The chest thumping at the NATO Lisbon conference (November 19-20) did not impress the Taliban much. Instead, they were chuckling at how easily the Americans can be duped into believing they are negotiating with the Taliban. Any goat-herder, or shopkeeper, can pass for a Talib. With their flowing beards and baggy trousers, it is difficult to tell one Afghan from another. It would be easier to tell a Dalmatian by its spots. But the manner in which an Afghan shopkeeper bilked the Americans out of millions of dollars while claiming to be Mulla Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a senior Taliban leader, is hilarious. It also shows how desperate the Americans, especially their top commander General David Petraeus, are to negotiate with the Taliban to secure an “honorable” exit from the Afghan quagmire. For months they claimed senior Taliban leaders were meeting them to negotiate a peace deal. This so-called Mulla Mansour was even flown on a NATO plane to Kabul.
How could the Americans be fooled so easily? Fingers are being pointed at the British for arranging the meetings. The British in turn are saying it is not their responsibility; they merely arranged transportation; it was the Afghans who should have identified the mulla. The blame game continues with plenty of red faces, especially in Washington. General Petraeus is not as smart as he thinks.
In Lisbon meanwhile, NATO leaders pushed back their troop withdrawal date to 2014 from 2011 with the proviso that enough Afghan troops would be ready to take over security duties. Even the two-bit player Canada said its troops would remain in Afghanistan for another three years, albeit for training purposes, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowing that 2011 was a firm withdrawal date. Harper exposed his dictatorial streak when he said he did not need parliament’s approval. The liberal opposition, even more eager to please the Americans, did not object.
At the Lisbon summit, US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other NATO leaders talked of “progress” and “successes” that will enable the gradual withdrawal of troops to begin next year (as promised by Obama in his December 1, 2009 West Point speech), but this is based on dubious assumptions. The withdrawal talk is aimed at placating irate publics at home that want an end to the futile and costly war. But the generals are keen to continue because that is how they can justify the massive military spending at a time when millions are unemployed and face a grim future. British army chief General Sir David Richards went so far as to say the war could go on for decades.
The tough talk at Lisbon’s NATO summit must be weighed against the grim reality of Western economies. The US economy in particular is in a tailspin, despite optimistic noises about improvement in employment figures. Many economists are predicting the US faces bankruptcy by next April.
Washington is caught between two contradictory dilemmas. It wants to stay in Afghanistan to suck Central Asian oil and gas as well as the multi-billion dollar mineral resources of Afghanistan but it faces a tough opponent in the Taliban that are becoming even more organized. The US and its NATO allies face certain defeat if they stay too long. Already, NATO has been strained to the limit and the Afghan fiasco may prove its undoing. But it is the US that is stuck on the horns of a dilemma, its superpower pretensions rubbed in the dust.
American generals no longer talk about defeating the Taliban, only not to lose the war hence their desperate attempts to find some Taliban to talk to. The Taliban see no reason to do so. The Americans are banking on the Pakistan army to bail them out by fighting their war in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are reluctant because they do not want to create an enemy on their western borders when they face a cunning and ruthless enemy, India backed by the US, on the eastern front. Besides, the Afghan Taliban are not Pakistan’s enemies. Instead, many Pakistani volunteers fighting alongside the Taliban will help their Kashmiri brethren once the war in Afghanistan is over.
If the US wants Pakistan’s help, then it has to help solve the long-festering problem of Kashmir. It cannot demand Pakistan’s help against the Taliban while backing Indian militarism. The road out of America’s Afghan dilemma may well have to wind its way through the curfewed streets of Srinagar in Kashmir.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought