Lost battle?

If the situation in Afghanistan is so desperately serious, why is the US running away from the bitter realities on the ground?Shrinivasrao S Sohoni Kabul

"How is the situation there?" is a question one is not infrequently asked about Afghanistan - outside Afghanistan. The situation being grim, the answer - "quite serious" - often works to shut conversation on the subject. Sometimes, there are further queries, and then, time and mood being suitable, a discussion could ensue involving geopolitics, regional and superpower aims and policies, the international narcotics trade, Afghan domestic politics, Islam. Also, radical militant Islam, NATO military strategy, tactics and operations, and Taliban guerrilla warfare and propaganda, et al. 

The fact is, things are quite serious, and getting worse each day. This, as seen from the viewpoint of someone interested in peace in Afghanistan - not the icy peace of a morgue or a 'peace' enforced by the edge of the sword - but a meaningful peace engendering progress and human happiness. 

Almost nine years since October 2001, when it expelled the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar from Afghanistan, the US, leading a 43-nation coalition, appears unable to suppress Al Qaeda or the Pakistan-based armed insurgency - funded by Saudis and the narcotics trade. Even as insurgency has grown and stalks all of Afghanistan more than ever, and is making inroads into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, public opinion in the countries forming the coalition is turning increasingly averse to continued military involvement in Afghanistan. 

As a possible complication, a Kuchi-Hazara armed conflict is apprehended in the near future over grazing rights in the central Hazarajat highland region of Afghanistan. This involves potential internal ethnic and sectarian strife - Kuchis being nomad Pashtun Sunni Muslims whose movement of sheep flocks to grazing areas in the highlands is resented and opposed by the Shia Hazaras. 

Kabul itself is getting populated on tribal and ethnic lines and the possibility exists of consequent tension and ethnic conflict in Kabul as well. Yet another complication is that the Uzbek community, known for its ferocious fighters, is said to be aligned with the Hazaras. The situation lends itself to exploitation by the armed opposition and its sponsors, and equally by elements in Iran supporting Shias in Afghanistan. Various factors are cited for the worsening state of affairs. Routinely, western media carries critical reviews of the government not eliciting enough popular local support to pit the people of the country against the armed opposition; it is criticised for being unable to implement the latter two components of the 'Clear, Hold and Build' approach of the iconic International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, General McChrystal. 

Indeed, faults are regularly found with the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and other security agencies for lacking the necessary efficiency and commitment. Sub-national governance authorities are pilloried for inadequacies in local administration. The truth is, such reports are neither completely unbiased nor an adequate representation of the factual position on the ground. 

Significant governmental achievements in Afghanistan - seven million children now go to school, including millions of girl children (who the Taliban would prefer as illiterate, sequestered and walled-in at home) - are achievements claimed by foreign donor agencies and governments, and not attributed to the Afghan government to which credit is in all fairness due for executing the difficult task of such an important social sector reform.

Similarly, given the constraints in face of severe challenges, Afghan security authorities have performed commendably to thwart and combat terrorism. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, and Director General of National Security Directorate Amrullah Saleh, are exceptionally capable leaders under whom no effort is spared by the security authorities to exercise utmost vigilance round the clock. The sheer bravery, alacrity and fighting qualities of even ordinary policemen, let alone special anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency commando units, is to be seen to be believed. 

There is much to be learned from Afghanistan in the matter of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactical operations. However, scarcely is credit assigned by the international community to the yeoman services of Afghan security forces. In contrast, the international media and visiting leaders of foreign governments routinely shower praise on the performance of the coalition forces. It is also not rare for these quarters, in the event of a breach of security, to quickly blame Afghan security services, rather than admit any fault on the part of the much better equipped international security forces.

Much hue and cry is raised about corruption in Afghanistan's public administration, but few reports are carried by the international media of undeniable corruption in the working of international organisations and NGOs which handle an estimated 80 per cent of expenditure on public works in Afghanistan. There is the case of an auditor of an international agency's operations, whose services were terminated because he persisted in investigating a substantial fraud detected during inspection of accounts. Auditors of expenditure of international agencies are often staggered by the scale of irregularities.

It is a moot point whether observers in the coalition remain unaware of the stark realities or prefer to stay in denial. The operative policies concerning investment and use of military and developmental resources are only superficially effective in dealing with the challenges of insurgency and under-development in Afghanistan. This is because the measures merely treat outward symptoms of the problems, rather than acting against deeper, underlying causes.

