till October.
McChrystal did not point out that the problem in Kandahar was more basic. The US and its allies were finding that the locals did not see them as liberators, but rather as foreigners, and that the intolerant Taliban had probably successfully transformed themselves into the vanguard of Afghan nationalism, which has historically been strongly xenophobic anyway. The Afghan component led by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the controversial brother of President Hamid Karzai has not been able to deliver the political part of the operation—the support of some key tribal leaders who are clearly hedging their bets. But the more alarming news for the US is that even President Karzai may be doing so.
India is therefore stuck between a rock and a hard place. It has left New Delhi holding the proverbial can. It is the only actor, along with, perhaps, Iran, which does not see the return of the Taliban, in whatever form, in a sanguinary light. It has developed enormous stakes in the establishment of a non-Taliban government in the country. It is the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan and besides infrastructure projects, it has sought to build a stake by training Afghan bureaucrats and professionals. In this it has had the support and backing of the United States and the European Union. But, unlike the Nato-led alliance, it has little leverage beyond what little goodwill it can gather from the Karzai government. But it has only itself to blame for its predicament.
Its policy has been half-baked and devoid of strategic content. The only way in which it could have retained some autonomous leverage outside American whims and Pakistani ill-will would have been in cooperation with Iran. Because the key to autonomy is physical access to Afghanistan. In clear terms, New Delhi needed to see Iran and Afghanistan along with Pakistan in one regional continuum rather than as two discrete entities.


In September 2005, some months after the announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal, India voted with the US and other western countries to send the Iranian case to the United Nations Security Council at the IAEA governing board meeting. Since then Indo-Iranian relations have been in a tailspin.
It is true that it is in India’s interest that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. But that is a longer term prospect than the possible return of a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul. Unfortunately, New Delhi decided that the Indo-US nuclear deal trumped all other considerations. India needed to finesse its US and Iran policy in such a manner that it did not lead to a breakdown with one or the other.
Actually maybe even that may not have mattered because India has simply hitched its wagon to the US star and ignored the imperatives of an autonomous regional policy. Since the late 1990s, the Iranians have offered India possible access to Afghanistan and Iran via the port of Chah Bahar. The proposal was that India build a modern container terminal there, build a railway line from the port to Bam via Faraj and to Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border. However, New Delhi has willfully ignored this option, choosing to put all its eggs in the American basket.
What our Afghan policy demanded was to work constructively with the Americans, even while keeping the Iranian option open. If you can’t ride two horses at once, as the song goes, you should get out of the circus— or the Great Game.
This appeared in Mail Today June 18, 2010

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