By Rajiv Sikri
President Obama’s announcement that the US would withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer marks the formal beginning of the end game of the latest of many foreign misadventures in Afghanistan. As he tries to wrestle with how to ensure a honourable US exit from an inherited war that has turned into a quagmire, Obama now realizes that the US cannot achieve a military victory over the Taliban. Looking ahead to a possible second term, Obama understandably wants to be rid of foreign policy baggage – and do something that would justify his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Even though he termed it a ‘war of necessity’, Obama has been clear that the US military mission in Afghanistan should be limited in scope and scale to what is necessary to attain US goals, without either open-ended commitment or mission creep. Today, US expectations are more modest than a decade ago. It is now merely a campaign of counter-terrorism, not counter-insurgency.
When Obama became President, it was an Af-Pak policy; now it is increasingly a Pak-Af policy. Pakistan has clearly emerged as the greater problem. The US goal is to prevent al-Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups from having safe havens in Afghanistan or Pakistan. After eliminating Osama bin Laden, the US intends to go after other al-Qaeda leaders holed up there. As for the Taliban, they are no longer demonized. The US is prepared to give them political space provided they break ties with al-Qaeda and deny it safe havens, renounce violence, and accept the Afghan Constitution. The US will be satisfied if a favourably inclined government controls Kabul, other key population and production centres as well as major transport arteries. Building the Afghan army and other security forces is an essential element of this strategy. Nation building is something for the Afghans themselves to handle. Having broken Afghanistan and unable to fix it, the US will leave it in a mess.
However, the US would not like to completely abandon Afghanistan. Although all US combat troops will depart by 2014, a substantial number of US troops, mostly from the Special Forces and the Air Force, are likely to remain in an advisory and supportive role. Reports indicate that the US plans to retain a number of large air bases to be used for combat and reconnaissance aircraft, drones, and for electronic surveillance. This should come as no surprise. In addition to providing security support for the regime in Kabul, a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan will enable the US to monitor, and if needed put pressure on, countries in the region – be it China, Iran, the Persian Gulf states, Central Asian countries, Russia, Pakistan, even India.
The turmoil in the Arab world and the uncertainties surrounding Pakistan give the US additional reasons to want to retain a permanent presence in Afghanistan. After spending a trillion dollars and losing thousands of American soldiers over the last decade, it is extremely doubtful if the US will walk out of Afghanistan without securing some long-term strategic gains. In order to ensure this, the US must have in place an Afghan government in Kabul that welcomes a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. An understanding with the Taliban is also essential – hence the softened US attitude towards both Karzai and the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s neighbours, however, will not accept a long-term US presence in Afghanistan, particularly if they suspect US motives.
Even without a US military presence, Afghanistan has always had enormous strategic significance for other powers in the region. Afghanistan per se is not attractive to outsiders. It is landlocked, poor and has a subsistence agricultural economy – though its unexplored and untapped mineral riches are today attracting Chinese carpetbaggers. Afghanistan matters because of its strategic location. Notwithstanding its tribal and ethnic diversities and rivalries, Afghanistan has traditionally had a distinct identity as the strategic space between India, Iran and Central Asia – a kind of ‘negative security space’ where all its neighbours seek some influence in order to prevent any other power from dominating it.
Throughout history, Afghanistan has survived because of, and learnt how to leverage, its geographical location as the principal overland link between India and the rest of the world. More to ensure their own security than because Afghanistan was a tempting conquest, strong empires in India, Central Asia and Iran competed in Afghanistan and tried to control it. When its neighbours were weak, the Afghans asserted themselves and invaded them. While invading Afghan armies no longer threaten, terrorism, drug trafficking and fundamentalism emanating from Afghanistan remain real threats for its neighbours.
That is why Afghanistan will never be peaceful, stable and prosperous till its neighbours agree with the rulers and people of Afghanistan on the contours of an enduring blueprint for the country. The principal concerns of the Central Asian countries and Russia are to keep Islamic fundamentalism at bay and to stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. Iran too worries greatly about the narcotics trade. In addition, as the flag bearer of Shia Islam, it does not look kindly upon the prospect of a fundamentalist Sunni regime in power there.
China is trying to straddle many horses: it supports Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan, worries about the seepage of fundamentalism and terrorism to Xinjiang, and wants to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources. For India, Afghanistan holds the key to a successful Central Asia policy.
Geography has made Pakistan Afghanistan’s most important, indeed indispensable, neighbour. Afghanistan recognizes this, but will never agree to become a puppet state of Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment perhaps believes that once the Americans leave Afghanistan it will be able to re-establish its hegemony over Afghanistan through its proxies. Such hopes are unlikely to be realized. The situation has changed over the last decade and a half. The Kabul government may not be a pushover. Other countries with interests in Afghanistan will not stand by idly. Now that they have seen how the Taliban and their friends have wrought havoc on Pakistan, Pakistan’s attitude itself may change. Pakistanis may be wary of resurrecting a Frankenstein monster that could destroy Pakistan itself. If Pakistan absorbs the lessons of history – the real one, not the fictionalized and self-delusional accounts propagated in Pakistan – it would realize that over the centuries, Kabul and Kandahar have prevailed over Lahore and Delhi more often than the other way round!
