The End Game – Ensuring a Smooth Exit?
John Kerry has been in the sub-continent quiet a few times but it is the first time he is coming to India after taking office as the Secretary of State. With the deadline of 2014 for the exit of American forces looming large he has little time to sew things up. After war and acrimony the US has decided to talk to the Taliban including the Haqqani group. This has raised the hackles of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has also objected to Taliban claiming to represent the people of Afghanistan and calling his nation Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in effect making his office inconsequential. Karzai sees his nation as secular and any such overt expression of religious moorings does not go down well with the present setup. Besides this is what the Taliban want Afghanistan to be and if such nomenclature is accepted then it will in effect be an acceptance of the radical Taliban point of view which is anathema to duly elected Karzai.
For the Americans, they couldn’t care less. Their priority is to get their troops back home safely. To John Kerry and President Obama, the safety of their troops is of utmost importance. The Doha office of the Taliban was set up precisely for this purpose. Some 20 warlords with their families live in the palatial Doha office of the Taliban. They claim that the Qataris are paying for the Taliban office. I would not be surprised if the Americans are found to be footing the bill for the Taliban office and the upkeep of the leaders living there. Americans have come around to the fact that this is a war they cannot win. They cannot annihilate the Taliban or overpower them. So the best bet is to make a deal with them. But this is nothing new. Such backdoor dialogue with the Taliban has been going on for some years now. The difference though is that the Taliban have been given an official sanction and are being courted openly. Their amazing chutzpah in offering a swap of Afghans in Guantanamo for an American Sergent they captured in 2009 is an indicator of how far back the American are ready to bend to accommodate them.
The incredible part is that while the Taliban are enjoying American hospitality their fighters are putting the pressure on the American forces and the Afghan security-men trained by the Americans. Americans are returning the favors by unleashing drone attacks. A recent attack in Kabul where suicide bombers attacked Baghram Airbase was thwarted by the Afghan forces while the Americans remained in the background. This was seen as a great achievement – the way they repulse d the attack. But the crucial factor was that the Americans remained in the background. How would have the same attack panned out had the American forces not been there is what experts are asking
Hamid Karzaai made his displeasure clear when he found that the Americans had included the Haqqanis in talks. The al-Qaeda link with the Haqqanis is well known. Americans had vowed not to talk to the Haqqanis. But now they have made a U turn and invited them as well. Clearly, it is a desperate situation. The mess in Afghanistan is as bad as it can get. The question for Kerry is – how to ensure that the American forces make a quiet exit and his president’s words are honored. John Kerry knows that if Karzai will listen to anyone it is the Indians. His trip to India is to make sure India uses its leverage to ensure Karzai is a willing participant in the talks. Already Karzai has toned down his rhetoric. Karzai is looking at a post 2014 American withdrawal scenario. In public he postures that the Taliban can never return. But clearly, the man is on the edge. He is suspicious of all and sundry and has few friends. For him an American end game is as much an end game for him too. His posturing therefore has to be seen in a context. The fate of Najibullah is still fresh in the minds of many Afghans.
There are two lacunae in the Johan Kerry and Obama administration’s game plan. The first is that they have not made it clear as to what kind of commitment they plan to have in Afghanistan post 2014. What they have said is that American forces will be in non-combat role post 2014. They are increasingly giving charge to Afghan forces. It is the number of forces that will remain in Afghanistan post 2014 that is the critical question. If there are enough forces to ward off any insurgent attack then there is a credible deterrence against the Taliban. It is the numbers that matter. And lets be clear – any force worth its salt should be ready to fight if they have to. This American posturing that their forces will remain in Afghanistan as non-combatants is pure baloney. Afghanistan is not an American base as in Okinawa or in Germany. This is an outpost in a volatile region that will see combat from time to time. America may have called for an end to war in Afghanistan but the critical question is whether Taliban have called for an end too. And therein lies the reason for a frantic urge for negotiations with the Taliban. The question is – can the Americans buy peace. Anyone who knows South Asia will say that Americans are being naive. But what other choice do they have? The answer is – none.
The other gap in this equation is the absence of Pakistani Taliban – the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. It is true that the ISI and the army hold the key to TTP and it is also true that the US has influence with the ISI and the Pakistan Army. But what they are under-estimating is the will of the Pakistan army to have sway in Afghanistan. If we are to look at the history of Pakistan-US relations we find that invariably US has been able to get its way. Yes they have had to pay a price but they have always managed to arm-twist Pakistan into submission. They understand that they may have to negotiate with Pakistan separately but they also know that the Pakistan conundrum is comparatively a predictable one. It is the Afghan Taliban that they need to work on. I am sure they are aware that the one non-negotiable from Pakistan point of view is that once Americans withdraw Pakistan will be free to do as they wish in Afghanistan – which in effect means they will unleash TTP and Afghan Taliban and try and over-run the country. Americans may let Pakistan have a free hand post their withdrawal, which is exactly what India would not like. I will not be surprised if Americans ignore India’s pleas and let Pakistan do as they wish.
For John Kerry and his team a trip to India maybe to make sure Karzai comes around. India will negotiate. They may want David Coleman Headley for a couple of years to sew some terror related cases that are pending in our courts. India understands Obama’s sense of urgency as far as the closure to the Afghan operations is concerned. India will try and make sure Afghanistan does not fall into the hands of Pakistan sponsored Taliban. Karzai and India are keen to get some kind of commitment from Kerry as far as post 2014 troop deployment by the Americans is concerned. The US and their European allies in NATO have indicated to a security cover for Afghanistan till the year 2021. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had clearly stated NATO’s resolve to have adequate forces in Afghanistan so that the developmental work done in this critical nation does not come apart. Besides, NATO would hate to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan. The law of nature is such that vacuums are generally filled in no time. This mineral rich nation must not be abandoned just quiet so quickly. John Kerry has a handful on his plate. We might see a lot more of John Kerry in the run-up to the 2014 withdrawal.
Note: The insistence of the Taliban to call themselves the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with the Afghan flag during the talks has not gone well with the Americans either. They have told the Taliban that they shall be called just the Office of the Taliban and if they insist on representing the people of Afghanistan then the talks shall be suspended and their Doha office closed. Its an intractable situation.
In his article (link below) The Doha Initiative, Brig Samson Sharaf of Pakistan army has argued for handing over the power to the Taliban by the Americans as they are the most credible representatives of the people of Afghanistan. That will be a bloodless coup. Elections in Afghanistan are due in 2014. Will NATO go ahead with elections as they withdraw – that is something that the world will be watching. India will hate to see the Taliban back in power by design or by force. As I said earlier Secretary of State John Kerry’s job is unenviable. This is far from being a simple operation of withdrawing troops.