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When the battle's lost and won

Stanly Johny  |  New Delhi 

Stanly Johny examines two on the Af-Pak challenge once the US-led international forces exit in 2014.

Will the Afghan government survive? With international troops in Afghanistan set to pull out in 2014, this question is becoming louder day by day. What makes the list of achievements, often issued from Kabul and Washington, less attractive is Afghanistan’s own history. What followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, after 10 years of fighting American- and Saudi-backed guerrillas known as the Mujahedeen, was chaos. And that chaos spawned disaster for the entire nation, from which it is yet to recover. Now, when the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is preparing to wind down the latest Afghan war, the key question is whether history will repeat itself.

Shanthie Mariet D’Souza’s edited volume, Afghanistan in Transition: Beyond 2014 looks at this question in detail. The book, a compilation of 12 academic papers, offers detailed analyses from three angles — security, economic and geopolitical. Inter-connecting these three perspectives is the authors’ conviction that Afghanistan’s future is dependent not only on the decisions taken in Kabul, but also on those taken in some other capitals, primarily Washington and Islamabad. Ali A Jalali, who has written a chapter, ‘The Challenges and Prospects of Transition in Afghanistan’, puts it this way: “The interplay between the Afghan government, the Armed opposition forces, the US-led ISAF and other domestic and foreign actors who are aligned directly or indirectly with the three major players will shape the future of Afghanistan as a state…” It is this intricate scenario that makes Afghanistan the theatre of a simmering geopolitical conflict.

The dominant actors in this theatre may have a common goal, but their interests are diverse. Americans want Afghanistan to stabilise and not be used as a safe haven for any trans-national terrorism in the future. They also want Pakistan to severe its ties with radical groups within that country; to Washington this element is key to stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan also wants peace in Afghanistan, but without its interest being compromised. Afghanistan wants Pakistan’s help in reaching an agreement with Taliban, but would unlikely tolerate the neighbouring country’s growing clout in its security, or politics-related issues. It’s a complex picture, and it will become more complicated by 2014.

What Pakistan wants: As D’Souza writes in the introduction, “Islamabad is seen as the most influential player in ending the insurgency in Afghanistan because of its links to Afghan insurgents that use safe havens in Pakistan in their cross border attacks.” Therefore, any effective transition plan for Afghanistan should also take Pakistan into confidence. But the irony is that the very “links with insurgents” that make Pakistan an important player in Afghan transition has left the country in a strategic trap.

Pakistan has a long history of close ties with extremist groups, which, though strained, continued even in the post-9/11 period. True, Islamabad has been an active participant in the US-led war on al-Qaeda. But the killing of al-Qaeda founder-leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, has left the country in an awkward situation. This has strengthened existing criticisms that Pakistan is playing a “double game” in the “war on terror”. This has also raised suspicions about the role Pakistan will play in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. To understand what Pakistan wants in Afghanistan, or in the West-sponsored war on extremists, one has to realistically comprehend Pakistan’s historical ties with extremist outfits. Pakistan-based strategic analyst Imtiaz Gul’s latest book Pakistan Before and After Osama is an effort in that direction.

Pakistan has maintained close ties with Islamic radicals at least since the early 1980s. Its intelligence agencies set up training camps on its soil for jihad against the godless Communists who attacked Afghanistan in 1979. This was basically an American plan, designed to check the expansion of communism in Asia, and backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. “What made the insurgency a truly international affair was the active participation of volunteer Muslim fighters from around the world, who came to rescue their ‘brother’ Muslim country from the invasion of a godless communist nation. Bin Laden, then a fresh graduate of 23 years, also made his way into Afghanistan,” writes Gul.

The jihad was a success. The Red Army was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. The extremists who built military capabilities with Pakistan’s help came to power in Kabul through a bloody civil war. Islamabad had no moral impediment in recognising the Taliban regime in Kabul. However, the September 11 terrorist attack redrew regional equations drastically.

Pakistan’s decision to take part in the ‘war on terror’ also demanded that the country reshape its strategic thinking. But Islamabad joined the America-led war without realigning the basic structures of its foreign policy, which were focused too much on Kashmir and Afghanistan. This is what Gul calls a “skewed foreign policy”, which prevented Islamabad from severing its ties with radical groups. As a result, the country was brought into direct conflict with Afghanistan, India and the US. At present, these three countries “hold a consensus view” about the Pakistani security establishment: that it is a “big source of instability in the region”. This consensus, on the contrary, is pushing Pakistan more to the status quo and prevents it from charting a new course in foreign policy.

In Gul’s view, it is high time Pakistan took a “more dispassionate and realistic view” in its foreign policy engagements. Its flawed policy has not only brought international condemnation on Pakistan, but has also brought chaos upon itself. “The extent of Pakistan’s chaos is best exemplified by the fact that, compared to the 22 suicide attacks between 2002 and 2006, the year 2007 witnessed at least 56 lethal strikes… The trend peaked in 2009 with almost 90 such strikes, while 2010 saw 65.” Agrees Rasul Bakhsh Rais, who writes about the ‘Pakistan perspective’ in Afghanistan in Transition: “By official estimates, more than 30,000 Pakistan citizens have been killed in terrorist acts, the country has lost 3,500 security personnel and the economic costs to be around $68 billion.” Rais argues Pakistan should realise that the Taliban rule will not return to Afghanistan and should work with the Afghan government to strengthen stability and peace in that country, which is important for its own interests.

Missing narrative: In general, Afghanistan in Transition sees improvement in the security situation in the country, particularly after President Barack Obama sent additional troops to the battlefield in 2009, but warns readers that those gains are reversible unless there are effective steps from both the Afghan government and other stakeholders. It also offers certain policy recommendations that include governance reforms, reconciliation with different sects, strengthening of Afghan national troops, and constructive engagement with outside powers, including Pakistan and the US. Pakistan Before and After Osama, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of Pakistan lifting itself out of the morass in which it is mired in and act as a positive power in south Asia. These two approaches see the US as a stabilising force in the region. This narrative, however, misses the point that the US’s offensive engagement, starting from the Mujahedeen years, was a catalyst in the troubles of the region. The ‘war on terror’ has only exacerbated the situation. Could the US be absolved of the mess it has created in south Asia?

Edited by: Shanthie Mariet D’Souza
Publisher: Pentagon Press

Pages: 264
Price: Rs 795

Author: Imtiaz Gul
Publisher: Roli
Pages: 312
Price: Rs 395

First Published: Sat, October 13 2012. 00:43 IST