By Ilhan Niaz
After three decades of turmoil, violence and killings, Afghanistan is still at war. A powerful foreign occupation force continues to hold in place a local collaborationist dispensation with few roots and even less demonstrable competence. Democratic development has replaced despotic Islamic rule which earlier replaced a socialist paradigm as the slop of the day dished out for public consumption.
The Islamic warriors who blunted and frustrated the armies of the ‘Evil Empire’ are now the ‘evil doers’. The other great enemies of the ‘Evil Empire’, namely the United States and its allies, once the benefactors of today’s terrorists have replaced the Soviets as the occupying force.
As guns and drugs boom, the writ of what is generously called the Afghan government is practically non-existent outside Kabul. Warlords, mafias and insurgents control 80 per cent of the territory and feed off the presence of the occupation forces. The reality is that a failing occupation is trying to prop up a failed state.
The Obama administration’s new surge-and-exit strategy reflects the exasperation of the western alliance as it struggles to balance the politically feasible with the militarily necessary. At least as far the exit part of the strategy is concerned the US and its allies are condemned to succeed. When it comes to leaving behind a stable, legitimate and semi-functional Afghan state, the alliance is almost certain to fail.
The new strategy is in part driven by domestic compulsions as Obama struggles to rein in US militarism and adjust overseas commitments to political will and economic capacity. The surge is designed to show that Obama is tough and determined. The exit part is meant to placate a war weary public in time for the 2012 elections. Of course, at a declaratory level senior members of the administration, including the secretary of defence Robert Gates, are putting a brave face on the situation and assuring their allies and Karzai that the United States is in it to win.
These assurances are hollow. The fact is that the United States is leaving Afghanistan. Starting in July 2011 the drawdown will begin. For Karzai and his regime the final countdown has now begun and the American exit amounts to a death sentence. All the Taliban have to do is wait another 18 months, lie low and melt into the local population while stockpiling arms, ammunition and funds siphoned off from drugs and Nato contractors in preparation for the re-conquest of their country.
There is no evidence that the Karzai regime, which is now handicapped by a newfound illegitimacy following the fraudulent August 20 elections in addition to its longstanding incompetence, has the ability to rise to the occasion or the will to at least try and set things in order.
If anything, the Karzai regime’s position is analogous to that of the South Vietnamese regime of President Thieu in 1972. Afghanistan’s narco-warlord elite now has an even greater incentive to loot as much as they can before the protective shield of the American and allied militaries evaporates and the Taliban onslaught begins again. Depending on the amount of damage the United States can inflict over the next few months a decent interval between imperial withdrawal and neo-colonial collapse may yet be secured. It is unlikely though that the regime left behind will be able to profit sufficiently from a prospective breather.
At one level, Musharraf’s strategy of hedging Pakistan’s bets in Afghanistan seems to have been based on a fairly realistic appraisal of what was politically and militarily possible for the western alliance. For Pakistan there can be no exit strategy from the Afghan quagmire. The double policy to the extent it could be sustained meant that no matter who won in Afghanistan Pakistan could claim to have helped the winning side. Now that the Americans have served notice that they will start vacating in 18 months Pakistan has every incentive to accelerate its campaign against those militants working against itself while leaving the Afghan Taliban alone. There are a number of post-American scenarios that Pakistan is now compelled to contemplate.
The first and most alarmist scenario is that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to a fundamental realignment of the regional political and societal equilibrium with Afghanistan and Pakistan going down like dominoes before a reenergized Taliban/Islamist/Jihadist push. This scenario is premised on the notion that it is the United States that has through military and economic exertions been containing a radical avalanche. Once that exertion ceases nature will take its course and fundamentalists and extremists throughout the Muslim world will be heartened by this victory and intensify their struggle for power.
The second scenario signals a return to the 1990s when Afghanistan’s neighbours were fuelling its internal conflicts. Russia, India and Iran would presumably support the Northern Alliance and Karzai. Pakistan may well be induced by residual US pressure to maintain a policy of malevolent neutrality and thus contribute covertly to Taliban resurgence. In this scenario attrition on all sides is likely to be high and Pakistan’s own extremists may well redirect their energies towards helping the Taliban seize control of Kabul and defeat the Northern Alliance. This could well relieve pressure on Pakistan though its rulers may not possess the political will or the administrative capacity to benefit strategically from such a reprieve.
The third scenario is that all the regional and Nato powers are able to work out a negotiated settlement although such attempts in the past have failed miserably. As long as the Afghans are determined to kill each other, there is not much that regional powers can do in diplomatic terms to stop them. Then, Pakistan-India disagreements over Afghanistan constitute a major obstacle. Any serious attempt at negotiating a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the North Alliance is highly improbable to succeed.
The fourth scenario is that the US withdraws ground troops but keeps its drones, air force and special operations in play. Such a strategy would mean aligning with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and containing the latter through air power, limited ground engagements and missile strikes. Thus, the US would almost completely ‘Afghanise’ the conflict and become a permanent party to a long running civil war. The effectiveness of such a strategy is open to question but it would allow the American leadership to defend itself against the charge that it had abandoned Afghanistan. It may also substantially delay the liquidation of the Karzai regime and the defeat of the Northern Alliance warlords.
The fifth scenario is that the US disengagement from Afghanistan and Iraq by 2011-12 will remove the rationale for extremist militancy and enable local powers to deal more pragmatically with such elements. This scenario is based on the premise that it is the West’s own imperialism that is primarily responsible for facilitating the spread of radical Islam which can then project itself as a successful resistance movement. Once the onslaught ceases the logic of resistance will be rendered inoperative. This is perhaps the most optimistic of all the scenarios.
Of course, all five of these scenarios are at this stage mere speculation. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive and a lot can happen in three years though it seems unlikely that there are any good options left to exercise. One can only hope that those in authority are seriously thinking about the post-American post-occupation regional configuration with particular reference to Afghanistan with the aim of at least trying to arrive at a workable and inclusive solution in accordance with enlightened self-interest. Or, Pakistan and other regional powers can wait until the Americans leave and once again plunge into the strategic depths of Afghanistan. In either case a war that began in 1979 and is now in its thirtieth year may well still be raging in 2039.
The writer is an assistant professor of history at the Quaid-i-Azam University.