Asif Haroon Raja
Afghanistan is under illegal occupation of US-NATO forces since November 2001. So far occupation forces have been unable to achieve any of the professed objectives. These include capturing Osama Bin Laden dead or alive, defeating and destroying Al-Qaeda, liberation of Afghans from the cruel clutches of Taliban, introducing US model democracy, ushering in modernism and prosperity and radically improving the living conditions of Afghans. Eight years have lapsed and Osama is still untraceable. No one knows where he is and whether he is dead or alive. Utter helplessness of the sole super power and the developed world has turned Osama into a legendary figure and he is seen as a hero among the Islamists the world over.
Al-Qaeda, a small and insignificant entity strictly confined to Afghanistan has become robust and turned into an international organization. Democracy is a far cry since the country is ruled by an American stooge who is highly unpopular among Afghans. Trigger happy American forces are not seen as liberators but as fiends carrying deep-seated hatred for Muslims and their faith and deriving sadistic pleasure in killing Muslims. Several social evils that had been eliminated by the Taliban during their short rule from 1996 to 2001 have reappeared in a big way. These include corruption, nepotism, injustice, drug addiction and smuggling, immorality, ethnicity and sectarianism, insecurity of life, honor and property. War lords reign supreme. The Pashtuns being in great majority stand isolated and marginalized while minority non-Pashtuns rule the roost. Northern Alliance rulers in connivance with USA are persistently hounding and persecuting the Pashtuns on suspicion of being aligned with Taliban who do not deserve to live and for whom there is no scope for mercy since they are aligned with most hated Al-Qaeda. As a consequence the plight of Afghan Pashtuns has become appalling.
George W. Bush Administration made a complete mess in Afghanistan and Iraq during its inglorious eight year rule. By mid 2008, there was consensus in USA that the military should pull out of Iraq and reinforce Afghanistan since it was home to Al-Qaeda. By then it had become evident that Iraqi adventure was a mistake and had been undertaken on trumped up threat of WMDs and that Iraq posed no threat to US homeland. By mid 2008, the neo-cons started to propagate that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan posed any threat to western world. In their view nuclear Muslim Pakistan was the chief threat and should have been targeted at the outset. This is exactly what India had strongly advised to Bush Administration soon after 9/11. With this change in tune, Washington became highly aggressive towards Pakistan and FATA as a possible target figured up. All the prospective presidential candidates in USA including Obama used highly offensive language against Pakistan and this tirade continued even after Obama got elected.
Bush handed over the baton to Obama and gave a false impression as if the US had achieved victory in Iraq. In order to turn the tide in its favor in Afghanistan, new Af-Pak policy based on troop surge was announced in March 2009 by Obama Administration. 18000 troops were shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan to break the rising power of Al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus. Obama thus renewed his predecessor’s flawed policies with renewed vigor. Af-Pak was conceived since many top US leaders saw Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single entity and desired merger of Pashtuns areas into one unit of Pakhtunistan.
In May Obama sacked Gen David McKiernan and replaced him with Gen Stanley McChrystal. He and Gen David Petraeus viewed as counter insurgency experts and victors of Iraq were given responsibility to stabilize Afghanistan by repeating their success story in Fallujah and Ambar provinces of Iraq through troop surge and pitching Sunnis against Al-Qaeda. Gen Chrystal was lionized and sold to American public as a genius and a “Zen warrior”, who would up turn the fortunes of US military in Afghanistan.
Having failed to draw a wedge between Taliban and al-Qaeda and to divide Taliban between ‘reconcilable’ and ‘irreconcilable’, so as to pitch one against the other, it was decided to launch a strong operation in Helmand in July. High hopes were pinned on this operation that it would also achieve its military goals as in the case of Operation Rah-e-Rast in Malakand-Swat. It was also intended to push out militants into Pashtun districts of Balochistan, destabilize the peaceful region and subsequently declare that Afghan Shura had shifted to Quetta. IGFC Balochistan Maj Gen Salim Nawaz reacted fast and deployed extra troops along the border to prevent any inflow. Afghan Taliban after inflicting very heavy casualties on US-UK troops and taking the steam out of overly hyped operation Helmand, launched a daring raid on two outposts in Nuristan province in October killing nine US soldiers and dozens of ANA soldiers. Over 30 ANA officers and men were also abducted and huge stocks of arms and rations captured from the abandoned posts. Subsequently, series of attacks were carried out in the last quarter of 2009 on NATO bases across southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
Rapid successes by Taliban created panic and forced Gen McChrystal to hurriedly vacate all forward posts in southern and eastern Afghanistan to relocate the pulled out troops in main population centres. He felt content in adopting bunkered strategy since it considerably reduced the risk of casualties. In other words he changed the overall military posture from forward to rearward and gave up territory without a fight. Ignoring its own defeatist strategy, the US kept pressing Pakistan to tackle both Hakimullah in South Waziristan (SW) and Sirajuddin Haqqani network with its alleged fallback position in North Waziristan simultaneously but Pak Army maintained its righteous stance of opting for mother of all battles in SW.
The US military change in posture in Afghanistan somehow coincided with Operation Rah-e-Nijat launched by Pak Army in SW on 17 October. It not only created space for Pak Taliban to operate freely across the border to find sanctuary but also allowed freedom of action to Afghan Taliban to come to aid beleaguered TTP. It was interpreted in Pakistan as a willful act to undermine the efforts of Pak Army. If true, US military failed to provoke Afghan Taliban to rush to the aid of beleaguered Pak Taliban in SW caught in the juggernaut of Pak Army. They acted wisely by deciding not to jump into the boiling cauldron of SW where Pak Army had turned the corner and was in good position to deal with external interference.
Reverses on battlefronts coupled with fallout effects of fraudulent presidential elections intended to bolster flagging credibility of Karzai alarmed Gen McChrystal and he put in an emergent bid for additional troops to save the situation. Although Obama reluctantly sanctioned 30,000 troops, however, the fast deteriorating security situation compelled policy makers in Washington to review their Afghan policy. It has now been decided to negotiate with the Taliban and lure them to share power. It is a huge comedown from the belligerent policy so far followed by USA. The change is from use of force only to application of combination of force and political instruments. The US intends to pump in money and entice the moderates among the Taliban as well as the Pashtuns in order to isolate Al-Qaeda and hardcore Taliban under Mullah Omar and is quite optimistic about its new reintegration policy which has also been endorsed by participants of London Conference. With so many players having diverse interests in Afghanistan, the road ahead will be full of bumps. Pakistan should tread its steps wisely and prudently without trying to become the main power broker. Afghanistan has suffered for too long and it deserves peace, stability and prosperity.
The writer is a retired Brig and a defence and security analyst.