Page 1 of 2 A mad scramble over Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
An impression is being created that there is a "rift" between the United States
and Britain regarding the reconciliation track involving the Taliban. The plain
truth is that the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are in this murky game
The essence of the game is to make the "war on terror" in Afghanistan more
efficient and cost-effective. Surely, it is official American thinking that
there has to be some form of reconciliation with the Taliban. US Defense
Secretary Robert Gates admitted as much last week. He said, "There has to be ultimately,
and I'll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of the political
outcome to this [war]. That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of
us." (Emphasis added)
When you repeat a word thrice in five seconds, it does register. Gates
suggested he wasn't hinting at all about an "exit strategy". Indeed, at an
informal meeting of the defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) last week in Budapest, Hungary, the alliance visualized a
long haul in Afghanistan.
Any reconciliation with the Taliban would essentially be in the nature of
picking up the threads from October 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan and
toppled the Taliban regime.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar promised at the 11th hour in those fateful days from
his hideout in Kandahar via Pakistani intermediaries - that, yes, he would
verifiably sequester his movement from al-Qaeda and ask Osama bin Laden to
leave Afghan soil, provided the US acceded to his longstanding request to
accord recognition to his regime in Kabul rather than engage it selectively.
The US administration ignored the cleric's offer and instead pressed ahead with
the plan to launch a "war on terror".
What we may expect in the period ahead is a deal whereby the "good" Taliban
profess disengagement from al-Qaeda, which the US and its allies will
graciously accept, and, in turn, the "good" Taliban won't insist on the
withdrawal of Western forces as a pre-condition. The Saudis will ably lubricate
such a deal.
The sheer "unaffordability" of an open-ended war in Afghanistan will influence
thinking in Washington if the crisis in the US economy deepens. But we are
still some way from that threshold. The war should be "affordable" if the new
head of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, can somehow make it more
"efficient", which is what he did in Iraq. Presently, American politicians only
speak about robustly conducting the war.
They are nowhere near framing the fundamental issue: How central is the Afghan
war to the global struggle against terrorism? The answer is crystal clear.
Afghanistan has very little to do with the basic national interests of the
United States. Political violence in Afghanistan is primarily rooted in local
issues, and "warlordism" is an ancient trait. That is to say, the Taliban can
be made part of the solution.
Ultimately, the objectives of nation-building and legitimate governance in an
environment of overall security that allows economic activities and development
can only be realized by accommodating native priorities and interests.
Washington has been far too prescriptive, creating a US-style presidential
system in Kabul and then controlling it.
But such a regime will never command respect among Afghans. Deploying more NATO
troops or creating an Afghan army is not the answer. The international
community has prudently chosen not to challenge the legitimacy of the Hamid
Karzai regime, but there is a crisis of leadership. Inter-Afghan dialogue is
urgently needed. The Afghans must be allowed to regenerate their traditional
methods of contestation of power in their cultural context and to negotiate
their cohabitation in their tribal context.
Again, the US has been proven wrong in believing that imperialism could trump
nationalism. On the contrary, prolonged foreign occupation has triggered a
backlash. The war should never have escalated beyond what it ought to have been
- a low-intensity fratricidal strife, which has been a recurring feature of
Afghan history. In other words, a solution to the conflict has to be primarily
inter-Afghan, leading to a broad-based government free of foreign influence,
where the international community can be a facilitator and guarantor.
Russia lashes out
But what clouds judgment is the geopolitics of the war. The war provided a
context for the establishment of a US military presence in Central Asia; NATO's
first-ever "out of area" operation; a turf which overlooks the two South Asian
nuclear weapon states of India and Pakistan, Iran and China's restive Xinjiang
Uyghur Autonomous Region; a useful toehold on a potential transportation route
for Caspian energy bypassing Russia and Iran, etc. The situation around Iran;
the US's "Great Central Asia" policy and containment strategy towards Russia;
NATO's expansion - these have become added factors. Surely, geopolitical
considerations lie embedded even within the current attempt to revive the Saudi
The interplay of these various geopolitical factors has made the war opaque.
Major regional powers - Russia, Iran and India - do not see the US or NATO
contemplating a pullout from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future. Tehran has
been alleging that the US strategy in Afghanistan is essentially to perpetuate
its military presence.
As a result, Russian statements regarding the US role in Afghanistan have
become highly critical. Moscow seems to have assessed that the US-led war is
getting nowhere and blame-game had begun. More important, Russia has began to
pinpoint the US's "unilateralism" in Afghanistan.
In a major speech recently regarding European security at the World Policy
Conference in Evian, France, President Dmitry Medvedev made a pointed
reference, saying, "After the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,
the United States started a chapter of unilateral actions ..." He was making a
point that the "United States' desire to consolidate its global role" is
unrealizable in a multipolar world.
For the first time in the seven years of the war, the Russian foreign minister
utilized the annual United Nations General Assembly forum to launch a broadside
against the US, on September 27. Sergei Lavrov said:
More and more
questions are being raised as to what is going on in Afghanistan. First and
foremost, what is the acceptable price for losses among civilians in the
ongoing anti-terrorist operation? Who decides on criteria for determining the
proportionality of the use of force?
These and other factors give reasons to believe that the anti-terrorism
coalition is in the face of crisis. Looking at the core of the problem, it
seems that this coalition lacks collective arrangements - ie equality among all
its members in decision-making on the strategy and, especially, operational
tactics. It so happens that in order to control a totally new situation as it
evolved after 9/11, instead of the required genuine cooperative effort,
including a joint analysis and coordination of practical steps, the mechanisms
designed for a unipolar world started to be used, where all decisions were to
be taken in a single center while the rest were merely to follow. The
solidarity of the international community fostered on the wave of struggle
against terrorism turned out to be somehow "privatized".
unusually sharp words underline the dissipation of the regional consensus over
the war. Later, on September 28, at a press conference in the UN headquarters,
Lavrov alleged that in a spirit of "prejudiced bias", the US was blocking the
Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization from helping to stabilize
He also implied that the US vainly tried to block any reference to countering
drug trafficking in the latest UN Security Council resolution on Afghanistan so
as to deny Russia a role. He said, "Not quite full consideration is given to
the assessments and the analyses of all members of the world community when
making very important decisions which later tell on the situation of all."
A spat has since erupted over a UN-NATO cooperation agreement relating to the
Afghan war allegedly signed "secretly" by a pliant secretary general, Ban
Ki-moon, and his NATO counterpart, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. on September 23 in
New York. Russia has threatened to raise the matter in the UN Security Council.
To quote Lavrov, "We [Russia] asked both [the UN and NATO] secretariats what
this could mean and we are waiting for a reply, but we warned the UN leadership
in the strictest fashion that things of this kind must be done without keeping
secrets from member states and on the basis of powers and authority held by the
Russian envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said on Wednesday that Moscow would
consider the Ban-Scheffer agreement "illegitimate", and as merely reflecting
Ban's "personal opinion". As can be expected, Ban is keeping mum, while
Scheffer contested the Russian allegation. Indeed, cracks are appearing in the
US-Russia understanding over the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. A turf
war is ensuing - Washington is determined to exclude Russia from Afghanistan
and Moscow insisting on its legitimate role.
Similarly, Tehran also has raised the ante on Afghanistan. After having
supported the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, in