US 'rebalancing' in the Hindu Kush
By M K Bhadrakumar
The entente cordial over Afghanistan, which was the finest flower of the United States' "reset" with Russia during Barack Obama's first term as president, is wilting.
Moscow has reacted sharply to the triumphalist surprise announcement by senior officials traveling with Obama to the recent Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland regarding the commencement of Afghan peace talks in Doha - though protests from Kabul appear to have put these on hold for the time being.
The talks between US officials and Taliban representatives were due to start on Thursday, but Afghan government anger at the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar forced them to be called off, Reuters has reported.
Senior United States officials project that President Obama has a "hands-on" role in kick-starting the talks. They singled out Germany, Norway and Britain for having "contributed significantly" through the past year, but the "core players" are the governments of Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan and the US.
Russia does not figure as a serious enough player in the Afghan endgame, as far as Washington is concerned. The US officials say Washington "particularly appreciates" Pakistan's role in the recent months in urging the Taliban to join a peace process. They perceive a "genuine" shift in Pakistani policy. As they put it,
Pakistan has been genuinely supportive of a peace process ... there has in the past been skepticism about their support, but in recent months ... we've seen evidence that there is genuine support and that they've employed their influence such as it is to encourage the Taliban to engage, and to engage in this particular format [at Doha].
Extra leap of faith
Quite obviously, there has been very close US-Pakistan coordination. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kiani at least twice in recent months. Special representative James Dobbins visited Kiani in Rawalpindi a fortnight ago. Kerry telephoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday and is scheduled to visit Islamabad.
This "genuine" shift in the Pakistani stance generates optimism in Washington regarding "a regional buy-in for stability in South Asia". The US officials hope "to get that type of regional consensus". Evidently, Kerry hopes to utilize his forthcoming visit to Delhi and Islamabad to harmonize the Indian and Pakistani approaches. However, the regional powers such as Russia or India will have to muster the presence of mind to take an extra leap of faith over the inclusion of the Haqqani Network in the Doha talks.
Delhi, in particular, estimates that the Haqqanis perpetrated two murderous attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, which resulted in the killing of two senior Indian diplomats. The US had empathized with Delhi but has now done a volte face. There is palpable angst in Delhi.
The US officials now have the following to say about the Haqqani Network by way of justifying the Obama administration's decision to sit down with them for talks:
We [US] considered the Haqqani Network an especially dangerous element of the overall Taliban movement. So the Haqqanis themselves declare themselves part of the overall [Taliban] movement, and we have all evidence that supports that claim ... so we consider them a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency. So when the Taliban movement opens the office [in Qatar] and is represented by its political commission, that political commission represents, as we understand it, the Haqqani elements as well. We don't know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorized by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis.
The sophistry in the argument is self-evident. What emerges is that the so-called "red lines" that the Obama administration had dictated for the Taliban to observe before the commencement of any formal talks on reconciliation have been coolly abandoned - snapping the links with al-Qaeda, vowing to work within the four walls of the Afghan constitution and abandoning their medieval practices on the human rights front in regard of issues such as the role of women in society.
The senior US officials now say Washington is pretty much satisfied that the Taliban have issued a statement affirming their good intentions. It does not matter that they do not have any access to the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan and the tangled mountains of eastern Afghanistan where the Haqqanis cohabit and have their daily intercourse with the al-Qaeda - leave alone verify whether the profound links that go back by a quarter century have been conclusively ended.
A level playing field
Even so, the Obama administration is willingly suspending its judgment for the sake of commencing direct talks with the Taliban. So, why is the Obama administration doing this?
Without doubt, the US proposes to "incentivize" the Taliban by meeting their demand for release of their top leaders detained in Guantanamo Bay. The US hopes the detainee exchange will "lead to a diminution in violence."
The Taliban have since coyly admitted that they are willing to discuss a "truce". Conceivably, the Taliban will allow the orderly retreat of the US troops. Most important, Obama will link his decision regarding "the exact shape of our [US] commitment, of our presence beyond 2014" with the outcome of the Doha talks.
In short, the US seeks the Taliban's acquiescence with the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan. But why should the Taliban give up their robust opposition to foreign occupation of their country?
Evidently, Taliban too have a "wish list". Their (and Pakistan's) calculation is that time works in their favor. Once ensconced in power in Kabul and in the provinces straddling the Durand Line, they will be in a position to incrementally assert their dominance, being the most cohesive and ideologically motivated group and enjoying the full backing of the Pakistani military.
The plan for the Doha talks did not demand the disarming of the Taliban. Conceivably, Taliban cadres might even merge with the Afghan armed forces. The mother of all ironies will be if the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies find themselves in future assisting the "capacity-building" of the Afghan armed forces consisting largely of the Taliban cadres.
Meanwhile, the Western powers have unilaterally declared an end to all combat operations and their stated intent henceforth will be to prevent a comeback by the al-Qaeda. The Taliban as such are no longer regarded as "enemy".
No doubt, the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors are fully justified in assessing that with the passage of time, the strategic balance will only work in their favor because the US and its Western allies will not have the stomach to revert to an active "combat role" once again in what would at any rate by then - in a year or two from now - become a purely fratricidal strife between Afghan groups locked in a struggle for supremacy.
The US officials admit that "the levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on the one hand, by the levels of violence in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, by the presence or absence of international terrorists in or around Afghanistan."
That is to say, on the basis of Taliban's guarantee to cease attacks on American soldiers, the US will establish the military bases. In return, Taliban get rehabilitated politically and would certainly relish the "level playing field" to work toward incrementally establishing their dominance at the inter-Afghan level.
Uses of militant Islam
The Obama administration desperately wants to end the war so that the US could move on to meet the far more important challenges of the containment of China and Russia. But Afghanistan will still remain a crucial theatre, where the needs to remain embedded, given its strategic location geographically.
Unsurprisingly, Russia has begun circling the wagons. Moscow's emphasis is ostensibly on the US "walking away" from Afghanistan leaving the unfinished business of the war. In extensive comments earlier in the week during an interview with the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said:
I would like to specify that it is not about full withdrawal of US armed forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The USA and its allies plan to keep more than 10,000 troops in IRA [Afghanistan]. The USA intends to leave nine big military bases in Afghanistan. The final decision on this issue has not been made yet Washington is negotiating with Kabul over that.
Unfortunately, the current situation in IRA is far from stability and has aggravation trends. At the same time, we keep having an impression that the Americans and their allies want to leave fast and hand over security responsibility for the Afghan forces without considering the situation in the areas of this process.
Phasing out ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] forces in IRA should be coupled with strengthening Afghan security forces despite the decline in their numbers to avoid security collapse to achieve that they are eventually able to control security in their state, to effectively counteract extremist groupings and drug criminals. We do not see any noticeable advancement in this line.
You are right that the today's processes in Afghanistan seriously affect the entire situation in the region. There is a threat of its destabilization. Even more so that ethnic Uzbek and Tajik extremist and terrorist groupings in the north of IRA are already working on the plans to penetrate territories of Central Asian countries.
But this is public diplomacy on Lavrov's part. Evidently, what is on the Russian mind is the US's propensity, historically speaking, to use the extremist Islamist forces to advance its geopolitical agenda. Old habits die hard, and the US has not been averse to such habits although the Cold War has ended. Theaters such as Bosnia, Libya and, arguably, even Syria testify to that.
Afghanistan is the theater where the strategy to harness the militant jihadis was first attempted by the US in a hugely successful way in the 1980s. The Afghan playpen is still open for the US to pick up the threads where it left in the early 1990s.
Paradoxically, it suits the US geo-strategy to have the Taliban return to power and Afghanistan becoming an "Islamic" state. The talks in Doha aim at working out the ground rules of a "peaceful co-existence" between the US and the Taliban.
What Russia would apprehend is that it is a matter of time before this co-habitation between the US and the Taliban would mutate into a tacit "division of labor" between the two protagonists with regard to Central Asia. The strengthening of the Russian military presence in Tajikistan anticipates such a turn of events in the geopolitics of the region.
On Thursday in Kyrgyzstan, the country's parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of the government's decision determining July 11, 2014, as the date by which the US should vacate its military personnel and equipment from the Manas air base. Last September, Kyrgyzstan agreed with Russia on the consolidation of long-term Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan within a unified format from 2017 onward.
The deep chill in Russia's ties with the US is beginning to cast its spell on Moscow's approach to the Afghan situation. Obama has retracted from the earlier assurance given to the Russian leadership that once he got re-elected as president, he would show flexibility on the missile defense issue.
The Group of Eight summit's communique this week reveals that an uneasy patch-up on Syria apart, the discord between Moscow and Washington continues unresolved. Meanwhile, NATO is steadily approaching Russia's post-Soviet borders. Georgia's membership of NATO is on the cards. Above all, a concerted US attempt to destabilize the Russian domestic political scene worries the Kremlin.
Thus, for a variety of reasons, Afghanistan is moving into the center stage of US-Russia tensions. But the big question is what Russia can do to stop the Obama administration in its tracks. Russian leverage is little, except for the US and NATO's dependence on the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line into Afghanistan from Central Asia, which is, however, not critical.
That is why Moscow sized up the importance of Pakistan's role and made some overtures to reach an understanding with Islamabad regarding the Afghani situation, but the South Asian paradigm - India-Pakistan rivalry and Russia's ties with India - put inherent limitations to the Russian diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the US has revived links with the Pakistani military leadership and is cashing in on the latter's control over foreign and security policies. The Pakistani generals have established a rapport with Kerry, while Washington is restraining itself from being seen in any way as patronizing or encouraging the democratization process in Pakistan leading to the establishment of civilian supremacy.
If anything, Washington remains wary of the leadership of Nawaz Sharif. Suffice to say, the Obama administration is on the right track to figure out that this is the most opportune moment to strike a deal with the Pakistani military leadership so that the Taliban can be "reconciled".
Indeed, there is no serious contradiction between the respective American and Pakistani interests. What Pakistan is looking for - stability on the Durand Line, a rollback of Indian influence in Kabul, a friendly government in Kabul and so on - does not really affect the US' vital interests and core concerns in Afghanistan with regard to Washington's "rebalancing" strategy in Asia.
On the other hand, a Pakistani military leadership that is at peace with itself as regards the Afghan situation would be the best mate the US can look for in the region, especially when Washington's relations with Moscow have soured and the US dependence on the Pakistani transit routes is only going to increase even further with the establishment of the nine American military bases in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reported that the US was confident direct peace talks will soon go forward.
"We anticipate these talks happening in the coming days," Jen Psaki, State Department spokesperson, said, on Thursday in Washington, adding that she could not be more specific, the report said.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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