The London international conference on Afghanistan has ensured the centrality of Pakistan in the issue, writes Brigadier (retd) S K Chatterji.
The London international conference on Afghanistan held on January 30 has articulated the goals of most stakeholders in the Afghan imbroglio quite distinctly. It addresses the issue of security by propounding an increasingly Afghan ownership of the problem with an Afghan National Army's of 171,600 and an Afghan National Police of 134,000 by October 2011.
The government of Afghanistan's stated objective of the Afghan National Security Forces taking the lead in conduct of operations in the insecure areas within three years and full responsibility for physical security within five years, found favour among participants. The conference called for strengthening regional approach, brought into sharp focus the need to stem corruption and committed international funding of development, with the model based far more on Afghan prioritisation.
Barack Obama in his speech at West Point in October 2009, had stated that the process of withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will start in July 2011. Seen in conjunction with the London conference's communiqué, it appears that the International Security Assistance Force and US forces will continue to operate in Afghanistan, with the ANSF increasingly taking the lead till the thinning out starts in 2011.
The ISAF (including US) would possibly continue to operate only in areas that remain rather volatile upto mid 2013, again with ANSF leading the operations. Thereafter, their role will probably be limited to providing air support, intelligence, training of ANSF and such activities as do not entail close combat, upto 2015, when complete resolution of the problem should be possible, or a reappraisal called for.
The London conference's stance on talks with the good (or, not so bad) Taliban is also another major departure, and it is surely the intent that drives setting up of a trust fund for reintegration. There are a plethora of other measures to be either strengthened or initiated, that are listed in the London communique, however, whatever be the outcome of the steps initiated today, Pakistan remains pivotal to Afghan solution.
It's necessary to analyse Pakistan's stakes in various situations that may evolve tomorrow, because elements in Pakistan, especially the ISI could easily be tempted to orchestrate the course of events so as to create a situation that serves their interests best, as perceived by them.
Without going into innumerable complexities that dodge the framing of possible end states in Afghanistan in the next few years, three distinct possible scenarios can be visualised. The first being, the US, ISAF and the ANA combine overwhelming Taliban. Of course pockets of resistance, occasional terrorist attacks and depleted government control in certain areas will remain, however, by and large, Kabul's writ would run the nation in such a situation.
The second possibility is a gradual greater Taliban control. A war fatigued population in the US and NATO countries forcing their leaders to gradually initiate a withdrawal before the ANSF can cope with the Taliban. The ANA finally caving in and the reins at Kabul being picked up by the Taliban. The last possible scenario in Afghanistan is a stalemate, with predominance of the US-ISAF-ANA being limited to localised superiority in Kabul and certain areas.
It is keeping in view these possible scenarios that the contours of Pakistani response can be visualised.
Pakistan faces a no win situation if anyone of the first two options materialise i.e. either the US-ISAF-ANSF combine win, or Taliban gains control. In the event of US General McChrystal, now given the resources, along with an enhanced ISAF and ANA overwhelming Taliban decisively, by itself a debatable outcome, Pakistan stands to forfeit its status as a frontline state in the war against terror (now being referred to as out of area operations by Pentagon).
Though the Americans have shown a long term commitment by promising $7.5 billion over the next five years, it requires little wisdom to perceive that such commitments may dilute if Afghanistan stabilises. Even if the money is not withheld, the conditionalities that will apply may not allow the ruling elite to accept the money on account of domestic politics in Pakistan.
The Obama administration has already displayed a hardening stance in terms of accountability in expenditure, leading to opposition parties taking up the cudgels against Americans dictating norms in their country.
Further, with the North West Frontier Province on fire, an American success in Afghanistan, will only lead to more and more of Afghan Taliban cadres flowing into this region. With Pakistan unable to shed the phobia of Indians taking an advantage of any dilution of its forces on Indo- Pak borders, it would be loathe to field the additional troops that would be called for in its war against the Pak Taliban.
Should the other option of Afghan Taliban overwhelming the US-ISAF-ANA materialise, and the Taliban returns to power on Afghan soil, a tenuous situation evolves again for Pakistan. In Mullah Omar's first stint from 1996 onwards in Afghanistan, Pakistan had an overwhelming influence on the regime.
Further, a large percentage of Pakistani leadership cannot get over the phobia of Pakistan not possessing strategic geographical depth. A pliant Afghan regime offers some sustenance to this segment. If Mullah Omar regains the mantle in Kabul, he may not remain the same pliant surrogate, especially with the Pakistan Taliban that he has firm ethnic, political and military bonds with, now being targeted by the Pakistani Army. US interest in Pakistan could also dilute, in the instance.
Faced with a no win situation, elements in Pakistan have so far been, and would continue to calibrate the situation in such a way that a state of stalemate protracts. And, as such a game is played out, the Americans will be permitted to fly their unmanned aerial vehicles and target at their discretion. Pakistan will continue to hand over the odd Al Qaeda second rung leader; primarily those who fall foul of it or the Al Qaeda leadership.
Meanwhile, the Quetta Shura will plan its next spectacle. Pakistan will wring its hands, when accosted by the world community. And, albeit, US aid and tranches from multilateral bodies and bilateral arrangements will meet their deadlines.
The issue of Afghan stability? Let's discuss it another day!