For the bulk of the Indian strategic community, the unthinkable is happening -
the prospect of an Afghan settlement involving the Taliban is increasing.
A sensational expose by an investigative journalist, based on highly sensitive
cable traffic last month between the French Embassy in Kabul and Quai d'Orsay
in Paris, has thrown light on the Afghan war. For India, it is especially
helpful in spotting the war, otherwise hidden behind the global banking
meltdown and the India-United States civilian nuclear deal.
Claude Angeli, veteran journalist of Le Canard Enchaine, got hold of a copy of
a coded cable by the French deputy chief of mission in Kabul, Francois Fitou,
based on a briefing by the heavyweight
British diplomat, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who serves as ambassador to
Afghanistan. What Sir Sherard told Fitou in confidence is worth recalling:
"The current situation [in Afghanistan] is bad; the security situation is
getting worse; so is corruption and the government [of President Hamid Karzai]
has lost all trust."
"The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse
without them ... They are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from
the crisis, which will probably be dramatic."
"We [NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies] should tell them [United
States] that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one. In the
short term, we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from
getting more bogged down in Afghanistan ... The American strategy is doomed to
Britain aimed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by 2010.
The only realistic outlook for Afghanistan would be the installation of "an
acceptable dictator" and the public opinion should be primed for this.
For the bulk of the Indian strategic community, the unthinkable is happening -
the prospect of an Afghan settlement involving the Taliban. From all accounts,
the Taliban appear edging closer to the Afghan capital and tightening their
control in the provinces ringing Kabul.
Unsurprisingly, Karzai has appealed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to mediate
with the Taliban. To request the Saudi king to stake his prestige is serious
business. Karzai couldn't have acted alone. Alongside there are reports that
the British intelligence has been talking to Taliban envoys in London.
The influential Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that senior Taliban
functionaries who travelled to Saudi Arabia in the recent days have put forward
11 conditions, which include the withdrawal of foreign forces, political
accommodation of the Taliban in key ministries and the drawing up of a new
constitution that affirms Afghanistan as an Islamic state.
Indian policymakers, who have been bogged down in the labyrinthine passage of
the Indo-US nuclear deal, need to take note that the ground is dramatically
shifting. Regional security is set to transform. Several factors call for
reckoning. First, there is cause to worry about Washington's attention span in
the period ahead to press ahead with the Afghan war.
The big issue in America is the bailout of the economy. As well-known columnist
Alexander Cockburn summed up, the Americans are indifferent to whether vice
presidential candidate Sarah Palin is capable of waging a nuclear war or frying
"Afghan terrorists". Their sole concern today is that in the political tier in
Washington, they have someone "who sounds somewhat like a human being with the
same concerns as them, starting with the fear that their local bank will lock
its doors in the morning".
That is truly an extraordinary recalibration of national priorities for a world
power. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, during their debate on September
26, paid lip service to Afghanistan but were preoccupied with the new
priorities. Both took the easy way out, agreeing that they would take troops
out of Iraq and put them in the Hindu Kush. But is it that simple? Surely,
there is a vague sense of bipartisan enthusiasm in the US for an Afghan
"surge". The new US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, says he
could do with three additional brigades to the one promised by the Pentagon,
which will add at least 15,000 troops to the current 35,000.
But the total allied force level in Afghanistan stands at just above 70,000,
including the US troops. The NATO allies are reluctant to commit more troops.
After much US persuasion, French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to be helpful,
adding a measly 100 troops to the French contingent, while opinion polls show
that two out of every three French citizens disapprove of the war. The outgoing
NATO commander estimated that 400,000 troops were needed to defeat the Taliban.
An optimal troop level is impossible to be met. The US and its NATO allies
simply do not have the capacity to deploy the troops necessary to force a
military settlement or to pacify and occupy Afghanistan.
Even with additional troops, to quote the new head of the US Central Command,
David Petraeus, "wresting control of certain areas from the Taliban will be
Petraeus' approach is to repeat his tactic in Iraq, to bribe the Pashtun
tribesmen and to turn them against the pro-Taliban groups - in other words,
hire Pashtun mercenaries to fight the war. Given the Pashtun character and
tribal ethos, the strong likelihood is that the tribal belt will become
anarchic and the war will spread to Pakistan. Its effect on Pakistan will be
catastrophic, but the expansion of the war is unlikely to stem the tide within
Afghanistan, which has gone badly wrong for Western forces.
The Taliban today operate in virtually every Afghan province. They have the
capacity to mount sustained offensives. It has created a parallel government
structure. Pamela Constable, correspondent of The Washington Post and old hand
on the South Asia beat, wrote recently: "In many districts a short drive from
the capital, some of them considered safe even six months ago, residents and
officials said the Taliban now control roads and villages, patrolling in trucks
and recruiting new fighters."
Meanwhile, a new dimension has appeared. The incoming US administration in
January may not consider doubling down in Afghanistan as an option at a time
when its attention is riveted on putting together a rescue package for the
American economy. How would this scenario play out in the tangled Afghan
mountains - precisely, how would the protagonists of the Afghan resistance view
Washington's difficulty in financially sustaining the open-ended war effort?
'Deep, rich chuckle'
Irrepressible British columnist Neil Lyndon obviously made a point when he
wrote last week: "Whenever the wind stops howling over the mountains of Tora
Bora, a deep, rich chuckle can presumably be heard echoing down the valleys. If
he is still alive, nobody will be enjoying the plight of America more than
Osama bin Laden. The anarchic carnage in the American financial and political
system brings in sight a humiliating withdrawal and defeat in Afghanistan and
Iraq. It even raises the possibility of the final collapse of the evil empire
which Osama forecast."
Gloomy, but entirely plausible. A perception is growing that with the US
government taking responsibility for $5 trillion in liabilities in Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac and under compulsion to pledge billions to support the
financial system, there is bound to be difficulty in bearing the combined cost
of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the US Congressional Budget Office
estimated could total $2.4 trillion over the coming decade. No wonder, a
feeling is gaining ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan that it is a matter of
time before Washington makes a deal with the Taliban for a coalition
The interplay of these various factors will accelerate as Afghanistan gears up
for the presidential election in 2009. The election year will be highly
divisive. There is a challenge to Karzai from other Afghan groups. His
political base in the Pashtun areas remains fragile. The US and its allies are
yet to decide whether Karzai is their best choice to hold the reins of power
for another five years. Britain, in particular, has had public spats with
Karzai. The failure of the war is blamed on him.
But the failure of the war is not personal. A US-style presidential system does
not suit Afghanistan. The country needs a decentralized system of power-sharing
and a constant search for intra-Afghan compromise. Most certainly, it means
bringing the Taliban into the political process. The cardinal mistake has been
that the Taliban movement is entirely conflated with al-Qaeda, whereas, to
quote Tariq Ali, "If NATO and the US were to leave Afghanistan, their [the
Taliban's] political evolution would most likely parallel that of Pakistan's
Tariq Ali didn't mention Maulana Fazlur Rahman, but New Delhi knows how
farcical it would be to remain in the grip of paroxysms of nervousness about
the redoubtable Islamist leader. India's apprehensions withered away once the
Maulana, variously described as the "Father of the Taliban", began visiting
India. Equally, India needs to do some "out-of-the-box" thinking about the
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.