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    South Asia
     Jan 19, 2008
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NATO hears 'noise before defeat'
By M K Bhadrakumar

during 2002-2006 - is a forceful personality, and was hugely successful in restoring order to the Balkan country torn apart by violence and ethnic cleansing.

But Afghanistan is notoriously untamed in history. Ashdown has sought to combine Everts' former responsibilities with those of Tom Koenigs, the low-profile German diplomat who served as the UN's special representative in Afghanistan. He hopes to be the main point of contact between Karzai's government and the international forces, the European Union policing mission and the

UN contingent, apart from coordinating Afghan reconstruction efforts.

That is much too much for anyone to take on. But Ashdown is gifted. Even then, the chances are the blame-game is going to accelerate. The Afghans are unlikely to accept a British viceroy - even if he wears a blue beret. Karzai's government resents being bypassed. While in theory a "unity of purpose" and a formal link between the Afghan government and among NATO and the EU and the UN is desirable, there are problems. Some UN member countries do not want a direct relationship with NATO (or vice versa). NATO will chaff at subordination to the UN. There is no such thing as a unified EU voice. Least of all, Washington simply doesn't know how to be self-effacing.

Reconciliation with the Taliban
But then, Ashdown's real mission lies elsewhere, in addressing the core issue: What do we do with the Taliban? No doubt, the Taliban's exclusion from the Bonn conference seven years ago proved to be a horrible mistake. That was also how the Afghan and Pakistan problem came to be joined at the hips.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made a valid point in his interview with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel this week when he said al-Qaeda isn't the real problem that faces Pakistan. "I don't deny the fact that al-Qaeda is operating here [Pakistan]. They are carrying out terrorism in the tribal areas; they are the masterminds behind these suicide bombings. While all of this is true, one thing is for sure: the fanatics can never take over Pakistan. This is not possible. They are militarily not so strong they can defeat our army, with its 500,000 soldiers, nor politically - and they do not stand a chance of winning the elections. They are much too weak for that," Musharraf said.

The heart of the matter is Pashtun alienation. The Taliban represent Pashtun aspirations. As long as Pashtuns are denied their historical role in Kabul, Afghanistan cannot be stabilized and Pakistan will remain in turmoil. Musharraf said, "There should be a change of strategy right away. You [NATO] should make political overtures to win the Pashtuns over."

This may also be the raison d'etre of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's intriguing choice of a Briton as his new special representative. Conceivably, the inscrutable Ban has been told by Washington that Ashdown is just the right man to walk on an upcoming secretive bridge, which will intricately connect New York, Washington, London, Riyadh, Islamabad and Kabul.

The point is, Britain grasps the Pashtun problem. Britain realizes that the induction of US special forces into the Pakistani tribal areas, or the custodianship of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile, or an al-Qaeda takeover in Pakistan isn't quite the issue today.

That is why Musharraf's four-day visit to London starting on January 25 assumes critical importance. British mediation in Pakistani politics may already be working. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has begun calibrating his stance.

Reconciliation between Musharraf and the Sharif brothers is in the cards. Shahbaz Sharif will be on call in London during Musharraf's stay there. If the reconciliation - thanks to British (and Saudi) mediation - leads to the formation of a national government in Pakistan, a leadership role for Nawaz Sharif may ensue and Pakistani politics may gain traction. Nawaz Sharif is the only politician today with the credentials and stature to mount the dangerous platform of Islamist nationalism and reach out to the Taliban and its followers inside Pakistan. The Sharif brothers could be invaluable allies for the Pakistani military - and for NATO - at this juncture.

Barno sidesteps the ground realities. The US strategy's real failure happened, in fact, in the 2003-2005 period when he was in charge of the war. Of course, the failure was not at the military level, but at the political and diplomatic level. That was a crucial phase when the window of opportunity was still open for a course correction over the Taliban's exclusion from the Afghan political process. The Taliban should have been invited to come in from the cold and join an intra-Afghan dialogue and reconciliation. The extreme emotions of 2001 had by then begun to ebb away.

On the contrary, Khalilzad's diplomatic brief was that the US presidential election of 2004 was the priority for the White House. The "war on terror" in Afghanistan was a milch cow in US domestic politics. Presidential advisor Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney shrewdly calculated that an enemy in the Hindu Kush was useful for the Republican Party campaign, while resonance of the booming guns in Afghanistan would be a good backdrop for election rhetoric against a decorated war veteran like John Kerry.

And, showcasing of Karzai in Kabul's presidential palace helped display Afghanistan as a success story. A victorious Karzai indeed landed in the US to a hero's welcome from George W Bush on election eve. Bush went on to win a second term, but the Afghan war was lost. The slide began by mid-2005 as the embittered Taliban began regrouping. As the year progressed, as Everts and many others pointed out, the Iraq war "sucked the oxygen away from Afghanistan". How could Gates possibly admit all that? He would rather NATO take the blame. But then, it is a sideshow in actuality.

Britain is now called on to salvage the Afghan war. NATO at best will be a sleeping partner. The Hindu Kush is all set to be Lord Ashdown's theater. He represents the UN; the White House reposes confidence in him; he takes counseling and directions from London, which coordinates with Riyadh and Islamabad - and then, gingerly, he sets out, searching for the Taliban. Incidentally, among his many attributes, Lord Ashdown is a gifted polyglot who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and other languages. Maybe he already speaks Pashto.

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

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