The roots of the insurgency in Afghanistan, now endemic and infecting countries to its immediate north as well as further, are to be found in the ambitions of those who promote, and cooperate to spread, extreme fundamentalist militant Islam - Wahabism. This includes its incitement to violence with the aspiration for global Islamic conquest and a worldwide Islamic Emirate. 

The generic causes for the situation in Afghanistan are transparent: the strategic conviction and commitment of the regime in Saudi Arabia in nexus with Wahabism to proliferate radical Islam; massive Saudi funding of the madrasa movement spawning Islamic fanatics in the entire region from Saudi Arabia across Pakistan and Afghanistan into Central Asia and the subcontinent of India; Pakistan-based jehadi recruitment, training, deployment, tactical guidance, and safe-haven facility. All this supported by active collusion of the ruling military elite in Pakistan - the latter sustained by colossal military and financial aid from external sources and political cover from powerful capitals and chanceries.

Thus, notwithstanding the stupendous scale of resources deployed in Afghanistan, the coalition effort is proving to be futile, indeed counterproductive. Despite prolonged engagement and the avowed cause of upholding international law, peace and security, the NATO coalition is far from being a popular entity in Afghanistan. There is palpable alienation on account of incidents of 'collateral non-combatant casualties', and perceived violation of deeply-held traditional cultural mores and sensibilities of the local populace. Some instances of wrongful and excessive use of force that have come to light are shocking to a degree, and merit specialised criminal investigation by military authorities. Such inflammatory cases provide violent incitement to Islamic radicalisation and militancy.

With the background of years on end of futile coalition operations, the US, to the detriment of its image in Afghanistan as a military power, is now widely perceived to be preparing to abandon the field. This is seen as a public admission of failure by yet another superpower in face of the indomitable Afghan fighting spirit. Suspicions are rife in the Afghan public mind of the US intending to entrust Pakistan's military rulers with a certain sway over the country. It is equally widely presumed that with the US withdrawing from the theatre, other NATO partners will not lag behind in leaving too.

Such a departure from the regional theatre of operations will only embolden the forces of international terrorism that pose a threat to not just Afghanistan and the region but indeed to world civilisation. The recent Times Square incident in New York shows that radical Islamic terrorism should never be underestimated. 

President Hamid Karzai, the one Afghan leader with an inclusive 'big tent' approach in respect of the myriad ethnicities, has initiated steps towards holding a 'Jirga' - Afghanistan's traditional consultative process to decide important issues. This is intended to evolve a national consensus on interacting with the armed opposition eventually to end the insurgency and achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The initiative serves a great cause - of peace in the region and the world. Interests that withhold support or undermine this exercise appear poorly advised. The urge to meet, to consult in the traditional way, and to evolve a national consensus; the resolution of conflict through dialogue; and the security measures underway to combat the armed opposition - these should be seen as mutually reinforcing and complementary.

Meanwhile, an international conference in Kabul of donors and governments - a follow-up to the London Conference of January 2010 - is on the cards. Parliamentary elections are scheduled on September 18, 2010, and need financial support from the international community. A distinguished personality, respected for his exceptional ability and impeccable integrity, Abdullah Ahmadzai, has been appointed by President Karzai to be the CEO of the secretariat of the Independent Election Commission. The appointment will raise the credibility of this important institution - reviled endlessly in the western press during the last elections. Support of the US, the European Community, Japan, India, China, Pakistan, the Central Asian States, the CIS, and the UN, is crucial to all these initiatives. It is in such a context that Karzai's visit to the US was scheduled.

Among other objectives, an unfulfilled US interest remains the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. The potential guarantors of its security will be those with the wherewithal to wield local kinetic dominance in the terrain that the pipeline will traverse - Afghanistan and Balochistan up to the sea ports. However, self-reliance is the best option.

Can guarantees of support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia be treated as credible? Will US investment in the project to build and operate the pipeline not risk being just another major hostage to Pakistan-based and Saudi-funded insurgent threat? 

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have their own reasons not to be enthusiastic about the pipeline. The Saudis view with disapproval any purchase of hydrocarbon resources by the US outside Saudi Arabia, and hence the diminishing US dependence on Saudi oil supplies. It also disapproves of the emergence of any competitive oil exporter that potentially may resist falling in line with Saudi preferences concerning worldwide pricing of oil. The Saudis view with disfavour any prolonged perpetuation of US influence in the region, which they apprehend will interfere with its policy of radicalising Central Asian States  using tenets of Wahabi Islam. They see US involvement in Central Asia as creating the basis for American entrepreneurial entrenchment in Balochistan and leading to US domination and blockage of a key region in the focus of Saudi aspirations.

