(A Call to American Policy Makers)
Brigadier ( Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf
Obama’s Third surge has reached its predicted conclusion (Obama’s Latest Surge: A Tight Balloon in Hot Air. Nation 17 December 2009). As the Afghan Taliban melted away, the coalition forces were left to celebrate and occupy a part of the abandoned town of Marjah. While the coalition, President Karzai and the local governor set about consolidating a new civilian led administration and buy enemies, the Taliban have lived to fight another day. The major advantage that the Coalition could derive is to squeeze the poppy cultivation, the main revenue of Taliban and force them to negotiate as weaker partners. The foreign press corps in Kabul, obscure from reality is already making big news. Media is bubbling with optimism while efforts are at hand to find a scapegoat if the good news turn sour.
But in the hidden corridors of State Department, this optimism is fast being replaced by scepticism. As the coalition withdraws from the area leaving behind two battalions, it remains a hunting trip that never was. Rather than reinforce another failure, the State Department needs to listen, carry out a realistic review and policy shift crucial for a lasting peace in the region and mutual interests of all actors.
Many in the State Department know more than they concede. “We ought not get too impatient,” Gates told reporters during his unannounced trip to Kabul. “We’re there to help, and how the politics play out in the end game will have to be an Afghan-led endeavour”. Grimly he said, “I don’t think we should read too much into specific, positive signs”. He hoped for defections at low levels and turn the corner in Kandahar later this year, He also cautioned against "bits and pieces of good news on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border” and said “it was too soon to say whether the momentum in the more than 8-year-old conflict had finally shifted”.
In contrast, Richard Holbrooke’s statements were more circumspect. Coming from a special envoy of the region, they also reflected a sea of differences particularly with Pakistan. Despite unprecedented arrests of Taliban leaders with varying claims of ownerships by USA and Pakistan, he remained "agnostic about whether Islamabad has actually turned decisively against the Afghan Taliban” and left open questions for Pakistan like “serendipitous collection of discreet events". He said, “I have no problems with the Lahore High Court's denial to extradite the Taliban commander to Afghanistan”.
Like an iceberg, the obvious in international geopolitics is always misleading. It is the unexplained that needs to be analysed.
It appears that the ambitious third surge had a multi directional approach towards a military exit from Afghanistan based on half facts and assumptions derived from institutional biases. The hypothesis was too simplified through exclusion of both hardcore Taliban and Pakistan. Based on a misleading premise, it led to the logical. With benefit of hindsight it is worth analyzing how this game unfolded.
1. Military operations in two phases. First, to alienate and control Helmand, and them move to Kandahar, the stronghold of Taliban.
2. Install a pro Karzai US backed administration capable of holding at its own and subsequently replicate the model elsewhere.
3. Backdoor negotiations with all vulnerable tiers of Taliban leadership excluding Mullah Omar and Hikmatyar (Good and bad Taliban Theory). Money was expected to play the placation role.
4. Induction of an international team of reconstruction experts for fast track socio economic development of Afghanistan.
5. Pakistan’s role was restricted to contend with the backwash of Afghan Taliban and home grown militants reflected in my thesis ‘Political Absolutism’ (Nation 19 November 2009). Logically, this would be the main battlefield for non state actors in future.
It appears that the strategy failed in all dimensions.
The departing UN envoy Kai Eide dismissed it as too military driven. The miserly reward of Marjah cannot be attributed a strategic success. The Taliban have retained battlefield initiative to emerge at the time and area of their choosing.
Taliban have shied away from a carrot and stick engagement. Surreptitious negotiations through fringe Taliban and militants are inconclusive.
According to the State Department Inspector General, the Obama administration's political efforts in Afghanistan are hampered by a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of housing and other problems that could disrupt time lines.
Exclusion of Pakistan from the most important aspects of the strategy has had negative fallouts on the overall coalition strategy and operation. Pakistan’s mutual distrust of USA is obvious explained beyond doubt by the word AGNOSTIC by Mr. Holbrooke.
Money has always remained a big factor in Afghan warlord and tribal politics. Empirically, Afghan unregulated economy becomes stronger as conflicts expand. Already, USA is funding the conflict against themselves through Afghan sub contractors and transporters invariably sympathetic to Taliban. Taliban are no warlords. They are romantic revolutionaries who can be cajoled through a partnership but least through money they may accept as economics of opportunity.
There was a clear deficit in the cause and effect explanation. Had USA taken the opinions of social scientists rather than pseudo experts of the region into contention, and had the psyche of such romantics studied, evaluated and factorised, the handling of the situation would have been more conducive for a political settlement.
It also appears that the backdoor negotiation with fringe Taliban elements, loaded with stacks of cash was a naïve idea that backfired through the confusing arrests of Taliban in Pakistan followed by the Taliban-Hikmatyar fight at Kanduz. The contrast in statements of Gates and Holbrooke betrays the extent of ignoring Pakistan and how an ally of opportunity was kept in the dark about designs that raise security concerns in Pakistan (Pakistan’s Crossword Puzzle, Nation, 5 May 2009).
The irony of US propensity to construe titles is that though AF-PAK remains an aspersion on Pakistan’s Pride, in the social dimension (Michael Howard) it remains a forte. International borders are irrelevant to movements of heterogeneous tribes on both sides. They flow like water chooses it course. It has a binding and cohesive ideology that brought USSR to its knees and has resisted radical agendas.
USA must acknowledge the reality that in the final analysis, least likely the edge of military technology and logistics, it is the Afghan People, resistance to occupation dubbed as Taliban, and Pakistan that finally matter. If this statement is acceptable, then the quest for a long lasting peace in the region becomes the Grand Strategy. If not, Pakistan will also be put on a road to ‘Burn Out’ (Foreign Affairs July-August 1999) raising levels of insecurity in the region to exponential instability.
The need of the hour is to contain this damage, keep extremists out and galvanise diversity to positive political engagements. There is no room for failure.
Both Pakistan and USA have to accept this onion and unravel every parchment with sincerity of intent to devise a comprehensive and fruitful strategy. As Carol Ann Duffy writes:
Not a red rose or a satin heart. I give you an onion
It is a moon wrapped n brown paper. It promises light
Like the careful undressing of love
Here it will blind you with tears, like a lover, it will make your reflection a wobbling photo of grief
I am trying to be truthful, not a cute card or a kissogram
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips
Possessive and faithful as we are, for as long as we are
Take it. Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring, if you like, Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers, cling to your knife.