|China maps an end to the Afghan war
By M K Bhadrakumar
The article "Afghan peace needs a map"  which appeared in the
English-language China Daily newspaper on Monday should receive careful
attention. China Daily is government-owned and the article is a very rare piece
of focused opinion that proposes concrete steps to be taken on the way forward
in unlocking the Afghan stalemate.
The article is credited to the deputy general of the China Council for National
Security Policy Studies, Li Qinggong. A conspicuous increase in the Chinese
reportage on Afghanistan is noticeable lately. Conceivably, in the period since
unrest appeared in Xinjiang, there is heightened concern in China over the
crisis in Afghanistan, which impacts China's national security.
The timing of the publication is also important. A tipping point has appeared
in the eight-year Afghan war, with the international community furiously
debating the pros and cons of alternate scenarios for Afghanistan. The war is
at a crossroads, with the Taliban fighting to a stalemate the formidable North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces led by the United States. NATO has
all but acknowledged that "victory" over the Taliban in the war may no longer
be possible and what is within the realms of possibility is staving off defeat
and scoring "success" in the "Afghanization" of the war.
The timing of the article is also significant insofar as the Barack Obama
administration is revisiting its seven-month-old Afghan war strategy, which was
enunciated in March. Broadly speaking, the pendulum of the American debate is
swinging between stepping up the war effort via the augmentation of troop
strength in Afghanistan or scaling down the scope of the war to a
There is much piquancy in that the debate is also unfolding against the
backdrop of the tide of American public opinion turning against the US military
involvement in Afghanistan. Then, there is the annual debate in the United
Nations Security Council on Afghanistan, which began in New York on Monday.
Also, the UN proposes to convene an international conference in Afghanistan
within this year.
The China Daily article makes several important points. First, it bluntly calls
on Washington to forthwith bring the US military operations in Afghanistan to
an end. There are no caveats here while making this demand, no alibis. Simply
put, the war has only resulted in aggravating the political and social turmoil
in Afghanistan, causing great turbulence and violence and it has brought
neither peace and stability as the George W Bush administration promised nor
any "tangible benefits" to the US itself. "On the contrary, the legitimacy of
the US military action has been under increasing doubt."
Clearly, therefore, the urgent necessity arises to promote reconciliation among
the warring Afghan groups and this effort needs to commence with the US
forthwith ending its military operations.
Second, the dramatic shift in US public opinion - with 58% of people opposing
the war, according to the latest estimates - and growing skepticism about the
war on Capitol Hill - especially the groundswell of opposition within the
Democratic Party - casts shadows on the trajectory of the Obama
administration's Afghan strategy. Certainly, Obama "cannot afford to bet his
political fate on an unpopular war".
However, Obama can exploit the public and political mood in the US to salvage
his presidency from the Afghan war. The article points out that from the time
he assumed office as president in January, Obama has been under pressure from
the Pentagon to step up the war effort. Now, "the young US president [has] the
best chance to extricate himself from the Pentagon's pressures" if he chooses
to tap into the rapidly growing anti-war sentiments in the country.
Obama should factor in that, if he decides to stop the war, "that would not
only meet the US public expectations and save more American lives, but also
help recover the US's peaceful image and enhance the president's personal
The article stops short of drawing any historical analogy with the Lyndon
Johnson presidency or the Vietnam war, but the warning comes out loud clear
that the war can seriously damage Obama's political career and demolish the
prospects of a second term as president.
Third, what lies ahead if the US stops its military intervention in
Afghanistan? The answer is that it opens the way to a political settlement. And
how is it that a settlement can be worked out? The answer is that there is no
alternative but to seek a political settlement via national reconciliation. Any
reconciliation process must involve all the "key actors that can play an
influential role in deciding the country's prospect", especially the Afghan
government, the Taliban and the forces that are commonly called "warlords".
