The Afghan enigma

July 21st, 2011

Within days of the visit of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan religious leader who heads the High Council for Peace, US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton is in India. So business, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan are very much on the agenda as the first set of troops from the multi-national military force to keep Afghanistan stable, exit from the country.

What exactly is happening in Afghanistan? The Afghans say they are victims of foreign forces as well as sitting ducks in the feuds between the Taliban and anti-Taliban groups. The principal one among the latter is Hikmatyar group. But on his last meeting with Hamid Karzai, Qutbuddin Hilal, deputy in the Hikmatyar group put new demands: fresh elections and withdrawal of all foreign forces. This is impossible for any regime in Kabul to accept at this point.

There is little clarity about the aims and motivations of the Taliban itself.  It is most definitely not homogenous and does not have the support of all or most Afghans. The problem of course is, there are so many forces in Afghanistan - the Taliban, Mullah Omar, Hikmatyar, Wahabis, Pakistan Taliban, the drug mafia, Al Qaeda, ISI … Whom should the world negotiate with? Moreover, when dealing with Taliban how does anyone know they are negotiating with the right set of people and not imposters?

The US’s view of Taliban is – it is an extension of Al Qaeda. But those who live in South Asia know this is not the only Taliban.

from their point of view the Taliban are in a sweet spot. When they are in the ascendance, why should they talk to anybody? They already know that the military conditions will start changing now, as first set of western troops begin their departure from July 2011.

Reintegration of the Taliban is possible. Many have reintegrated. But two things have to be borne in mind: one - most of the suicide attacks have been carried out by reintegrated Taliban; and a US report says Taliban come from training, join the police force, get a gun, sell it and buy more weapons. The rate of desertion in the Army – which is one avenue for reintegrated Taliban – is very high.

The Taliban is disciplined and well organized. Diversity of opinion cannot lead to a split in their ranks. Mullah Omar’s personal prestige remains unchallenged. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is irrelevant. It is the Taliban and the Haqqani network which are central. Taliban can neither be defeated nor reconciled and only marginally integrated.

In the circumstances, what should the strategy in Afghanistan be?

First there is no unanimity about what the war is about and what the Western powers want to achieve. Some say it is a civil war. Some say tribal warfare. Other descriptions are that it is a global war against terror, that it is an energy related conflict, that it is a clash of two sets of Islamic fundamentalists and there is even a suggestion that it is an India-Pak war by proxy.

As long as there is no consensus on the definition, the conflict will continue.

Of all the global players in Afghanistan, the US and its allies are currently the most important. But the US is inconsistent about who its friends and enemies are in this region. One day, Pakistan is a strategic partner. The next day, it is a failing state.

And then, there are signs that management of Afghanistan could become a domestic political issue in the US with the forthcoming elections. This is worrying for although there is bipartisan support for the Afghan strategy, domestic politics could influences choices being made in Afghanistan.

There is also lack of clarity on US exit strategy. They are going out from Afghanistan but not leaving.Will they have permanent bases in Afghanistan or withdraw totally? All this not clear.

Post-exit also there are many questions: are they for reconciliation or not? What is their vision of a political solution? Currently there is a disconnect between the present government in Afghanistan and the US, especially on reconciliation.

Unfortunately even Pakistan doesn’t have too much faith in the US any more.The US is unable to put a stop to Arab nations’ funding of the Taliban.

But one thing is clear: There is cautious optimism in the Afghan military that the surge is working. The military surge has been successful in some places including North East, North and the North West. But it has been most successful in the Northern Areas. There was a time when it was not possible to travel in the Northern Areas because the Taliban were everywhere. Now things are better.
Obviously the US and others will not be in  Afghanistan forever. How can Afghanistan be trained to look after itself?

Two thirds of Afghan national police does not have a roof over its head. What is the incentive for it to fight? This represents an unbelievable failure on part of international community. Large sums of money were allocated to give equipment and create infrastructure for the Afghan security forces. Where has that money gone?

Not enough thought has been given to the kind of training in policing Afghanistan needs. Does it need normal police or a counterinsurgency force? What about the ethnic composition of the security forces?

All these are questions on the worrying Af-Pak discussions that Clinton and Krishna should focus attention on.

del.icio.us:The Afghan enigma digg:The Afghan enigma newsvine:The Afghan enigma reddit:The Afghan enigma Y!:The Afghan enigma

A reluctant politician

July 15th, 2011

When Prithviraj Chavan learnt that it was he who had been chosen to succeed Ashok Chavan as Chief Minister of Maharashtra, his voice reflected dismay rather than joy.

