Afghan endgame meshed in uncertainties
Almost thirteen years ago, the US led coalition forces started raining tons of molten from the air on October 7, 2001 on sovereign and peaceful Afghanistan. Its sin was that the ruling regime had allegedly sheltered the mastermind of 9/11 Osama bin Laden and had the temerity to refuse to hand him over without providing proof of his complicity in the crime. No Afghan was involved in the attacks on World Trade Centre and Pentagon. Daisy cutters, cruise missiles, cluster bombs and other lethal ordnance were used abundantly to break the will of the Taliban fighters. Ground operation spearheaded by Indian-trained Northern Alliance was backed by carpet air/artillery bombing, tank fire and gunship helicopters.
While Tony Blair was the most vociferous supporter of war, Pakistan was coerced to ditch the Taliban and support the invasion. Month long air and ground bombing devastated the country. In order to save the country and its people from further ruination, ruling Taliban regime under Mullah Omar took a wise decision to carry out a tactical withdrawal and deal with the invaders at an opportune time. The calculated withdrawal was however trumpeted by the invaders as a complete victory.
In order to form a government of its choice in Kabul under string-puppet Hamid Karzai, the US doled out $1.2 billion to win over the loyalties of war criminals and warlords including ruthless Gen Rashid Dostum. The US kept pumping billions of dollars on propaganda war to demonize the Taliban, to sell its brand of democracy and constitution, win over the confidence of Afghans through development works, make the Karzai led regime functional and to train and equip non-Pashtun heavy ANSF, which could assist the ISAF in combating Taliban/al-Qaeda threat. Colossal amount was also spent to pay 80,000 security contractors and for the covert war against Pakistan.
In short, rather than taking Afghan Pashtuns on board as suggested by Pakistan, all possible means were employed to bring the resistance forces comprising Pashtuns down on their knees. This discriminatory act impelled overwhelming majority of Pashtuns residing on both sides of the Durand Line to gravitate towards the Taliban. Opening of another war front in Iraq in 2003 despite the international outcry was a big mistake. It gave a godsend opportunity to the Taliban to return to their strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan and start the guerrilla war.
When all efforts failed and the Taliban kept gaining strength despite all the odds against them, the US picked up Pakistan as a convenient scapegoat and held it squarely responsible for all its failings. Karzai lent strength to the indo-US propaganda war and blamed Pakistan that it was in league with the Taliban. Trusting India and distrusting Pakistan, which had helped the US winning the first Afghan war, was another blunder made by USA. George Bush kept wholly relying on US military prowess and didn’t pay any head to Pakistan’s advice of complimenting military prong with political prong.
Once the initiative was lost by the US led occupation force in Afghanistan in September 2009 as a consequence to military debacles in Helmand and Nuristan despite the two troop surges, hurriedly vacating forward posts in eastern and southern Afghanistan, bunkering the troops in fortified military bases and restricting the war effort to airpower only, the US never made any worthwhile efforts to recover the 65% territory it lost and to regain its upper edge. Thereon it was a downhill journey. Replacement of Gen Stanley McChrystal with Gen David Petraeus in 2010 and subsequent changes made no difference. Instead of salvaging the situation, top commanders got involved in sex scandals. Fatal casualty and injury rates kept multiplying and surge in militant attacks kept mounting all over the country.
The US/British trained non-Pashtun heavy ANSF could not match the grit of the Taliban hell-bent to push out the occupying forces, topple US installed unpopular, inefficient and corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai and to regain power. In the backdrop of fast deteriorating security situation and having understood that it was impossible to win the war, Obama took the hard decision in December 2010 to bid farewell to Afghanistan by December 2014 and forgo the high-flying dreams he and his predecessor had nurtured. He took this decision in spite of serious reservations of the US military, which egoistically insisted that it had the will and capacity to turn sure defeat into victory.
In order to show to the world that the US military had not lost heart, Gen Petraeus planned a major offensive in Kandahar in April 2011 but kept postponing it on the plea that until Pak Army cleared North Waziristan of the presence of Haqqani network (HN) and al-Qaeda, it will not be possible for him to undertake the risk. Pakistan refrained because of its multiple compulsions. To punish Pakistan for not ceding to its demand, operation ‘Get Osama’ was executed in May 2011, followed by activation of western border with the help of runaway Fazlullah.
Spectacular attacks by Taliban on most sensitive targets inside Kabul in September 2011 shook the security apparatus in Afghanistan and in sheer frustration Admiral Mike Mullen put the blame on Pakistan saying HN was the ‘veritable’ arm of ISI. In revenge, NATO launched a brutal attack on Salala Post in November 2011 forcing Pakistan to suspend military ties with Washington, close Shamsi airbase and block NATO supply routes. Worsening ties with Pakistan made the drawdown cumbersome.
The US woes kept increasing in the following years despite restoration of ties with Pakistan and opening of supply lines in July 2012. While secret parleys between the US and Taliban for a possible political settlement stalled because of bungling of the US over prisoner swap deal in 2012, the US military was confronted with other menaces of in-house green-over-blue attacks, surge in suicide cases and PTSD cases. Waning economy and home pressure to end the futile war were other worrisome reasons to ‘turn the page’ on America’s longest war initiated by George W. Bush led neo-cons. Karzai after serving US interests faithfully became irksome and started creating trouble for the US.
2014 has proved more calamitous for the US. The Taliban have gained ascendency over 80% of Afghan territory and are so far not in any mood to negotiate a political settlement with the US despite the successful prisoner swap over on June 1, 2014. Presidential election on which the US had pinned lot of hopes has also gone awry owing to Abdullah Abdullah’s allegation that Karzai was fraudulently trying to make Ashraf Ghani win the race. Offensive launched by the Taliban in Helmand on June 19 has posed a serious challenge to the ANA. It has so far not been able to evict 800 attackers holding on to Barekzai and Bostanzai in Sangin District. Further reinforcements in far-flung Helmand will render Kabul vulnerable to HN attacks.
Although the longest war in the US history is at last winding up, endgame of Afghan venture is meshed in uncertainties. Ambitious dreams of the imperialist powers lay in tatters since nothing has proceeded in accordance with the chalked out plan and laid down objectives. While the Soviet forces managed to skip out of Afghanistan under the umbrella of Geneva Accord, no arrangement has so far been made to ensure smooth and safe exit of ISAF troops. Of the 150,000 ISAF troops, less than 33000 soldiers are now desperately looking forward to fly back home in one piece. 12000 soldiers forming part of residual force which is required to stay back till 2016 would be the unhappiest.
Pakistan policy makers have no clue what shape Afghanistan will take in the aftermath of pullout of foreign troops in next six months. Many neighbors and distant neighbors of Afghanistan would like to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan. In this, India, Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan are likely contenders for space. Barring Pakistan, all other competitors particularly India and Iran have an edge because of their closeness with current Northern Alliance heavy regime. The US, Israel and western powers would also back India and Iran and bolster ANSF to prevent the Taliban from recapturing power.
On the other hand, although Pakistan has a soft corner for Taliban because of multiple reasons, there is no strategic relationship between the two. In the ensuing power struggle, civil war becomes a probability. If so, outside powers will fuel bloody internecine war in which Afghanistan and Pakistan would again be the biggest losers. Much talked of strategic grouping of India, Afghanistan and Iran backed by Israel and USA and development of alternative economic corridor linking Chahbahar with Central Asia are the emerging possibilities having serious ramifications for Pakistan.
The writer is a retired Brig/war veteran, defence analyst/columnist/historian, Director MEASAC Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan, member Executive Council PESS. email@example.com