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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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