The Afghan enigma

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July 21st, 2011 Aditi Phadnis

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.

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