The winner takes all in Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Nobel Peace Prize has a tradition. In the entire period from 1901 to 2009,
it has never been awarded twice to any of its 97 individual recipients.
United States President Barack Obama is thus unlikely to win a second Nobel.
Yet, in an historical perspective, Afghanistan promises to become the first
country in which Islamists will have been ushered into power on the wave of
America's newfound smart power.
That too may only be the beginning. "Of course Afghanistan is not an island.
There is no solution just within its borders," North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) secretary general Anders
Fogh Rasmussen said at a security conference in Munich last weekend.
NATO eyes Central Asia
The international community has been led to believe that the India-Pakistan
faultline is the pivotal concern in the US's diplomatic strategy in
Afghanistan. However, it is a mere subplot. The US's principal protagonist is
China, while India and Pakistan - and increasingly Russia - are more like
jesters in forming the confusion and the humor in an Elizabethan drama.
The main plot is about the expansion of NATO into Central Asia. At Munich,
Rasmussen spoke of the "need to turn NATO into a forum of consultation on
worldwide security issues ... NATO is a framework which has already proven to
be uniquely able to combine security consultation, military planning and actual
operations ... Afghanistan is a vivid example that in the 21st century,
security can't be a relay race, with one individual handing the baton to the
next runner ... That is why ... the Alliance should become the hub of a network
of security partnerships ... Already today, the Alliance has a vast network of
security partnerships, as far afield as northern Africa, the Gulf, Central Asia
and the Pacific."
The Central Asian region is increasingly projected in the Western media as a
"ticking bomb waiting to go off". The argument runs like this: social and
ethnic tensions are smoldering and the economic crisis is deepening, whereas
the autocratic and repressive regimes are incapable of addressing the tensions;
Islamists are, therefore, stepping into the political vacuum and Central Asia
is becoming increasingly susceptible to al-Qaeda.
The argument is gaining ground. Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid said recently,
"[Militants] are preparing the ground for a long, sustained military campaign
in Central Asia. There is now a real threat because the Islamist surge is
combined with an economic and political crisis ... The reason is that they
have, first of all, done enough fighting for other people. They now want to
fight for their own country. The real threat now is the fact that they are
trying to infiltrate back into Central Asia .. They are trying to infiltrate
weapons, ammunition and men back into Central Asia."
Islamists as agents of geopolitics
There is an ominous overtone to Western reports. Al-Qaeda was used after all as
justification for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
This is where the US's idea of reconciliation with the Taliban merits scrutiny.
The idea is indeed eminently sensible at a time when Muslim anger is rising,
there is growing disillusionment about Obama, and when the US is dangerously
close to confronting Iran and a need arises to "split" Muslim opinion.
At the same time, the Taliban's reconciliation also makes realpolitik. The
Afghan war costs a lot of money, it costs Western lives and it cannot be won.
The Taliban's reconciliation is arguably the only option available to keep
open-ended NATO's military presence in Central Asia without having to fight a
The ascendancy of malleable Islamist forces also has its uses for the US's
containment strategy towards China (and Russia). Islamists lend themselves as a
foreign policy instrument. The rise of Islamism in Afghanistan cannot but
radicalize hot spots such as the North Caucasus, Kashmir and the Xinjiang
Uighur Autonomous Region in China.
China has the maximum to lose if a Taliban regime re-emerges. That explains the
length to which Beijing went at the London conference on Afghanistan on January
28 and at the Istanbul regional conference immediately preceding it to assert
that Afghanistan is far too critical an issue for regional security and
stability to be left to Washington.
China repudiates US's strategy
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spelt out in great deal during his
speeches at London and Istanbul that Beijing intends to play an active role to
safeguard its interests.
Yang outlined the kind of Afghanistan that China wishes to see emerge out of
the abyss. First and foremost, it has to be a peaceful and stable Afghanistan
that "eradicates the threat of terrorism". Two, it should be an Afghanistan
that accepts the "existence of diverse ethnic groups, religions and political
affiliations and rises above their differences to achieve comprehensive and
enduring national reconciliation".
The accent on pluralism is a virtual rejection of the fundamentalist ideology
of Wahhabism practiced by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Three, Afghanistan
should "enjoy inviolable sovereign independence, territorial integrity and
national dignity. Its future and destiny should be determined and its state
affairs run by its own people."
In essence, China expects a total and unconditional vacation of foreign
occupation. Four, Yang highlighted repeatedly the centrality of regional powers
in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Afghanistan "should be a part of the
regional cooperation mechanisms ... Countries of the region have special
associations with Afghanistan."
He added, "There are now quite a number of mechanisms and initiatives regarding
Afghanistan. Countries in the region should increase communication to ensure
that the relevant mechanisms are viable, practical and efficient and can play a
positive role ... We should avoid overlapping of various mechanisms ... we
should be open and inclusive and promote sound interaction with other partners
... It is imperative to respect the leading role of the United Nations in
coordinating international efforts and demonstrate openness and transparency."
Yang then added a punchline: "Countries from outside the region should
vigorously support the efforts of countries in the region and fully appreciate
their difficulties in order to foster sound interactions between the two." In
effect, he challenged the US's monopoly of conflict-resolution.
Yang demanded that the Obama administration should get off the back of Afghan
President Hamid Karzai. He asked Washington to "respect the leading role of
Afghanistan in economic reconstruction and let the Afghan government and people
sit in the driver's seat. China supports channeling more assistance through the
Afghan government and making more investment ... on the basis of equal
consultations with the Afghan government."
Equally, "[The] international community should fully respect the unique
history, culture and religion as well as the current development stage of
Afghanistan, take into consideration the realities and difficulties of the
Afghan government and respect the wishes of the Afghan people. In short, we
should let Afghanistan choose on its own a governance model most suited to its
own national circumstances."
Obama deserves another Nobel
Chinese commentaries have since robustly questioned the efficacy of the Obama
administration's plan to "reintegrate" the Taliban, saying it is a deeply
flawed idea and raises concerns that Karzai may be ultimately forced into
making "certain political concessions" to the insurgents in terms of a
power-sharing arrangement and constitutional reform.
They lamented that the entire exercise aimed at "a graceful exit strategy" for
the US and its allies and "appears to have been carefully stage-managed to
allow the US and NATO troops to start scripting a withdrawal. But perceived in
a certain light, it could be counter-productive."
The Chinese commentaries underlined that the plan to split the Taliban by
buying off its cadres and reintegrating those who had no links with al-Qaeda
wouldn't work. "The United States has always tried to spend its way into a
solution, a tactic that could backfire with the more extreme element of the
Taliban ... the prospect conjures images of a bottomless money pit."
China is far from alone among the regional powers to harbor deep misgivings
about the US's plan to reconcile the Taliban. Almost word-by-word, Moscow or
Delhi will be pleased by what Yang said.
Yet, if Yang's Russian and Indian counterparts chose to keep their counsel at
the London conference, Obama could claim credit for it as a superb practitioner
of smart power and grand bargains - worthy of a Nobel - even if his plan to
pacify Taliban leader Mullah Omar gets nowhere.
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.