Afghanistan Imbroglio – A Way Out
By Brig (R) Iftikhar Ayub Khan
As they say the wise is the one who learn from others mistakes. However, in case of Afghanistan it has long been proven that the world is scant of wise men. Even before Alexander’s time, foreign powers have been jostling in Afghanistan and changing hands as well as destinies. Achaemenieds, Mauryans, Mongols, Mughals, Safavids as well as the British and the Soviets learnt the true meaning of ‘retreat’ while capping their expansionist designs and in the process crumbling and cut to size. Today, the sole superpower is also wrestling with its decision of invading Afghanistan following 9/11. If boldness is the criterion to enter Afghanistan, then boldness should also remain the criterion to quit Afghanistan. To conquer Afghanistan is not a challenge but to stay and govern its people is the real challenge. One may overcome geographical difficulties but historically no one has been able to subdue the xenophobic character of Afghan society; whose history spreads over fifty thousand years. This one element has forced the invaders to retreat either orderly if predicament was realized at an early stage of occupation or in utter disorder if obduracy persisted.
Afghanistan’s situation is different than Iraq, although ‘Arab chauvinism’ in case of Iraq is more akin to Afghan xenophobia. In Iraq, the primary war aim was removal of Saddam Hussain, who belonged to a minority sect. Thus, a tacit acquiescence to the invasion was obtained from majority sect leading to political as well as diplomatic ease. The war in Afghanistan is being fought between a majority ethnic group (supported by national xenophobic character / Muslims all over the world responding to clarion call for Jihad) and coalition forces led by the US. The clarion call was a consequent of poor American policy of invading Iraq without taming Afghanistan along with invention of ‘Axis of evil’ and an imaginary list of some Muslim states ‘in waiting’ to be trampled like Afghanistan and Iraq. The policy not only caused divisions within the International community but also acted as a fodder for Muslims to fight a proxy war (for some Jihad) in Afghanistan. So far President Obama has been successful in allaying Muslim fears, to some extent, by positive steps like withdrawal from Iraq, planned phased withdrawal from Afghanistan etc. However, to address the Afghan imbroglio a more magnanimous and down to earth approach is required.
The US must realize that there are two wars being fought in Afghanistan i.e. a war against ‘terrorism’ (launched by Coalition Forces and backed by International community) and a war against ‘occupation’ (resistance to coalition presence as a consequent of Afghan xenophobic instinct). This resistance should not be confused with ‘insurgency’, as the Americans call it. Afghan resistance has thousands of years of history behind it and has always been successful with or without outside support. The word ‘Taliban’ only provides a structure and a forum to the resistance, while the bulk doesn’t even share Taliban’s ideology. As regard to war against terrorism, it has lost its impetus since bulk of Al-Qaida including Osama have been taken out (casus-beli for launching war against terrorism) and remaining waiting for the ultimate. Even Afghan Taliban can’t be termed as terrorists; in fact they are remnants of a theological regime. Whether one likes it or not Taliban are the largest organized group that can play a significant role in establishing peace in Afghanistan.
Expecting the Afghan Army to hold back the Taliban after Coalition withdrawal is wishful thinking. Even if with all their military might, the Coalition Forces have merely been able to keep the Taliban at bay, what does one expect from a nascent Afghan Army? At a tactical level the continuum of vacuum caused by American phased withdrawal will continue to be filled by the Taliban; either through force against Afghan Army or just a walk over. True to tribal psyche the masses will join the winning side, in the process abandoning Karazai, his Government and the Afghan Army. A major recession and thousands of soldiers lost will be what America gets in the end (any similarity to Vietnam?) and the region will even be more instable than post 9/11 period.
The situation may not be as bleak as it seems as the key to a stable Afghanistan still lies with the US. Instead of following a more authoritarian approach synonymous to a super power status, America needs to be more magnanimous and follow an overt diplomacy as against back door diplomacy; though Qatar diplomacy is in right direction but constrained in it’s forum. So far Taliban have played their cards well and they understand how far the Americans have been worn out. They can continue this war for another ten years as they have nothing to lose in material terms (e.g. no change in their standard of living since Afghan Jihad of the 80’s) where as in the process US has everything to lose from the economy to super power status and stability etc.
The time for brinkmanship is over as the Taliban are pushing for one point agenda i.e. immediate withdrawal of foreign forces. Moreover, time is also running out for America. The need of the hour is that the USA must leeway for a more portent role by UN and OIC i.e. UN for political and diplomatic maneuvering and OIC for military semblance. While maintaining its neutrality the UN must engage Taliban and other Afghan stake holders head-on. A traditional Jirga (unlike the one held in 2007/8 at Kabul, which was a mere seminar) should be raised comprising equal members from each Afghan stake holder, working on an agenda mutually decided by all. Agenda points may include: way out for Coalition forces and replacement by troops/observers from non NATO/OIC countries, Afghan elections/form of government, constitutional sharing of power by different ethnic groups, constitutional make-up of Afghan Army, future of Taliban (resistance) fighters and present Afghan Army, engagement with international community, policy towards terrorists/terrorist safe havens, human rights, women emancipation/education, foreign policy etc.
A peaceful transition could only take place if regional stake holders extend support to the Jirga and suspend their proxy interests for the collective good of the region. Is this possible or just a fairy tale? The latter is true as it takes generations to change mind set. Thus, it is left to the USA to take the lead at an appropriate time and agitate the Security Council to pass a resolution restraining as well as seeking undertakings from regional players to desist from covert/proxy activities inside Afghanistan. Simultaneously, the Government of Pakistan should hold FATA level or Agency level Jirgas with same make-up as above to seek various assurances from the tribals to allay international concerns especially regarding sovereignty issues. Let it be known, as foreigners leave Afghanistan, FATA will go dormant till a new invader knocks at Afghan doors.
No nation has suffered as much as the Afghans have for follies committed by others. It is now time to show them mercy. Bold decisions are required and obstacles to peace need to be circumvented for arriving at prudent solutions to this complex situation. Most of the powers including regional players have indulged in destabilizing Afghanistan. For a change let’s try to be remembered as those who brought stability to Afghanistan as against instability; the choice between becoming a hero or to remain a villain.