As he was wheeled into the operation theatre at a Washington hospital, Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, must have prayed the Pakistani surgeon tending to him would successfully stitch his torn aorta to save his life so he could “save” Afghanistan.
As he was wheeled into the operation theatre at a Washington hospital, Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, must have prayed the Pakistani surgeon tending to him would successfully stitch his torn aorta to save his life so he could “save” Afghanistan. It was an extremely complicated procedure; a torn aorta means certain death. It is surprising Holbrooke survived for three days. His death has caused panic in Washington. It reveals the fragility of the US position in Afghanistan: it hinged on one man. Several American officials and commentators have admitted his death leaves a major void.
The National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) report released December 14 on the eve of a major review of Afghan policy paints a grim picture. They have again put the onus on Pakistan to fight the militants and stop cross-border infiltration. The generals and Washington warlords tried to rubbish the NIE report citing recent tactical gains in Qandahar. Perhaps, but in winter the Taliban go home; there is no central-heating in the caves! American and allied gains are illusory and temporary.
The Americans may have better luck with the Pakistanis if they are serious about extricating themselves from the Afghan imbroglio. That road runs through Rawalpindi, seat of Pakistan’s Military Headquarters. Instead of extending the war into Pakistan and causing more resentment there, Americans should sit down with the Pakistani military chief and work out a strategy for an honourable exit. It will not help trying to browbeat the Pakistanis into giving something they cannot; Pakistan will not expose its western flank when it faces historic enemy India in the east with a million-strong army. Sixty years of military thinking and planning borne of conflict cannot be abandoned to serve US interests. Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani may be a soft-spoken person but he is a tough customer with the looks to prove it.
He will not sacrifice Pakistan’s or his military’s interests. Nor would he allow India to get a foothold in Afghanistan to the detriment of Pakistan. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and now fellow at the Brookings Institution, understands this. In his forthcoming book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, he writes: “Pakistan cannot be effectively assisted without dealing with the issue that dominates Pakistan’s strategic calculus: as always, India.” Is the White House as clear on this?
The US and its allies should also abandon the silly notion of training Afghan soldiers. They have tried it for 10 years without any noticeable success. According to former US commander, General Stanley McChrystal, 35% of them escape out the back door with their weapons. The Taliban have needed no training and despite this, they seem to be doing quite well against the most advanced military machine in the world. The Afghan army does not need training, it needs motivation but that is not something the Americans, Canadians or anyone else can provide. No Afghan will support the occupation of their country; on the contrary, it is in their genes to resist foreign invaders regardless of costs. If Afghan recruits need training and discipline, the Pakistanis can do it better than anyone else. An agreement has already been signed between them for this purpose.
Two other points are pertinent. First, instead of non-Muslim Western troops occupying Afghanistan, the Taliban may be more amenable to accepting troops from Muslim countries to maintain peace and order during transition to establishing a stable Afghan government. They have even hinted at this. Western militaries and governments have been particularly insensitive about Afghan culture and customs, hence the growing resentment and concomitant resistance to their presence.
Ultimately, there will have to be direct talks between the Taliban and the US but these will not gain much traction without the participation of regional countries. Pakistan and Iran as well as the Central Asian Republics, Russia and China have vital stakes in the future of Afghanistan. The first two in particular hold the key to long-term stability. On their part, the Taliban have given assurances that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground by al-Qaeda or any other groups to attack the US. The Afghans have no reason or interest in doing so. After all, it was not the Afghans that invited al-Qaeda into Afghanistan; they were brought by the Americans when they were allies in the war against the Soviets.
Holbrooke’s death provides the US an opportunity to make a clean break with a failed policy. Barack Obama could actually save his presidency if he did the right thing like Charles De Gaulle did after his election as President of France in 1958. During the election campaign, he had vowed to continue the war in Algeria. Once in office, he saw its futility and decided to end it. De Gaulle had the courage to do the right thing. Can Obama rise to the occasion or will he continue to be held hostage to a policy crafted by the neocons that will surely doom his presidency?