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    South Asia
     Jan 19, 2006

By M K Bhadrakumar

Members of a delegation accompanying US Vice President Dick Cheney to Kabul for the inaugural ceremony of the newly constituted parliament last month would have been the first Americans to report back to Washington that something odd was going on in Afghanistan, that things were not quite like what they had read in their briefs and position papers.

The Afghan sentries guarding the presidential palace of Hamid Karzai simply shrugged their shoulders and roughly shepherded the protesting Americans to a corner, and proceeded to subject them, women and men alike, to a thorough body search before

letting them into the premises where Karzai was waiting. These were Afghan guards who were trained and equipped by the US.

The Afghans have their own ways, devised through trials and tribulations of life in a harsh terrain, to let the world know when they are annoyed. More so, if they lose respect for someone. Surely, the people surrounding Karzai are hopping mad that the Americans are announcing "victory" in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, and moving on.

An air of unease prevails in Kabul. The Taliban's exclusion from the peace process in Bonn in December 2001 indeed lies at the root of the Afghan problem today. The victorious regional powers wanted to wreak vengeance on the Taliban (and Pakistan) for all the ignominies they suffered during the Taliban era from 1996 to 2001.

As for the US, it needed an enemy after September 11, 2001, and the Taliban ("Afghan Nazis") presented themselves. As for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which should have held the Taliban's case file at Bonn, they ducked either for reasons of political expediency or in consideration of their supreme national interests.
In the four years since then, it has become abundantly clear that except through a genuine intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban, peace will remain elusive. The Taliban feel cheated out of power. Karzai has failed to engineer any significant defections from the Taliban, and he has not been able to consolidate Pashtun support either.

Therefore, the international conference in London this month may end up as another inconsequential marking on the margins of the Afghan tragedy unless the core issue of a durable Afghan political reconciliation is first addressed. Conceivably, the window of opportunity still remains open for an intra-Afghan dialogue.

From the US perspective, this may look a moot point since maximum political mileage has been already squeezed out of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. To an appreciable extent, President George W Bush owes his second term in office to the Afghan war. Karzai's hastily arranged victory in the presidential election, on the eve of the US election, was trumpeted in front of a naive electorate in the US as a foreign policy triumph that made America more secure from "terrorism".

From Washington's point of view, therefore, it may seem that the law of diminishing returns is at work for the Bush administration. The most prudent thing for the US is, understandably, to claim "victory" and to disengage from active military duty in the Hindu Kush. The ground situation in Afghanistan is worsening. The Taliban are undoubtedly spreading their presence. There is no point quibbling over the Taliban's "strength".

The Taliban may not be able to capture power in Kabul, but they are increasingly in a position to create mayhem, and that makes the governance of the country simply impossible. The huge income from drug trafficking has made Afghan resistance "self-financing". The Taliban's tactics are working.

But fortunately for the US, unlike in Iraq, an exit strategy is at hand. The baton is simply being passed on to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US is counting on the "New Europeans" who are eager to prove their "Europeanness", and NATO's Anglo-Saxon contingents to come forward for a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

New Europeans in their enthusiasm tend to view the upcoming assignment in Afghanistan in terms comparable to peacekeeping in Bosnia. Some offered to Karzai heavy armor from their Warsaw Pact inventories as "military aid" for combating the Taliban guerrillas.

NATO is indeed facing an existential dilemma. Old Europe is intensely cautious that if NATO leads the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, it either brilliantly succeeds or gets fatally wounded.

The regional powers will be closely watching. Among the countries bordering Afghanistan, none except Tajikistan has any type of formal relations with NATO. Iran and Uzbekistan do not harbor friendly feelings toward NATO. Public opinion in Pakistan is hostile toward any form of Western presence. The Pakistan government virtually eased out NATO from the relief and rehabilitation work in the earthquake-stricken regions of Kashmir, despite its undisguised interest to continue. The Taliban view NATO as an occupying force.

With the scaling down of the US role, regional powers may feel constrained to step up their own involvement in Afghanistan, unless NATO member countries agree to a substantial troop presence in Afghanistan - at a force level three or four times the present level. In December, NATO authorized a plan to expand its peacekeeping force by 6,000 more troops, bringing its total troop number up to 15,000. At the same time, the US announced it would scale back its presence by about 2,500 troops from the current 19,000 troop deployment.

In the past, whenever a power vacuum developed (or if it were seen that some external power was striving to gain unilateral advantage), regional powers sponsored surrogate Afghan groups for safeguarding their interests. If that were to happen again, it would only be a matter of time before the NATO contingents found themselves caught in the crossfire between antagonistic Afghan groups enjoying outside support. Bosnia had no parallels.

Besides, NATO depends on the goodwill of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for maintaining supply lines for its contingents in Afghanistan. This dependence is predicated not only on Washington abandoning its agenda of regime change in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia but also on the overall climate of Russian-American relations, as well as the three-way equations involving Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Simply put, everything revolves around "multilateralism" prevailing in inter-state relations in the world order.

The NATO-Taliban tangle has an Afghan side to it. The cold peace that was worked out at the Bonn conference inevitably excluded many non-Taliban forces, too, from the Afghan political stage. Some have since been accommodated, but many feel cheated out of their share of the peace dividend.

The leader of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, initially reacted to the US presence in Afghanistan in harsh terms. While being forced out of office as president and making way for Karzai, he hoped that never again would the proud Afghan nation have to undergo the humiliation of being dictated to by foreigners.

The subsequent "softening up" of Rabbani by the American viceroys stationed in Kabul in the run-up to the presidential elections in October 2004 would be a case study in political chicanery. Rabbani was brought kicking and screaming into a political truce with Karzai. That was the high point in the manipulative politics aimed at ensuring that somehow Karzai won the election.

But Rabbani played a crucial role last month in the upset victory of Younus Qanooni as the speaker of the Afghan parliament. He has emerged as the power broker between Karzai and Qanooni. How Rabbani intends to employ his leverage will be a key factor.

He has several options. He could be the arbiter between the contending centers of power around Karzai and Qanooni. Or he could increasingly regard himself to be the monarch of all he surveys. In either case, Karzai is being called on to share power - something he is notoriously averse to.

Rabbani is the senior-most conservative Islamist leader in Afghanistan today. He enjoys wide networking. He is on cordial terms with both Pakistan and Iran. Clearly, Pakistan and Iran are big-time players in Afghanistan. Without their cooperation, the US intervention in Afghanistan would have been unthinkable. Yet, ironically, these two countries have reason to feel embittered. They have paid a heavy price for the US presence in the region.

As a result of the Afghan war, Pakistan's internal stability has seriously suffered - perhaps irretrievably. Washington is on a warpath with Tehran today. Iranians have alleged that their soldiers on the border with Pakistan were kidnapped 10 days ago in a covert US operation. Is the US stoking the flames of Balochi sub-nationalism in Pakistan with the objective of setting Iran's adjacent Balochistan region on fire?

Above all, in the overall climate of violence and anarchy, it is becoming increasingly futile to draw dividing lines in terms of political affiliations or ideologies - or in terms of Taliban and non-Taliban. In the mayhem of the sort that the Taliban seem to be getting ready to trigger, prevailing equations can change overnight. Things may look calm on the surface, but the undercurrents can be vicious.

The power calculus in Kabul that Washington thought it had astutely worked out was far too contrived and out of tune with Afghan ground realities to survive unless backed by an assertive US military presence for years to come. That is how the Afghan bazaar views the spectrum. The security guards in the presidential palace in Kabul let that be known when Cheney came calling.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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