Pakistan needs to change its approach towards Afghanistan because the policy that it has hitherto followed has failed. This is unsurprising, since it is predicated on false premises namely, that Pakistan can succeed in making Afghanistan its backyard, and that Pakistan needs ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan against India.
Yet Pakistan’s essential interests in Afghanistan coincide in many respects with India’s. If the Taliban take over Afghanistan, Pakistan may also suffer the same fate, and India will be the next target. There is no objective reason for India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. Rather, if they are sensible, India and Pakistan must jointly deal with the challenge of Afghanistan. While the Indus plains have been the buffer that over the centuries absorbed the heaviest blows and protected the rest of the Indian sub-continent from the turbulent lands west of the Indus, it is the Gangetic plains that provided the strategic depth to Punjab to deal with threats from the northwest. Similarly today Pakistan needs to work closely with India to stabilize Afghanistan since Pakistan by itself just does not have the ballast to manage Afghanistan.
From an economic perspective too, India is critical for Afghanistan. Afghanistan cannot indefinitely count on massive injections of foreign aid and must become an economically viable state if it is not to be a failed one. Traditionally, the Pashtun belt has been economically anchored to the Indian sub-continent. Afghanistan has floundered in recent times because the roots of its economic life have been sapped by Pakistan’s policy of restricting Afghanistan’s deep-rooted economic, cultural and people-to-people contacts with India. If Pakistan were to cooperate in restoring the traditional economic and transport links to India, Afghanistan can once again become a bridge between South Asia and the rest of the world. This would bring Afghanistan huge benefits – from India’s large market that can absorb any high-value agricultural products that Afghans should be cultivating instead of poppy; from investments to develop its mineral riches and hydropower resources; from transit fees for Central Asian gas feeding the growing South Asian market; and from trade between India and countries to Afghanistan’s west, including Russia and Europe.
Needless to say, Pakistan too would gain immensely. An essential pre-condition is that its leaders must change their traditional mindset and recognize that the existential threats to Pakistan are internal and from the west, not the east. The doles from US, China and Saudi Arabia do prop up Pakistan’s economy and feed Pakistani vanity, but will not bring stability and prosperity to Pakistan; that can only come if Pakistan has meaningful economic integration with its neighbours. Dark clouds line the horizon. US-Pakistan relations have sharply deteriorated and a reset may be more problematic this time.
So far, Pakistan’s policies have merely corroded the country; a few more years of misguided policies could erode it – literally.
Any viable regional solution to Afghanistan has to be within the framework of a ‘grand bargain’ involving the principal players viz. Afghanistan, Pakistan, US, Iran, and India. To start with, Afghanistan must have recognized borders. If Afghanistan were to accept the Durand Line as the border with Pakistan, Pakistan’s insecurities vis-à-vis Afghanistan may be mitigated. Recognizing the Durand Line will be a difficult step for any Afghan leader unless there are credible and enforceable guarantees that Pakistan will not undermine Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Afghans will also want a soft border between the divided Pashtun lands.
A de jure soft Afghanistan-Pakistan border is possible only within a regional cooperative framework involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Undoubtedly, any such move would also greatly help to reduce the trust deficit between India and Pakistan, and may well trigger a fundamental change in India-Pakistan relations. The ball is in Pakistan’s court. If it wants to break free of the US grip and not remain a pawn of the Chinese, it will have to make up with India.
The other key precondition for a regional solution is that the US withdraws its military presence in Afghanistan. The interesting thing is that while some countries for tactical reasons do not want a hasty US withdrawal, neither the Afghans themselves nor any of Afghanistan’s neighbours want a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. Continued US military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is feeding militancy in both countries. If they want, Pakistan, Iran and Russia can collectively easily squeeze out the US from Afghanistan since they control all the access routes to Afghanistan.
Having already articulated his vision of US relations with the Arab world, maybe President Obama will have the vision and courage to change the traditional US geopolitical perspective on this region too – by completely pulling out of Afghanistan and striking a US-Iran deal. For Iran’s leaders, an understanding on Iran’s role in the region and normalization of US-Iran relations is critical. The nuclear issue is a bargaining chip for both sides. Afghanistan can be peaceful and stable only if it is neutral and free of foreign troops, and its neighbours, the great powers and the UN guarantee its independence and sovereignty.
Next year’s international conference on Afghanistan being convened in Chicago by President Obama will provide a timely occasion for all concerned countries to outline their strategic vision for Afghanistan. Iran should be there too. Unless all countries, especially Pakistan, have the courage and vision to look at innovative solutions, Afghanistan – and the region as a whole – will remain mired in misery and conflict.
India and Pakistan can take the first step to break this logjam by initiating serious discussions on Afghanistan. Perhaps one day both Iran and Afghanistan can be economically integrated with South Asia. Improbable as it may seem today, such a turn of events cannot be ruled out forever.
(This paper was published in the August 2011 issue of Defence & Security Alert)