“Oh no” he told this reporter. “Can you check again? Are you sure?”

Certainly not the ecstatic response of a man with ambition.

When he returned to Delhi to consult the high command on his cabinet, he looked tired and depressed. Soon after landing in Mumbai, before getting out of the VIP lounge to face reporters and TV cameras, he thought he would comb his hair. Immediately one dozen flash bulbs went off and his picture, comb in his hand, disconcerted smile on his face, appeared in the papers the next day with clever captions like ‘Combing Operation’, etc.

“It’s like living in a fishbowl. You are under scrutiny all the time, innocent remarks are twisted and the vested interests….!’ he had sighed.

Now, Chavan mild-mannered and polite no matter how much pressure he was under, has had to show his teeth when the BJP clamour for his resignation has begun in the wake of the bomb blasts in Mumbai. “I was under pressure in Delhi also, when I was Minister of State. But this is pressure of an entirely different quantum” he confided.

In Delhi, Chavan had a very different profile. His job was being an underling to a man he admires deeply. But the nature of the job is such that that no MoS (PMO) has ever lasted his (or her) full term with the exception of Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi in P V Narasimha Rao’s PMO.

Sheila Dikshit found herself jobless within a year of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure and Vasundhara Raje was given specific charges instead of an overall grandiose portfolio of junior minister in the PMO and then packed off to Jaipur after serving a short spell in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government.

The job is what you make of it, and experience suggests that most incumbents tend to make too much of it.

But Chavan, an egghead politician, if there is such a thing, was young, idealistic, and a professional who shares Singh’s world view in respect of intellectual honesty and Calvinist ethics.

Although Chavan belongs to a political family — both his parents were MPs from Karad in Maharashtra and his father a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet — he studied at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and having qualified as a design engineer, got a Unesco fellowship to study in Germany.

From there, he went to the University of California in Berkeley in 1967-68 in the thick of the student revolt. Having grown up with politics at home, Chavan was enchanted by Joan Baez and long hair, but power politics was passé.

Having graduated, he joined Aerospace Industries and worked there for three years. Electronic design fascinated him and he returned to India to set up an R&D and design lab for information technology in 1974.

Chavan had his first brush with politics as a grown-up in 1983-84 when he met Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi had quit his job and joined politics. He wanted to develop a database for computing in Indian languages, so that land revenue records could be computerised. Chavan was developing a programme along precisely those lines.

The two clicked instantly and Chavan was given a ticket to contest from Karad in the 1984 election as a ‘direct entrant’. He won the election despite warning Gandhi that he would be resented by the existing satraps.

Gandhi waved aside all his objections: “There must be thousands of engineers better than you, but they can’t win an election,” Gandhi told him. Karad fell in Sharad Pawar’s sphere of influence in Maharashtra politics, so it was by no means a ’safe’ constituency. But Chavan won that election and all the following ones, increasing his margin each time, except in 1999, when the Congress split and he elected to stay with the Congress rather than go with Pawar.

In this, Chavan only did what his parents had done before him. Through the splits in the Congress in 1969 and 1978, his parents stayed with Indira Gandhi believing the Congress had to be supported as a mainstream political alternative, not a regional outfit. Chavan agreed with this view.

It was widely expected that he would become a minister in Narasimha Rao’s government. But he was identified with Pawar, an impression that couldn’t have been further from the truth. But Chavan got on well with Manmohan Singh and tried to learn from him, recognising that he was in the company of a visionary.

There were many ministers in that Parliament, but few MPs who tried to defend Singh’s reforms. Chavan understood Singh’s grand plan and liaised closely with him to give political underpinnings to reform.

Chavan lost the 1999 election because of Pawar. He came to the Rajya Sabha in 2002. He would have contested the Lok Sabha election this time, but the Nationalist Congress Party bagged the seat.

Chavan was Congress spokesman and has had a long innings in Parliament. He is quiet, intense, and efficient. He has already shown his mettle in Mumbai. A couple of bomb blasts are not going to hold him back.

del.icio.us:A reluctant politician digg:A reluctant politician newsvine:A reluctant politician reddit:A reluctant politician Y!:A reluctant politician