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A Planned Withdrawal Will Be In Order

August 3, 2009

There has been a debate going on in Britain and in the US as to the reason why their forces are there in Afghanistan. The answers are easy to find, but one that few will admit. The western nations know that there is an oil cache in Central Asia. They also know that the nearest route is through Afghanistan and on to Pakistan culminating in catering to the burgeoning Indian market. The creation of Taliban was to ensure a one system rule in Afghanistan. Taliban turned on their masters and they had to be dealt with. The west, as is their wont, in their over simplistic approach to problems tried a volte face and installed a liberal government after entering Afghanistan and clearing the country from the abominable Taliban, or so it seemed. The Taliban resurfaced, but this time on both sides of the border. Bush had tried to keep the Taliban at bay while ensuring that liberal Karzai was not touched. They rarely ventured beyond the major cities like Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad and they could never control the countryside. The Taliban came back and started demanding toll and protection money from trucks passing Kandahar. Slowly they were back in business. They then focused on the drug trade and became active there too. In fact, the bulk of their income is from the drug trade now.

Obama took office and tried to do things differently. He said that poppy cultivation by itself was not bad as marijuana was used in many of the pharmaceutical products and it was therefore wrong to destroy the crops of the farmers who then went over to the Taliban for protection. He said that the aim should be to check the movement of chemicals used for production of contraband. He further said that the coalition forces should move into the countryside and try and clear it of the Taliban, while gaining the trust of the local population. The other aim of the Obama doctrine was to start schools and dispensaries for the people there. The troops were also given the task of making an electoral roll so that elections could be held on 20th of August this year. The Taliban have retaliated by calling for a boycott of the polls.

The other bitter fact of Obama’s Af-Pak policy has been that while the troops have fanned out into the countryside there have been mounting losses both for the British and the American forces in Afghanistan in the past month. This should have been expected. The surge by the western forces has not been liked by the people in Afghanistan. They feel that they have been intruded upon. The losses are only going to increase. From the kind of reaction there is in the western media, it is clear that the west does not have the stomach to take the losses. What Obama is trying may well work at the end, but there will be a price to pay. I am not sure the people in the west are ready to take this in their stride. Besides, trying to bring about modern education to this orthodox Sunnite landscape may not be easy at all. Are they ready for change? One cannot force education and development down another’s throat. I agree that in the long run, it is modern education that is the answer to many of the ills that plague both Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially the scourge of radicalism that is sweeping both the countries. The fact is that one can do only so much and no more. At some point of time the initiative has to come from the people of these countries.

As for the strategic value of Afghanistan and Pakistan, well, that cannot be emphasized enough. Afghanistan from Pakistan is the gateway to Central Asia. The much discussed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline has been on the anvil for long. The other proposal is that a pipeline be built from Central Asia through Afghanistan that culminates at Gwadar in Balochistan. The port of Gwadar has been developed by the Chinese in Pakistan. It is a deep sea port where the biggest of the Chinese naval frigates can dock. Gwadar is also important as it is situated at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. India has been perturbed by the development of Gwadar port from the military and strategic point of view. Therefore India has started building the Chahbahar sea port in eastern Iran not too far from Gwadar. India has also been building roads that will connect Chahbahar to Afghanistan and on to Central Asia. The Zaranj-Delaram road which connects to Herat and Kandahar has been built with a lot of effort and USAID resources, by the Indian Border Roads Organization (BRO). To give security to the BRO employees India has had to deploy the Indian security forces after a few of our workers and engineers were killed by the Taliban. There is a race to Central Asia. Pakistan is building Gwadar to give China access to the sea port. China has promised that many industries will be relocated to Pakistan once Gwadar starts functioning fully. But it is clear that the economic side of these ports is secondary. Both Gwadar and Chahbahar are being developed mainly for strategic and military reasons. If they attract commerce, that will be icing on the cake.  As far as Chahbahar is concerned it will help open Afghanistan to India, which has remained isolated from India after independence. But that will also depend on how much access is allowed by the rulers in Kabul and by the local warlords that abound in Afghanistan. Americans are not too comfortable with the close ties that India has with Tehran, but this is inevitable for geographical, strategic and historical reasons. The US also realizes the importance of Iran but would like a pliable leadership in Tehran before it starts formal diplomatic relations.

It is true that were Afghanistan to normalize, transit trade can bring in millions of dollars to this resource starved, landlocked country. The present situation belies any such optimism. The Afghanistan of today, it seems is just not ready to move forward. The scourge of radicalism is only spreading. Pakistan has not remained untouched either. The release of Hafiz Saeed is a clear indication that the radicals have taken over Pakistan too.

