By Arvind Gupta
Osama bin Laden’s killing was a high point in America’s Afghan strategy. Buoyed by the success of Op Geronimo, it appeared that the US might be able to craft a successful exit strategy. The US could declare that al Qaeda had been defeated and that the US job in Afghistan was done. All that was needed was to put in place a reconciliation effort which would bring a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. After that the US could withdraw. The US started the drawdown of its troops from July 2011 hoping to significantly reduce troops by 2014.
But the script did not turn out the way the US had hoped. The Taliban attack on the US embassy in Kabul in September and the assassination of Rabbani, the chief negotiator with Taliban, a few days later have clouded the outlook for a smooth US withdrawal. Rabbani’s assassination has left a gaping hole in the reconciliation strategy which Karzai and the US were pinning their hopes on.
Who killed Rabbani? The finger points to the Taliban. The Afghan intelligence agency has disclosed that Rabbani’s assassination was planned by the Quetta Shura and that it has handed over evidence to this effect to Pakistan. Did the ISI know about it given close links it has with them? In the meanwhile Karzai has said that he is suspending reconciliation efforts because there in no one to talk to on the other side. Clearly, the reconciliation process is breathing its last if it is not dead already. In any case, Afghanistan’s Tajiks, the Hazara and Uzbeks are deeply apprehensive of any reconciliation that brings the Taliban back to power.
All this is happening at a time when Pakistan-US tensions are reaching a breaking point over Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s allegations that the Haqqani group is a “veritable arm” of the ISI. The US wants Pakistan to take action against the Haqqani group. Pakistan is refusing to do so. US pressure on Pakistan has increased so much that the US is likely to suspend aid to Pakistan and may take action against the Haqqani group on its own.
Pakistan’s response to US allegations has been furious. Its foreign minister has warned that the US would risk losing an ally, and its prime minister noted that the US cannot do without Pakistan. Anti-US demonstrations in Pakistan have been held. Some Pakistani commentators have written that the surge of nationalism reminds them of anti-India feeling on the eve of the 1971 war.
To generate political consensus on how to respond to the US charges, Prime Minister Gilani convened an All Party Conference on 29 September. It noted that “there has to be a new direction and policy with a focus on peace and reconciliation…Pakistan must initiate dialogue with a view to negotiating peace with our own people in the tribal areas…”
There is little doubt that in the present crisis too the army will decide Pakistan’s US policy. The political parties were careful to be on the right side of the army. The APC resolution said, “The Pakistani nation affirms its full solidarity and support for the armed forces of Pakistan in defeating any threat to national security.”
Without naming the US, the APC resolution chastised it thus: “APC rejected the recent assertions and baseless allegations made against Pakistan. Such assertions are without substance and derogatory to a partnership approach.” Pakistani analysts have interpreted the resolution as Pakistan saying “goodbye” to cooperation with the US on the war on terrorism. The era of dubious deals with militants is back.
To stop the downslide in US-Pakistan relations, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both expressed their desire to continue to work with Pakistan though they have urged it at the same time to take action against militant groups. US special envoy on Af-Pak Mike Grossman is being sent to the region to deal with the crisis. In the meanwhile, Pakistan is openly defying the US. It is reaching out to China to show that it is not entirely without friends.
US leaders have not been shy of criticising Pakistan openly. Hillary Clinton has advised Pakistan not to keep “wild animals” in its backyard. The fact is that the US is equally responsible for rearing and nurturing these militant groups from the time of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
The US cannot afford to break its relationship with Pakistan entirely despite the deepening mistrust between the two. It needs Pakistan so long as its troops are present in Afghistan. Pakistan also knows that the US can do enormous damage to it at a time when its economy is in shambles and survives on IMF loans of which even more are needed. The two countries will search for a lower level equilibrium in their relationship but the mistrust will persist.
Against the backdrop of these events, what is going to be the US strategy in Afghanistan? It appears that America’s options are shrinking as the security situation in Afghanistan worsens, the reconciliation effort falters and Pakistan’s defiance increases. Pakistan has proved to be an unreliable ally. US relations with Karzai are also strained. The Europeans, preoccupied with serious economic crisis at home, are in no position to shoulder the heavy burden of the Afghan war.
There is hardly any clarity in US objectives in Afghanistan. The war is proving to be unbearably expensive at $120 billion in 2010 alone. The US spends about $10 billion on training the Afghan security forces. Obama has asked for $12 billion in the 2012 budget for training the Afghan security forces.
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held a series of hearings in the last few months exploring what precisely are the US objectives in Afghanistan. Is it to disrupt, dismantle and destroy the al Qaeda? Is it to ensure a ‘secure, stable, self-reliant’ Afghistan? Or is it to secure some larger ill defined geo-political interest of the US? Pointed questions about the price tag of the US strategy in Afghanistan are being asked at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented economic crisis that may tip it into a recession. Should scarce resources be spent in Afghistan when millions of Americans are jobless? Should the US continue to provide assistance to Pakistan when the latter has proved to be so unreliable? That is the kind of sharp questions US law makers are asking.
The US is negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government. The contours of such an agreement are not clear but many analysts feel that the US is trying to secure permanent bases in Afghanistan after 2014. About 10,000 to 25,000 troops are expected to remain behind. They will do special forces type of counter terrorism work and train the Afghan army. This, it is argued, will stabilise Afghistan. But, will the Taliban tolerate US bases? Will the presence of US bases in Afghistan be liked by neighbouring countries? Some experts like Richard Haas have said in their testimony to the Senate foreign relations committee that Afghanistan is a “strategic distraction” for the US. Senators like Lugar are openly sceptical of the continued US presence in Afghistan.
Since 2001 the US has tried various strategies in Afghanistan. After militarily intervening in Afghanistan with the help of the Northern Alliance, it was initially in favour of a strong central, democratic government. War lords were disarmed. Elections were held. Karzai was strengthened. Nation building was the flavour of the day. Those days are long gone. Now, security has been outsourced to private contractors who deal with local warlords and unsavoury elements. Today the US is estranged from both Karzai and Pakistan. Its counter-insurgency strategy is likely to be given up for a more limited, less expensive counter terrorism strategy. But, counter terrorism strategy will only prolong the bloodshed in Afghistan. The US is also discovering that it has the paucity of resources to remain engaged in Afghistan for a long period.
The US is struggling to find a way ahead. It may suffer considerable losses in the next three years. There is no clarity on its post withdrawal strategy. Will the turn of events hasten US withdrawal from Afghanistan to a date much before 2014? The possibility cannot be ruled out if the spate of assassinations and suicide attacks continues.
The author holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA. The views expressed here are personal.