Friday, October 2, 2009

US nowhere close to winning the war

by Sushant Sareen

The Americans insist that they are not going to leave Afghanistan in a hurry and will remain committed in the AfPak region for a very long time. But all the signs on the ground belie the resolute statements emanating from the US administration, Congress, Pentagon and the think-tanks.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Americans are nowhere close to winning the war. Their military strategy is not working, their political strategy has foundered, and psychologically a defeatist mindset pervades the Western military and political policy-makers. Under the circumstances, nothing short of a miracle can prevent an ignominious, if tragic, defeat for the sole superpower in a place that is often referred to as ‘the graveyard of empires’.

The common perception in the region is that it is only a matter of time before the Americans throw in the towel in Afghanistan, a perception that has in fact guided the Islamist resistance from the moment the Americans entered Afghanistan after 9/11. Nothing that the Americans say or do is now going to alter this perception. Unlike the Americans who measure time in terms of the schedule of Congressional and presidential elections, the Islamists view time through the prism of relativity. Such an adversary cannot be tired down. The only way to win is to ruthlessly eliminate him. But soldiers who get traumatised by the sight of blood and who have to consult a manual before they can fire on the enemy are incapable of fighting, much less winning, against such an enemy.

In Afghanistan, the Americans are the only ones among the much-vaunted NATO forces doing the actual fighting. However, with the costs in men and material mounting by the day, and the military brass running out of ideas on combating the Islamists, public support for the war in the US is dwindling. Not surprisingly, the politicians are clamouring for pulling out (albeit with some face-saving political solution). With everything that can go wrong, the planned ‘surge’ is unlikely to help very much and could end up reinforcing failure.

A last ditch attempt is now underway to retrieve the military situation just enough so that the way is paved for some sort of a political solution. Once this happens, or so the theory goes, the Americans can affect an orderly exit from Afghanistan with whatever remains of their pride and prestige.

The trouble is that the very talk of a political solution, which will be effective only if it brings on board the real (or should we say ‘irreconcilable’) Taliban leadership reaffirms the widespread impression of the imminent defeat of the Americans at the hands of the Islamists. While any negotiations with the Taliban will almost certainly be facilitated by the Pakistanis, such facilitation will deal a body blow to not only Pakistan army’s operations against the Taliban but also to the developing consensus inside Pakistan to combat the Taliban politically, ideologically and militarily.

While it is entirely possible that the Taliban might give assurances to the Americans that they will not allow Afghanistan to become a base for Jihad international by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, these assurances will not be worth the paper they are written on. The Taliban know that once the Americans leave, they can merrily violate all their assurances because the chances of the Americans coming back will be negligible. All that might happen is a few air strikes or missile strikes. Instead of cowering at the prospect of such strikes, the Islamists will use them to feed the religious frenzy among the people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis (mostly of the vernacular variety and all with right-wing, Islamist leanings) have convinced themselves that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a necessary pre-condition for ending the Islamist insurgency in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the fact is that a US exit will probably create more instability and upheaval than its continued presence in the AfPak region. Counter-intuitive though it may appear, a major power like the US can still afford to negotiate with the Taliban and/or abandon Afghanistan; it is Pakistan that can neither afford US negotiations with the Taliban nor a US exit from the region.

While the US will depend heavily on Pakistan to keep a semblance of control in Afghanistan, such outsourcing is destined to fail. No amount of US military and economic assistance to Pakistan will be enough to stop large swathes of Pakistani territory falling to the Taliban influence. The deep links that exist between important Taliban warlords and the Pakistan army will work only up to a point. Even when the Taliban were deeply beholden to Pakistan, they often defied Pakistan when it came to issues like recognising the Durand line or handing over sectarian terrorists who had taken refuge in Afghanistan. Having forced a superpower like the US to retreat, there is little reason for the Taliban to kowtow to Pakistani influence, even less so since Pakistan had collaborated with the ‘Great Satan’.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a Taliban regime in Afghanistan will create a strategic nightmare for Pakistan. Instead of Afghanistan lending strategic depth to Pakistan, it will be Pakistan that will lend strategic depth to the Taliban, who will spread their influence inside Pakistan. In other words, the equations between the Pakistanis and the Taliban have already changed drastically.

Pakistan no longer has the ability to stand as guarantor and enforcer in Afghanistan. Nor can Pakistan remain insulated from a Talibanised Afghanistan. Given that on its own Afghanistan is no longer a viable state, the Taliban will naturally gravitate towards exploiting the resources and riches in Pakistan to gain a degree of viability. In the process, they will ensure that both countries become unviable.

Since Pakistan will find it very difficult to survive a Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan, any US strategy must take this factor into account. This means that the US is left with broadly four options: One, the US can continue with the current muddled approach which means pretty much following the failed policies of the last eight years with minor tweaks and reviews. Two, the US can try to firewall the AfPak region to prevent the virulence of the Islamists spreading. But firewalls are easily breached, more so in the geographical and political region in which this firewall is being attempted.

Three, the US can attempt to put the AfPak region under some kind of international trusteeship which will take over this area and reconstruct it and ensure an ideological transformation of both these countries. And finally, the US can just pack its bags and leave. In this last option, the US could either break Afghanistan along ethnic lines or underwrite a loose coalition government in that country or even outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The immediate consequence of a US withdrawal will be a massive global upsurge of Islamist militancy and influence. Eventually, however, the international community will put in place a global security architecture to fight Jihad international, much in the same way it fought Communist international.

As far as India is concerned, if the US is successful in ridding AfPak of radical Islamism, it will in large measure solve India’s terrorist problem. On the other hand, if the US loses in Afghanistan, then while on one hand, India will become the frontline state against the spread of radical Islam, on the other, it can enjoy the munificence of dollars pouring in to keep the Islamist threat at bay.

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