Is the US endgame in Afghanistan real? If so, it appears to have entered a crucial phase under the cover of a series of international conferences to facilitate US troop withdrawal from the war-torn country. Some observers, however, believe America is playing a double game trying to give the impression of preparing to leave while working behind the scenes to establish permanent military bases in the country. Based on this view, the US is trying to achieve through economic incentives what it failed to achieve by military means. The major difference is that regional countries will also be part of the economic deal.
It is, therefore, legitimate to ask: if the US is not leaving, why go through the motions of an endgame? This has to do with US domestic politics. A clear majority of Americans is fed up of the war and its astronomical costs. People want the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to end and use these resources to create jobs at home. The number of unemployed is very high, officially at 9% (14.2 million) but in the critical age group of 18–24, especially among African-Americans, it is as high as 30%. Poverty is at an all time high. According to the US Census Bureau figures released last September, there are now 46.2 million people living below the poverty line. As US President Barack Obama heads into next year’s presidential election, he has to placate the growing numbers of unemployed, homeless and poverty stricken people as well as an irate American public affected by the economic uncertainty created by perpetual war against a faceless enemy.
So what is the truth about US policy in Afghanistan? A glimpse into Washington’s thinking can be gleaned from the new Silk Road Initiative (SRI) for whose realization US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been hopping across the region. In October she undertook highly publicized visits to Afghanistan (kept secret until after she arrived in Kabul on October 19, for fear of an attack), Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The last two give a clue into US thinking. It is the oil and gas resources of Central Asia and the huge mineral wealth of Afghanistan (estimated at $4 trillion) that the US covets for which it launched the war on Afghanistan in October 2001.
American officials have been quite candid about the proposed Silk Road project that will link regional countries economically while buttressing security in Afghanistan. The idea is to give all players a stake in the economic pie but under the US umbrella with landlocked Afghanistan acting as hub. On November 2, Turkey convened a conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul at which US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, standing in for Clinton who could not attend because of her mother’s death, said: “I am encouraged to see that the Istanbul Process includes so many ideas about regional economic growth and integration. Many of the ideas our countries discussed under the co-chairmanship of [Afghan] Foreign Minister [Zalmay] Rassoul, [German] Foreign Minister [Guido] Westerwelle, and Secretary Clinton at the New Silk Road meeting in New York this September are already becoming regional commitments through the Istanbul Process.” Burns went on: “We are clear-eyed about the time it will take to realize this New Silk Road vision, and the roadblocks that lie ahead.”
Countries represented at the Istanbul conference included Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the two outlying stans, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The US was present as an observer with delegates from NATO and the EU as well as officials from the UN. India’s presence at the conference was seen as a setback for Pakistan that has made no secret of its concern over Delhi’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. On October 5, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a wide ranging strategic, economic and security agreement with Delhi. This was viewed as a major concession to the Afghan Tajiks chafing after the killing of Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani on Septmber 20 and a major challenge to Pakistani interests. Soothing words from Karzai were not enough to allay Pakistani concerns.
The Istanbul conference is to be followed on December 5 by a conference in Bonn, Germany marking 10 years of the first conference after the Taliban were ousted from power by US-NATO bombing. If the first Bonn conference was marked by much chest thumping by America and its European allies in declaring victory over the Taliban, the latest one is designed to beg the Taliban to come to the negotiating table to make peace. Then in May 2012, NATO will hold its own conference on Afghanistan in Chicago on the sidelines of the G-8 summit.
The string of conferences about Afghanistan is clear admission by the US and its NATO allies that they have lost the war. Further, Obama wants to present the conferences as part of his effort to secure an honorable exit from the Hindu Kush mountains where the Americans had blundered into in October 2001, armed with the fig leaf of a UN Security Council resolution but actually underpinned by NATO military muscle. American hubris met its richly deserved fate in Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain. True, US daisy cutters and 1,000-lb bombs forced the Taliban to abandon Kabul within a few weeks but it was a mistake to interpret this as victory. Little did the Americans realize that in their entire history the Afghans have never tolerated foreign occupiers of their land. Only fools would dare attack Afghanistan but then those who are drunk with their own power (aka America) are not the brightest bulbs in the lot!
Ten years later and more than a trillion dollars in costs, not to mention the murder of tens of thousands of innocent Afghans, the US has left the UN by the way side. It is now a season of conferences. But getting the Taliban and their allies — the much-hyped Haqqani Network, for instance — on board is proving difficult. Enter Pakistan, or more precisely, its military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the spy agency that appears to have drawn rings around the Americans. The US wants the ISI to help bring the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to the negotiating table so that American troops can be withdrawn to the relative safety of well-fortified military bases in Afghanistan. In the worst-case scenario, the deals are meant to facilitate an orderly retreat of American troops without the scramble to “get the hell out of there” a la Saigon.
