Page 2 of 2 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
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
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
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).