Such an approach is predicated on the belief that the Afghan war is also
principally a fratricidal strife involving Afghan factions, much as there is
currently the "US factor". In actuality, various contending forces are locked
in a "chaotic battle" today, which involves the US-led coalition forces, "the
Afghan government troops and domestic warlords", the Taliban and al-Qaeda
forces. By implication, the battle lines have blurred.
Fourth, the confusion emanating out of the Afghan political scene has added to
the already existing "domestic chaos". The presidential election of August 20
has failed to produce a final result and the lingering uncertainty, which may
last months, over the recount of votes adds to the confusion, with the US
urging President Hamid Karzai to go through a second-round runoff. The article
stops just short of alleging that US interference muddies the Afghan political
Fifth, picking up the thread from the above, the article says, "It seems that
Karzai has hammered home the perception that the US is not a reliable partner
that can help end Afghanistan's current predicament. Talks, he thinks, are the
only way out. The Afghan president is likely to open the process of tripartite
talks with the Taliban and major warlords, provided that the US ends its
Sixth, the article then turns to the role of the international community. On
the one hand, it calls for support from the international community for an
essentially intra-Afghan peace process. On the other hand, it suggests that the
international community should take advantage of the mounting anti-war
sentiments in the US and "prompt" Obama to end the war and withdraw troops from
Obama may find it useful to cite the "international pressures" as "another
excuse" to withdraw US troops. Three major European powers - Germany, France
and Britain - have sought an international conference to be held within the
year to discuss the vacation of occupation of Afghanistan. The United Nations
Security Council should henceforth take the lead role to organize the
conference on the basis of a consensus among the permanent five as regards a
road map and timetable of Afghan settlement.
A "ticklish issue" still remains as to whether the parties concerned can accept
the Taliban as a key player and also as to how to "dispose of" the al-Qaeda
forces, and this has a "key bearing" on the outcome of the forthcoming
Finally, the article proposes that once the US withdraws its troops from
Afghanistan, an international peacekeeping mission will be needed to assist the
Afghan government and its security forces to exercise effective control. It
doesn't spell out the nature of the international force, which can be
presumably under the UN or regional auspices.
This is the first time that a Chinese commentary has openly called for the
withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in immediate terms as a
pre-requisite of peace. What the article doesn't say becomes equally important.
One, it differentiates the Afghan problem from the so-called "AfPak" approach.
The article doesn't make a single reference to Pakistan, either.
However, it must be assumed that the Chinese perspective disfavors a US
military presence in the region as a whole and that includes Central Asia as
well as Pakistan. Two, the article puts the primacy on an intra-Afghan search
for settlement with the Taliban implicitly as a legitimate Afghan faction.
Nowhere does the article even remotely suggest that the Taliban are propped up
Equally, the article nowhere doubts that the so-called "warlords" can be
overlooked as serious protagonists on the political chessboard. This is an
endorsement of Karzai's pragmatic approach and a rejection of the opportunistic
stance taken by the US and its Western partners to keep out Karzai's allies
from the power structure.
Three, the article doesn't visualize the al-Qaeda as a big factor justifying
the continuance of the war. Needless to say, the article rejects the contention
by NATO that the Afghan war is integral to safeguarding the Western world from
threat posed by international terrorism. Again, it is indifferent to the fate
of the alliance's much-trumpeted first-ever "out-of-area" operation.
The geopolitics of the war have been completely left out in the article. This
is consistent with the Chinese view that the Afghan people should be
principally in charge of their destiny. Thus, the article gives the go-by
altogether to the controversial thesis propounded by some experts regarding a
regional solution to the war, with the US entering into "grand bargains" with
the main regional countries such as Russia, China, Iran, India and Central
The accent, on the contrary, is on the UN Security Council assuming the
responsibility of guiding and monitoring a settlement in Afghanistan, and
within that, the five permanent members will be the key arbiters.
1. The commentary
Afghan peace needs a map was published September 28 in The China Daily.
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.
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