After trying for a decade to impose US will through military might, the Americans have realized there is neither a military nor indeed an American-led political solution to Afghanistan. There can only be an Afghan-led process. “I am especially encouraged to note that every country here has committed to stand behind an Afghan-led process of reconciliation,” said Burns in Istanbul. “While outsiders cannot impose a solution, we should facilitate contact and provide support,” he told the conference. This is quite a change of tune from nearly a decade of American hubris trying to impose American-style democracy on Afghanistan. The Afghans may be dirt poor, they may even be called backward, but they refuse to accept foreign domination. They have once again proved this by defeating the claimant to sole superpower status and its scores of European allies that always attack a prey like a pack of wolves.
Let us, however, return to the Silk Road Initiative (SRI) and what it means for regional players. An American brainchild, the project is meant to lure regional countries into an economic cooperative arrangement. By giving them a stake in the economic pie, they must ensure peace and security, especially in Afghanistan. For several years, the Americans tried to bypass Pakistan and assiduously worked to keep Iran out, by trying to make direct contact with the Taliban. It did not work. While Iran has still been kept at bay, the Pakistanis were difficult to ignore because of US-NATO dependence on its goodwill and support as well as being the transit route for much of US-NATO supplies.
Recent attempts to browbeat Pakistan into submission also failed. When the outgoing US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen accused the Haqqani Network of being a “veritable arm of the ISI,” it did not sit well in Rawalpindi (headquarters of the Pakistani military). America’s Pakistani agents, especially in the media, went ballistic warning that it was foolish of the military to take on the Americans. In any case, Pakistan cannot afford to pay such a huge price to protect its Afghan assets (Taliban and the Haqqani Network). The Pakistani military held its ground. On the eve of Clinton’s visit to Islamabad (October 20-21) when she threatened to attack the Haqqani Network bases in North Waziristan, Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani issued an uncharacteristically blunt warning. “America must think 10 times before launching attacks in Waziristan,” he said on October 19. Kayani is not given to hyperbole.
The Americans got the message. The following day (October 20) when Clinton arrived in Islamabad — accompanied by CIA director, General David Petraeus; Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman; US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter; US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey; and assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser Lieutenant-General Edward Lute — America’s Pakistani agents interpreted the arrival of such a top-heavy delegation as a sign that Clinton was about to read the riot act to the Pakistanis. It turned out, Madam Clinton purred like a cat and gave assurances, backed by the presence of such a high-powered delegation that Pakistan would have a central role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan. She asked the Pakistani military to facilitate contact with the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar as well as the Haqqani Network.
Clinton publicly agreed with General Kayani’s categorization that there was 90–95% agreement on the issues between them. What was needed was to operationalize the plan. She also conceded that the Haqqanis had to be brought into the negotiating process through the good offices of the Pakistanis. “There is no solution in the region without Pakistan and no stable future in the troubled region without a partnership,” Clinton added. Pakistani officials have said they would work toward bringing the Taliban and the Haqqanis to the negotiating table but cannot guarantee the talks’ success. In other words, they made clear they cannot and will not dictate to the Afghan resistance what they should accept or reject.
While dangling the carrot of economic benefits through the Silk Road Initiative, the US wants permanent bases in Afghanistan, something it failed to achieve in Iraq, for instance. Karzai organized a loya jirga attended by more than 2,000 people from November 16–19 at which he said Afghanistan would agree to military bases provided they stopped night raids and killing civilians. Many saw the jirga as a cover for Karzai to agree to the military bases.
The Americans have come full circle in Afghanistan. At the UN sponsored conference in Berlin, in July 2001, American officials had promised the Taliban a “pot of gold” if they agreed to UNOCAL’s construction of the oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Refusal to accept the deal would result in US carpet-bombing of the country. This is precisely what the Americans did by launching the war three months later using the 9/11 attacks as pretext. Ten years later, they are again trying to offer a pot of gold to the Taliban as well as to regional players in return for military bases in Afghanistan.
Will the Taliban agree this time? They have rejected the presence of any foreign military forces on their soil. They are not alone in opposing this; hundreds of Afghans demonstrated in Kabul against the bases on October 24. A number of regional countries including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China are also opposed to the idea. Why the Americans cannot grow out of the habit of looking at every issue through the military lens when their military is not even very good at achieving such objectives is beyond comprehension. If they just leave and allow the people to decide their own future without intrusive American presence, even the US would benefit.
One final point about Pakistan’s position is in order. By standing up to the Americans, they have called Washington’s bluff. Years of craven attitude only brought more humiliation. One only hopes the Pakistanis would continue to display some courage in dealing with foreign powers, especially an ungrateful one like America.