Friday, February 12, 2010

The US finding itself on the horns of a dilemma in Afghanistan

Asif Haroon Raja

The new reintegration US plan hinges on winning over moderate Taliban which in their view form 70% of total fighters. Their supposed success with some of the former Taliban officials who had worked under Mullah Omar has led them to believe that with their help they would be able to wean away the majority and isolate hardcore Taliban. $1.5 billion has been pledged to woo the reconcilable. Only the reconcilable who will renounce militancy, surrender arms and cut off links with Al-Qaeda and Mullah Omar led hardliners would stand qualified. This kind of effort was made in the past as well in which Saudi leadership was asked to play a role to bring the reconcilable closer to Karzai regime. Meeting of some of the Taliban leaders with Saudi officials, such as Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, M. Musa Hotal, Abdul Hakim Munib, Faiz M. Faizan and Shams-us-Safa, led to a misplaced belief that a breakthrough had been achieved. (The five have now been removed from the blacklist of UNSC). However, owing to impractical preconditions, Saudi initiative fizzled out. Saudis desired detachment of Taliban from Al-Qaeda rather than dividing the Taliban. Karzai on several occasions expressed his eagerness to meet Omar and proposed a meeting at any venue suiting him or at Kabul assuring him full security. His overtures were brushed aside since he is seen by Taliban Shura as an American puppet whose writ doesn’t extend beyond his palace and whose security is dependent upon American guards.

During the recent London conference held on 28 January to find a solution to Afghan tangle, Karzai made an offer to negotiate with the Taliban and to re-integrate them. He once again sought Saudi mediation. In response to the preconditions put forth by the participants, Taliban Shura put forward its own points. These are: release of all Taliban prisoners languishing in different jails; clearance of all 144 Taliban officials from the blacklist of UNSC and canceling induction of additional troops. They have not addressed Karzai for they know he is powerless.

The US is finding itself on the horns of a dilemma. It knows it will not be able to defeat Taliban and Al-Qaeda comprehensively in the foreseeable future but is desperate to achieve some sort of moral if not physical victory and return home in next 2-3 years timeframe honorably. It also knows that Karzai led regime propped up by Washington through fraudulent election and Afghan security forces are not in a position to handle the situation independently after the withdrawal of coalition forces. It acknowledges that the Taliban are a force to reckon with; they can neither be wished away nor can their return to power blocked. Eight years of sustained efforts have failed to weaken their fighting ability, their resolve and unity. Taliban-Al-Qaeda nexus remain intact. Afghan Shura led by Mullah Omar continues to hold undiminished sway over the Taliban movement.

Mullah Omar and his Shura operate from unknown location (s) since November 2001. None has seen him or any of his top confidantes despite the man hunt. Unlike mixed reports about Osama bin Laden whether he is dead or alive, no news of his death have ever been circulated which implies he is functional. Afghans have seen the real faces of their rulers and none among them ever caught their imaginations and inspired them. Mullah Omar stands tall among the whole lot because of his personal conduct based on justice, honesty and piety, and the way he restored stability, security and social order during his five-year rule under trying conditions. The up righteous and principled stand that he took to protect his guest under the tradition of Pasthunwali upgraded his esteem and respect in the eyes of Afghans sky high. Even leaders of TTP have sworn allegiance to him and see him as Ameer-ul-Momineen. His resilience to withstand the onslaught of US led allied forces and his leadership qualities to recapture lost ground and restore the Taliban movement further boosted his image. He is now seen by the Afghan Pashtuns as the only hope to rid the country from foreign occupation and to once again regain stability.

While the popularity of Mullah Omar has not dented, Americans have lost their image and credibility due to their barbaric and unjust practices. Casualties of occupation troops have begun to accelerate from 2009 onwards and territory is fast slipping out of their hands as more and more territory is coming under the influence of Taliban. Low morale, depression and homesickness among ISAF soldiers coupled with vociferous demands from USA and western countries to wind up the fruitless war are other factors which are haunting US leaders. Successes achieved by Pak Army suffering from paucity of resources as compared with US-NATO forces enjoying all tactical, operational, technical and logistical advantages also disturb them since it is now becoming increasingly difficult to hide their failures by blaming Pakistan. US eagerness to negotiate with the Taliban makes its position difficult to restrain Pakistan from maintaining contacts with them. In the face of belligerent and uncompromising attitude of Indian leaders towards Pakistan and exposure of its clandestine activities in Balochistan, FATA and Swat, US can no longer press Pakistan to render its eastern border naked and shift bulk of forces towards western border where Pak Army has stabilized the situation to quite an extent and the TTP is in disarray.

Since the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been demonized so extensively, it has become difficult to negotiate with any of the two entities with an open and free mind. Neither the US can afford to abandon in haste as it had done in 1990 since it would open the gates for the Taliban to retake power without much ado, thereby rendering their massive investments and human losses end in smoke. This for sure would ignite furor in USA and western countries and demand for a probe and accountability would intensify. Anti-Americanism would peak in the western world as well. Return of Taliban to power would give heart to Islamic movements raging in several Muslim countries and future of secular governments supported by USA would become wobbly.

The stakes being too high, the US would therefore not opt for the safest option of talking to Taliban without preconditions but would opt for next best to divide Taliban, isolate hardcore Taliban and al-Qaeda, launch ruthless operations against strongholds of Taliban in southern and southeastern Afghanistan to regain lost space and then negotiate from position of strength. Efforts to entice reconcilable Pashtuns and Taliban have already begun with the help of few former officials of Mullah Omar regime. Shinwari tribe in Nangahar province has been approached and some headway made. $500 million has been placed at the disposal of Karzai to buy off loyalties of moderates.

US leadership must listen to the voice of American people who want US soldiers to return to their homes. It is regrettable that instead of respecting their sentiments, Gen McChrystal is feverishly planning a massive offensive in Helmand next week amidst snowfall forcing the unfortunate residents of the province to leave their homes and hearths in inclement weather. Having suffered big reverses in July offensive in Helmand, he is desperate to build up his badly bruised image at the cost of people of Afghanistan and his troops. It implies the US is refusing to learn from history and is bent upon winning over Afghan Pashtuns through policy of shock and awe. Taliban have not got over awed and have vowed to fight back with all their strength. It is however to be seen whether the Taliban would like to get involved in pitched battles against overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of coalition forces. Moreover, while the US is pushed for time the other side is not and would like to buy time. The US should strive to leave behind good memories and not scars by sheathing the stick and using carrots only.

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