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    South Asia
     Feb 28, 2012

Kabul on razor's edge
By M K Bhadrakumar

The killing in Kabul on Saturday of two high-ranking American military officials - a colonel and a major - serving with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will prompt a paradigm shift in regional security. Afghanistan surges as still America's number one "hot spot", over-shadowing Syria and Iran.

If President Barack Obama thought it was time for the United States military to "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific, it has been delusionary thinking. The Taliban retain a big say still in the upcoming campaign for Obama's re-election bid; the strategy of peace talks with the Taliban will need a close look.

The prospects of the United States establishing military bases in Afghanistan look very doubtful in the backdrop of the tsunami of anti-Americanism sweeping through Afghanistan. And, in


immediate terms, what happens to the drawdown of the US troops?

The US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, was quick with the answer in an interview with the CNN on Sunday: "Tensions are running very high here. I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business."

Diplomats are paid to sound optimistic. But then, how sure are we that things are indeed going to "calm down" - and, more importantly, how long will the calmness of the cemetery last till the next funeral is held?

Crocker added, "This is not the time to decide that we are done here. We have got to redouble our efforts. We've got to create a situation that al-Qaeda is not coming back. If we decide we're tired of it, al-Qaeda and the Taliban certainly aren't." Hmm. Now we know Crocker was addressing the American public.

Obama was wrong to have left Afghanistan to the State Department and the late Richard Holbrooke's cronies to handle. Clearly, his "apology" for the burning of Korans by the US troops failed to impress the Afghans. More than 30 people have been killed in the violence, including half a dozen American soldiers. At least another six American military trainers have been injured.

The US consulate in the western city of Herat, which is dominated by the Tajiks, came under attack. US, French and Norwegian bases were attacked, including in a relatively calm region like Samangan province in the north. Protesters stormed the United Nations office in the northern city of Kunduz, which has a mixed population of Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks. No region of Afghanistan can be considered safe; not even Tajik-dominated Taloqan town in the approaches to the Badakhshan mountains in the east.

A host of political issues arises. The top US commander, General John Allen threatened that Saturday's killings were the action of a "coward who won't go unpunished". But that is neither here nor there, and is primarily meant for the consumption of the NATO troops. Washington has to walk a thin line between forcefully acting but not over-reacting.

Dying for the religion
On the other hand, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich mocked Obama for so quickly making an "apology" over the Koran burning incident and ignoring the random killing of Americans by rogue elements in the Afghan army. The American troops also needed to be held back from indulging in "revenge killings".

Allen personally rushed to one American forward base in Nangarhar province to calm the troops. We are not quite there where the epic film on the Vietnam-War era Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola was set. But one can almost hear Ride of the Valkyries playing over the American chopper loudspeakers.

Significantly, it was only Sunday that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai broke his silence and called for calm. He waited wisely for the protests to run their course. Finally, Karzai told a press conference that the protests showed Afghan people were ready to die for their religion. He called for the American soldiers who burned the Koran to be punished and promised to take it up with Obama.

Obama phoned Allen after Saturday's killings, but didn't call Karzai. Karzai too let Defense Minister Abdul Wardak call his US counterpart Leon Panetta and handle it as a "mil-to-mil" affair. Pentagon has called off Wardak's consultations with Panetta in Washington on Thursday.

Washington seems to feel Karzai should have acted earlier to smother the protests. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded on Saturday that the protests "must stop". To be sure, the deaths in the afternoon on Saturday makes the volatile relationship between Washington and Kabul even more complicated.

There is going to be pervasive doubt in the American mind about the Afghan soldier. An armed Afghan in a military base becomes a potential suicide killer. A senior Afghan general told the BBC, "The virus of infiltration has spread like a cancer and it needs an operation. Curing it has not helped." The entire project of "capacity-building" of the Afghan security is in disrepute.

A normal working relationship between the US and Afghan forces is not going to be easy in this climate. Which means the Pentagon's "surge" and the follow-up strategy of the troop drawdown and handing over of security responsibility to the Afghan forces and the ending of the NATO combat mission by 2014 - all of that lies in tatters.

Washington and London almost instantly decided to pull out their mentors and advisers attached to Afghan government ministries and establishments. But the impasse means paralysis in effective coordination work in ongoing security operations, technical support and intelligence sharing, which will only deepen the uncertainties.

NATO allies are also watching. The Germans summarily shut down their base in Taloqan in northeastern Afghanistan. Each NATO member country will be prompted to explore how to minimize the risk of its young men and women perishing in a senseless war. French President Nicolas Sarkozy already threatened once that he is scooting and had to be persuaded to change his mind. A tricky time lies ahead for Obama as NATO gears up for its 60th anniversary summit in Chicago in May.

Time to leave
Obama has a big decision to take regarding the peace talks with the Taliban, who have openly claimed credit for the killing in Kabul. Obama set free his "Afghan experts" in the late Holbrooke's team to knock at every door and look behind every bush, seeking out Taliban emissaries who could be somehow engaged in peace talks. Clinton's brilliant coinage - "Fight, talk, build" - says it all.

The Taliban have heartily co-opted the Clinton plan - apparently, far better than the Americans could imagine. Spokesman Mullah Qari Mohammed Yousef Ahmadi revealed the interesting possibility in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat just this week that Taliban were considering opening more "political offices" after the one in Qatar in response to invitations received from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, Egypt "and elsewhere". The more, the merrier.

Where is it all leading? In retrospect, the unilateral US involvement in the Afghan reconciliation process was a mistake. The US's role should have been limited to rendering assistance to intra-Afghan negotiations.

However, wait a minute. Did the Taliban really do it? The colonel and the major were shot point blank in the back of their head at their workplace in one of the most secluded and protected compounds in the whole of Afghanistan. The room had CCTV cameras and special locks.

The killer obviously had the highest grade of security clearance to get into that room. International Security Assistance Froce spokesman General Carsten Jacobsen said, "The questions are how he [assailant] could make it into this part of the Ministry of Interior, which is so highly secure, what motivated him or her to do this act - to kill people in cold blood."

The Interior Ministry is headed by Bismillah Khan, who hails from Panjshir. He used to be a stalwart of the erstwhile Northern Alliance with impeccable anti-Taliban credentials. And the ministry is crawling with "Panjshiris" (Tajiks) who are implacably opposed to the Taliban.

Significantly, Karzai refuses to point fingers at the Taliban or Pakistan. "Who has done this, and whether he is an Afghan or a foreigner, we do not know," he said cryptically on Sunday - despite the Interior Ministry's own instant finding that the murder was committed by a 25-year-old driver by the name of Abdul Saboor who hails from the Salaang Valley and who has absconded.

Abdul Saboor is a common Tajik name. Salaang lies in the approaches to the Panjshir Valley. The point is, many Northern Alliance groups too feel disgusted today with the American style of peacemaking.

Suffice to say, the ham-handed American methods in the past one year or so to directly (and secretly) engage the Taliban exacerbated the political fragmentation inside Afghanistan. Even Vice President Karim Khalili, who worked well with the Americans all through, sounded impatient on Sunday, "The [peace] process can lead to success if it is led in a transparent manner so that Afghans trust the process."

No doubt, the ground beneath the American feet in the Hindu Kush is shifting dangerously. The British, too, were unprepared for the insurrection in Kabul in November 1841. They failed to grasp the significance when the mob encircled the villa of Sir Alexander Burnes in Kabul. The British diplomat tried to offer money to the crowd but the residence was overrun and he and his brother were killed.

The British finally understood it was time to leave Afghanistan when their cantonment in Kabul was encircled a month later. By that time, in the event, even an orderly retreat became problematic.

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.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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