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Is the US considering a long-term stay in Afghanistan?

By Rajeev Srinivasan
June 21, 2010 19:53 IST
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Rajeev Srinivasan wonders if the US is making a mid-course correction on Afghanistan.

These are not good times for US President Barack Obama. Hailed as a saviour if not a messiah just 18 months ago, he is now reeling from several crises. The BP oil spell has left him looking incompetent and uncaring. The $1 trillion stimulus package may have avoided a Great Depression, but unemployment hovers near 10 percent. His big achievement, healthcare reform, has left a sour taste with almost all sections of society.

But most of all, the Afghanistan quagmire is getting worse. Just this week, seven US soldiers were killed in a single day; the public is getting tired of body bags and elusive promises of success. Maybe there's a re-think. A series of unexpected events took place recently that, if put together, may signal a mid-course correction by the US:

  • A report from the London School of Economics and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that emphasised the very high level of co-operation between Pakistan's government, Inter Services Intelligence and the Taliban.
  • A major story in the New York Times about the discovery of large mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
  • Severe ethnic riots, resulting in a breakdown of normal activity, in the republic of Kyrgyzstan, where an important US air force supply base in Manas is used to support the war effort.
  • The resignations of Afghanistan's interior minister and security chief, among other things, taking responsibility for an attack on a loya jirga, but also suggesting a hardening of ethnic differences.
  • Reports that Afghan President Karzai has lost faith in the ability of NATO forces to actually win the war.
  • Reports that the much-anticipated counter-insurgency surge in Marjah, which was hailed at the time as momentous, has bogged down and that the rebels are gaining strength.

All these have to be seen in the context of Obama's policy of increasing the number of soldiers on the ground first, and then beginning to wind down the US war effort and withdrawing troops in 2011, just in time to declare victory and use the halo effect to effortlessly win the 2012 presidential elections.

That dream is, to put it mildly, in some jeopardy now. The Obama plan was to surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell. They have done the surge part, and are in the process of bribing (usually the ISI and its pals), but it's not going well. The 'bribees' are not acting as expected -- Afghans seem to be taking the bribes and merrily continuing what they were doing anyway.

The US's intent to declare victory and leave requires someone to be the 'keeper', as it were, of Afghanistan. The ISI has volunteered itself for this role. This is why it is intriguing that the LSE/Kennedy School report has come out at this time. The Kennedy School is close to the US government, and so it is a fair conjecture that the US administration wants to put the screws on someone.

At first glance, if you read the litany of things in this report, 'The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan's ISI and Afghan insurgents', it sounds like a damning indictment of the ISI which is quite transparently the prime motivator, financier, and provider of cover to the Taliban and related groups.

The ISI, says the report, 'orchestrates, supports and strongly influences' them. It 'provides huge support in training, funding, munitions and supplies', which is 'official ISI policy', not the work of some rogue elements. Furthermore, it is not just the ISI, it claims that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari promised to release jailed Taliban leaders if they kept quiet about it. This amounts to 'collusion with the Taliban by an enemy State (Pakistan)', the bracket in the original. Interesting that an American is calling Pakistan an enemy State, not the trademarked 'major ally in the war on terror'.

Unfortunately, the author, Matt Waldman, has the standard simplistic solution to all this: The way to end the ISI's cooperation with the Taliban 'is to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan's insecurity, especially its latent and enduring conflict with India'. Of course, if only India were to give Kashmir to Pakistan, the ISI would stop arming the Taliban, and Americans can go home. Simple! QED.

The answer, therefore, is for India to give more: Which might explain Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's offer to 'walk the extra mile' and the latest euphemism, 'creative solutions' to the Kashmir problem. India must give up territory so that Americans can exit Afghanistan, in return for... exactly what? Eternal love and fellowship? Just like India sacrificed Tibet and got eternal love and friendship?

Well, be that as it may, it is also possible that finally the US is recognising the obvious: the ISI has been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds from day one. Maybe the judicious leak is a way of putting the ISI on notice that it had better ratchet things down to some extent. Maybe the Obamistas are actually planning to stay for a while.

Such an eventuality would explain why the New York Times, also known to be close to the US government, made such breathless noises about newly-discovered minerals in Afghanistan ('1 trillion worth!', 'Might fundamentally change the war!'). Perhaps Obama has decided that it is not such a good idea to exit in 2011, possibly handing the terrorists a morale-boosting victory.

This story about minerals is not new -- months ago, I heard about this from the intrepid foreign policy analyst, who goes by the name Pundita. She suggested this meant Americans would stay on: There was no way they would leave all this loot to the Chinese, who have already snapped up a giant copper mine. Perhaps the NYT minerals story is a red herring to divert attention away from the real issue of American failure in Afghanistan.

That failure is evident in the subdued talk about Marjah now; instead of the cocky self-assurance then, there is grim talk now of the difficulty in clearing the area and keeping in clear. No wonder it appears Karzai has lost faith in American staying power -- and even in their military tactics; and he is also probably tired of being painted as the villain and blamed for the failure of American plans.

In this context, the resignations of interior minister Hanif Atmar and security chief Amrullah Saleh sent ominous signals. In particular, Saleh, an ex-aide of the assassinated military genius and commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, appears to have been one of the most competent ministers. And as an ethnic Tajik, his departure may signal increasing ethnic fractures in the Afghan government.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of ethnic divisions in Central Asia. There are differences of opinion between the Pashtuns (Karzai is one and so are the Taliban) and the smaller Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities. Sometimes these break into open warfare -- the Taliban, for instance, massacred Hazaras, and that was partly because the latter were Shia, so the Shia-Sunni religious divide can also be potent.

A case in point about ethnic divisions is the sudden outburst of rioting and killing in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the Kyrgyz are apparently killing Uzbeks (which may be normal in Central Asia where majorities severely oppress minorities). This has an impact on the US -- if Manas air support base becomes less available for operations, it increases the US's dependence on Karachi and the ISI that much more.

Thus, nothing seems to be going according to plan, and a gloomy headline in the NY Times suggesting that 'Setbacks cloud US plans to get out of Afghanistan'. No kidding. The Americans may have to accept they are in it for the long term: Afghanistan may not be another Vietnam, but a tar baby. They simply cannot cut and run. They have to clean up this unholy mess of their own making.

It is time that America recognised that the problem is not Afghanistan, but the chimera Pakistan, an imaginary homeland. The very existence of Pakistan -- a state with no raison d'etre, is the root cause.

The random Durand Line, that slices the Pashtun nation into Afghan and Pakistani areas, was never taken seriously by the Pashtuns, and the British-brokered treaty that created it expired in 1993. Until a united Pashtun nation is created including the appropriate areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, this problem is going to fester: tribal loyalties run supreme in those mountains.

The Americans may be thinking of contracting the running of Afghanistan's mineral wealth to the ISI, much as the latter have been exploiting the mineral wealth of Baluchistan while severely oppressing, and occasionally massacring, native Baluch. It is not clear that this tactic will work with the Afghans.

Instead of giving the ISI the 'strategic depth' they crave by allowing them run rampant in Afghanistan, the answer would be to create a Pashtun nation, a Baluch nation (part of it is in Iran), a Sindhi nation, leaving the rump of Pakistani Punjab too small to do too much damage to anybody but themselves.

If this has finally dawned on the Americans, the $300 billion that they have already poured down the endless money-pit of this war can be chalked up to experience. Otherwise, they would, in Talleyrand's memorable indictment of the French monarchy, have 'learned nothing and forgotten nothing'.

Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that they will press India to give in to the ISI, or, equally disastrously, ask for Indian troops to join them in Afghanistan.

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Rajeev Srinivasan