Obama’s moment of truth in Afghanistan

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The removal –” real or fake –” of Osama bin Laden from the equation in the US war on terror has opened up new possibilities for what could be achieved in Afghanistan. While much attention is focussed on US moves, no doubt an important consideration, Washington is quickly losing control, thanks to its military defeat in Afghanistan. This was evident from two events last month. On June 17, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda on their list of terrorists. This was a clear indication that the Americans are eager to talk to the Taliban. The following day (June 18), Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed as much; he said the Americans were in direct contact with the Taliban. This was not denied by the Americans although the Taliban have in the past rejected any such contacts. They insist they will only talk to the Americans once Washington announces a firm date for the withdrawal of all US-NATO troops from Afghanistan. Whether US President Barack Obama’s June 22 announcement to commence withdrawal of troops this month will satisfy the Taliban is yet to be seen.

The Afghan government has not been a silent spectator either. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and currently head of the Afghan High Council for Peace, said last month that his members had held preliminary talks with the main Taliban group led by Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura in Pakistan and that “multiple channels” were indeed “getting momentum.” Rabbani’s claims are more trustworthy because the Taliban are likely to talk to one of their own even if they are on opposite sides of the conflict at present. Ultimately, they will make up in the give-and-take discussions in the best Afghan tradition once the foreigners have been driven out. The Americans may be claiming these contacts as their own.

There have been other developments as well. On June 10, the outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta (soon to become US Defence Secretary) arrived on an unannounced visit in Islamabad to mend relations with Pakistan following the Osama episode. According to media reports, he was given a frosty reception by the Pakistani top military brass. The other was the two-day visit (June 11–”12) of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan. Wide-ranging discussions took place and Islamabad’s central role in brokering peace in Afghanistan was formally recognized.

Panetta’s threat to cut off aid to Islamabad did not go down well with the generals who are reported to have told him that it would not be “business as usual”. Hitherto, US Special Forces and CIA agents operated virtually freely in Pakistan. Army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani also demanded that American troops currently training Pakistani forces must withdraw immediately. These followed the corps commanders’ meeting in which several generals expressed resentment at the manner in which American forces had violated Pakistani sovereignty. This may be a belated assertion of a stance that the Americans have routinely violated and it is yet to be seen whether it can be sustained over the long term because of Pakistan’s fragile economic condition. But currently the direction of US-Pakistan relations is heading south. Pakistan has tried to ramp up its relations with China to counterbalance dependence on the US.

On the Afghan front, Pakistan has made significant progress with Karzai who came to Islamabad for the inaugural session of the joint Afghan-Pakistan commission for reconciling the Taliban. Pakistan had insisted it must be a major player in any future peace deal in Afghanistan. Without its blessings, no major Taliban player like Mullah Muhammad Omar or Jalaluddin Haqqani will come to the negotiating table. The commission’s significance is enhanced by the fact that both Pakistan army chief and director of Inter-Services Intelligence will sit on it. Also during Karzai’s visit, the Afghan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement became operational. It would allow Afghan goods to pass through Pakistan’s land border at Wagah into India.

Meanwhile pressure is building in Congress for a substantial troop withdrawal that President Barack Obama had promised in December 2009 when he first announced the 30,000 troop surge for Afghanistan. Despite the American generals’ rosy pronouncements in public –” what else can they say; admit that they are getting a hiding of their life? –” the ground reality is very different. While Taliban resistance has intensified, the biggest blow was delivered on May 28 when General Muhammad Daud Daud, commander of police in northern Afghanistan, was killed in a suicide bombing together with provincial police chief, Shah Jahan Nuri in Takhar province, hitherto a relatively peaceful place. The provincial governor Abdul Jabbar Taqwa as well as Major General Marcus Kneip, the German commander of NATO forces in the north, were badly injured. The Takhar killings were preceded in April by that of Khan Mohammad Mujahid, police chief of Qandahar province in a suicide attack on his headquarters, and in March by that of Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, police chief in Kunduz in the north.

A new grim reality that is dawning on the Americans is that while they talk in optimistic tones about “recruiting” a large number of Afghans into the police and military and claim to be training them to take over, a substantial number are actually Taliban plants. They get weapons training which they then turn on the Americans and Afghan officials. Daud’s killing was the result of one such infiltration.

There is also a discernable disconnect between what military commanders say and what the diplomats are saying. For instance, Ryan Crocker, ambassador-designate to Afghanistan, was grilled by US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his nomination hearing on June 7. A seasoned diplomat, Crocker admitted that the situation in Afghanistan was grim but that it was not “hopeless,” according to the New York Times. He could hardly say anything different otherwise the senators would have asked, why he even bothered to go to Kabul. Crocker also said the emphasis was now on a political rather than a military strategy. This is quite a change in tone from earlier American pronouncements. A similarly grim assessment of the Afghan situation was given by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe the same day as he headed for talks in the State Department in Washington. He even admitted that diplomats and generals were “speaking in entirely different voices.”

The military defeat is made worse by US economic woes that have been acknowledged even by Obama after two years of optimistic claims that the economy was on the mend. The latest unemployment figures and the debate in Congress to raise the debt ceiling beyond the $14.3 trillion agreed earlier point to the real dilemma facing the US. The war in Afghanistan –” and that in Iraq –” are major contributory factors to America’s economic decline.

There is also domestic pressure on Obama for a substantial military drawdown in Afghanistan. According to Pew Research Centre figures released on June 22, 56% of Americans want US troops withdrawn immediately. Both the US Congress and several influential members of Obama’s inner circle want a substantial troop reduction. The Congress sees red ink in the budget spreading to the horizon while people like Vice President Joe Biden, opposed to the initial troop surge in December 2009, sees the military option as hopeless. Even if all the troops were allowed to remain in Afghanistan, they would still not achieve military victory. Why throw good money after bad when the net result will be even worse? The best option is to declare victory and withdraw. Osama’s theatrical “killing” provides that opportunity to do so.

On June 22 Obama announced that 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year while the remaining 70,000 would be out by 2014. Aware of the damage suffered by the US economy because of the war, Obama declared: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” Any fool could have told the Americans 10 years ago before they ventured into Afghanistan but Americans never learn from history –” of others or their own. They always have to be taught the same lesson the hard way.

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