The Pakistanis - acutely aware that a key US interest requiring Pakistan's oversight or support will always induce substantive US financial and military backing to Pakistan - are also aware of the consequences of doing anything disapproved of by the Saudis, or the Chinese, and have independent additional reservations regarding the TAP pipeline project.

Ideally, the Pakistanis would like themselves to exploit not just Turkmenistan's but all of Central Asia's natural resources. However, sorely lacking the capacity to do so, they are anxious not to rub Saudi Arabia and China the wrong way - the latter having its own designs so far as Central Asian natural resources are concerned.Far preferable it will be for Pakistan if the US and its allies leave Afghanistan. Or else the paradox: the region 'outsourced' to Pakistan's management, costs and profits on account of doing so generously underwritten by the US; or, the US remaining mired in Afghanistan, and dependent on Pakistan for regional logistic, political and military cooperation. 

The Chinese have plans for extension of rail, road and strategic communications from the Karakoram region south-west through Pakistan to Gwadar and Karachi ports, and to expand communications between Gwadar and Karachi. This is related to the coveted aim of connecting consumption and manufacturing capacities in China with a sea port near the Straits of Hormuz, as well as to exploit mineral and other natural resources in Afghanistan and Balochistan, besides building a strategic naval facility adjoining the mouth of the Gulf region, compassing the Arabian Sea and its rim, the coastlines of Africa, peninsular India, and Sri Lanka, and gaining access to the southern Indian Ocean region.

The Chinese have a long-range vision towards building China's rise to superpower status, displacing the global economic, political and military preponderance of the US. Afghanistan and Balochistan are key pieces in Chinese policy formulation.
Hence, the US has to arrive at and execute the right strategy in and around Afghanistan. The right strategy involves clarity and fullness of perception. The key to drive world events in the immediate future as well as in the unfolding decades of this century is not principally Afghanistan, but centered in controlling Balochistan and crucial locations in the border districts from Chitral to Balochistan.  (Incidentally, this is the territory which the great freedom fighter and Pashtun hero, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, cherished as, 'Pashtoonistan'.)

The right strategy involves rejecting appeasement of all forces that propagate Wahabism or cooperate with and connive in doing so. Purposeful, inexorable and practical action must be taken firmly to curb and suppress Wahabism. Irresistible and implacable pressure should be asserted on the military elite in Pakistan as well as the Saudi regime, with unambiguous warnings of the action that will follow if there is any form of support to terrorism. 

Come mid-July 2011, the US, as announced by President Barack Obama - intent, no doubt, on fulfilling past campaign pledges - may well begin withdrawing forces to non-combat locations. However, it is essential to locate appreciable forces in selected encampments in Balochistan, and at places on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier region, including the newly named 'Khyber Pakhtunkhwa' province of Pakistan. Doing so will confer vital, decisive, strategic and tactical leverage in the entire region and concentric spaces around it. 

It is in this area that the US-led coalition should have operated in the first instance to tackle and eliminate the menace posed by Al Qaeda and Taliban. Any refusal by Pakistan to cooperate in this respect should be viewed and declared as complicity with the enemy, and it should be heavily penalised for this. It is to be noted that the US has maintained military bases in the region from the early years of Pakistan, and has added to these - not the least now being the Shamsi base in Balochistan, stationing US drones. 

In 1893, the British imposed upon Afghanistan's then ruler, the tenacious but beleaguered Amir Abdur Rehman, the so-called 'Durand Line', named after Sir Mortimer Durand, the then foreign secretary of British India. The Durand Line is an unsurveyed and undelineated boundary, marked without expertise in smudgy blue chalk on a defective map. In 1947, the British government, led by Prime Minister Clement Atlee of the Labour Party, operated again as per British strategic interests, and manoeuvred the configuration and coming into being of 'Pakistan', and Pakistan's inheritance of the chain of vital border districts - from  Balochistan to Chitral - on the British side of the 'Durand Line'.

All things considered, the US is the world's paramount power, the ultimate arbiter of aggregate equities. It must comport itself in international affairs, especially relating to critical world crises - for a better future for all. 

The author is a senior advisor in the office of President Hamid Karzai, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2010