Friday, July 30, 2010

Conference On Afghanistan

Published in The Daily Star on July 31st, 2010
M. Serajul islam

Afghanistan, the frontier of President Bush's "war on terror" that his successor President Obama has embraced fully, continues to remain insecure and victory in the war is still as elusive as it was when it started 9 years ago. The main objective of that war was to destroy the Taliban that held power and had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda for its operations against US and western interests and capture Osama Ben Laden for allegedly masterminding the 9/11 attacks. Although the Talibans have been driven out of power, they have found new and impregnable sanctuary in the no man's land between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Osama Ben Laden is still free and the Talibans are on a resurgent mode in Afghanistan.

The protagonists of the war, the US and its allies, met in a one-day International Conference on Afghanistan on July 20th in Kabul that was co-chaired by the Afghan President and the UN Secretary General to support a plan by President Karzai for development, governance and stability. The conference brought 60 countries and international agencies together. Nato Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen wrote an optimistic piece in an IHT column to create an optimistic aura for the conference. He commended USA for sending 40,000 additional troops who played a major role in undermining Taliban in its stronghold in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. He acknowledged Taliban resurgence and supported a recent plan of Karzai for integration of moderate Talibans. He was upbeat about Afghanistan's future.

Rasmussen's optimism, however, is in contrast to a number of facts that surfaced in the days and weeks before the conference in Afghanistan. In June, President Obama ran into a problem with the General that he had backed so fully. In an interview he gave for the magazine the Rolling Stones, General McChrystal showed no respect at all for the President and his team. Derogatory remarks aplenty have been expressed not just about the President but also the Vice President. Marine General James Jones, the National Security Adviser, has been referred to as “the clown” and only Hillary Clinton has escaped grilling. The President regained control by sacking General McChrystal and replacing him with General David Petraeus who had a successful stint in Iraq as a commander. The sacking nevertheless left a poor impression about conduct of the war, as it is most unusual to sack a commander in the midst of a war. The drama surrounding the sacking of General McChrystal brought to surface the deep divisions between the military fighting in Afghanistan and the strategists in Washington. It was also revealed that even within the President's team in Washington, there are sharp differences. In Afghanistan, the news of resurgence of the Taliban has been accompanied by deep corruption in the Karzai administration.

The conference was thus held in the backdrop of uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan. The US and the allies focused on how quickly they could handover the security to Afghans and come out of it with the US committed to start withdrawal of troops by end of 2011. With mounting casualties among US and allied troops, domestic pressures in those countries are now strong about continuing with a war where victory is not so clear a prospect. There have been 1,966 coalition military deaths in Afghanistan so far of which 1,206 are US soldiers and 436 from UK. At the Kabul Conference, President Hamid Karzai demanded of the allies and the donor countries and agencies to handover 80% of development and governance assistance over the next two years to the Afghan government. He was critical of the US $29 billion that has been spent in Afghanistan since the war started and mentioned that 77% of it went to projects to suit the donors' needs and priorities and was not sustainable for development of Afghanistan. He assured the allies that they could leave Afghanistan by end of 2014 when 300,000 trained Afghans would be ready to take over the security of the country.

President Karzai's optimism notwithstanding, there are many twists in the Afghan tail. President Obama's vision of securing Afghanistan by a substantial increase of troops has not fully worked. The Obama administration has been forced to back the move of Karzai government to open dialogue with the moderate Talibans to isolate them from the extremists which in itself is an acknowledgement of victory of sorts for the Talibans because their name was a pariah to the US and its allies when the war on terror started. The news that has been headlined all over the world in recent times about Afghanistan's fabulous mineral resources worth US$ 1 trillion that has the potential of lifting the country from abject poverty to great prosperity is too alluring for the powers now present there to leave Afghanistan without some assurance of benefitting from marketing those resources. That could bring to play new dimensions in an extremely fragile security situation in the country. In a country as fragmented as Afghanistan, where the ethnic groups have a history of fighting, the mineral resources could divide these groups further by introducing new and serious issues to fight.

Finally, Pakistan and India's involvement in the conflict has brought new dimension that could prolong the conflict instead of resolving it. The press is already calling the Afghan conflict a proxy war between Pakistan and India. In a recent edition of the Guardian, William Dalrymple has written that internally, the Afghan war is a Pashtun rebellion against Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek dominated regime with Karzai “only a fig leaf of Pashtun window dressing”. Externally, it is a regional proxy war between India and Pakistan. In recent times, India has opened 4 regional consulates and provided the Afghans US$ 662 million in aid; all terrifying news for Pakistan as it would be left squeezed on the west and east by India. Dalrymple has thrown in an interesting probability: eventually India would withdraw from Afghanistan accepting it as Pakistan's sphere of influence for Pakistan's guarantee to stop encouraging the Kashmir jihad accepting that to be the Indian sphere of influence!

The Kabul Conference has not raised optimism about the future of Afghanistan although President Karzai appeared upbeat. Indian Foreign Minister Krishnan who attended the Conference said that foreign troops should remain in Afghanistan much longer in response to a question on US decision to start withdrawal by end of 2011. He also said that India would consider sending troops to Afghanistan if asked, a loaded response in terms of the emerging situation and also the India-Pakistan proxy war, the latter in turn with the potentials to derail all strategic calculations of the allies. Is history again shaping to repeat itself; that the foreigners can only meet their Waterloo in Afghanistan?

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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