I know that what I am going to say will be hard to digest both for the west and for many here in India. But one must let both Afghanistan and Pakistan be as they want to be. Let us all just withdraw quietly and stop looking back. We must secure our borders and not allow the radicals to hurt us. Insulate ourselves, as it were. If the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan want an extreme form of Islam and if they are comfortable with that, who are we to stop them from choosing their way of life? Let them sort things out for themselves. The TAP is not happening, not this way. Let there be chaos, let there be manthan (churning) and let the people decide as to what they want. If it is radical Islam that they are comfortable with, well so be it. I know there will be chaos and strife in both the countries. It could also be that the Taliban will take over both in Islamabad and in Kabul. Well, if that is how things are going to be, then we have no option but to face it. The other question that will be asked is, what about the nuclear weapons? The world must denuclearize Pakistan. It is well known that were the nuclear arsenal dismantled and taken away and their nuclear installations decommissioned, there is no way Pakistan can start a nuclear program on its own. Here an unprecedented cooperation between the US, EU, China, Russia and India will be required. Both China and Russia have not remained untouched by Islamic extremism. The Afghanistan-Pakistan question is a global one and the world community needs to come together to try and solve it. A man of Obama’s stature and foresight should not find this almost impossible task too difficult. I have no doubt that were the world to let the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan solve their problems there will emerge a much softer, modern and saner Islam out of the chaos that will be there for some time. 

Radicalism thrives when people see their faith being targeted, real or perceived. No one likes to be told what to do. Let the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan find their own solutions. I am sure that the path that they finally choose will be the best for them and for the world. That should bring in a safer and a better world. 

As for India, we will be at the receiving end. We might have to close not only our consulates, but also our embassy in Kabul. There will be greater infiltration in Kashmir. We will have to take all this in our stride. The various warlords will fight among themselves. There will be strife not only in West Pakistan but also in the various cities of Pakistan including Pehawar, Quetta, Karachi and Lahore. From this strife and chaos will emerge peace and calm. Let us be practical. The western forces are not going to be in Afghanistan forever. The way things are moving, I doubt if they can remain in this inhospitable land for more than a couple of years. I also doubt whether in this time they can achieve stability in the region. Chaos will be there whenever the western forces decide to withdraw. It is best to plan for the withdrawal. The world should be taken into confidence and the nuclear program of Pakistan will need to be dismantled. The sooner the world starts doing this the better. And if that is achieved without any margin of error, the west can then withdraw in peace. The old American policy to try and control the army in Pakistan so that they can further their agenda in the region may not work for long as the army has been radicalized as much as the society. The army is an extension of the society. It is true that Pakistan cannot sustain without support from Washington but the financial carrot may be set aside by Islamabad as anti-American sentiments have never been stronger than what they are now. Washington will err were they to rely on the Pakistan army for too long to ensure ‘stability’ in Pakistan. It is always better to have ones ear to the ground. And if one really tries to understand the ground situation, the signs are ominous.

Update 03.08.2009: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new NATO chief said that he wanted a proper balance between NATO forces from North America and those from Europe to avoid the perception that the mission in Afghanistan was predominantly an American operation. He further went on to say that NATO was not going to exit Afghanistan anytime in the near future. He was very pointed about his assertion. It will be interesting to see how Europe reacts to the new chief’s overtures. There has also been a demand from the American commanders for an increase in troops deployment from 150,000 to 300,000. They need more boots on the ground, they say. Any such increase is being opposed and is an unpopular move in the US. US wants Europe to step in. Obama wants his troops to concentrate on development and social welfare as much as they do on military aspects. Clearly, the Americans are out of depths in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. And that is not good news at all.

Much hope hinges on the ‘hearts and minds’ approach. The west is underestimating the earthy wisdom of the Afghans. They will take all that the west has to offer them and still side with the Taliban. Reason: They know that these foreigners are going to be in their country for only so long and then they will have to deal with the Taliban anyway. And if some are swayed by the ‘goodness’ of these foreigners, the last most compelling argument will surface: The argument of faith. The heathen, the Kafir and the faithful – who are they with? The answers are obvious. And then their loyalty to their tribe, clan and what have you! One can keep on shoving endless goodies in this pit hole and nothing will come out. It is a waste of precious resources and taxpayers money. Having said that I also strongly believe that Afghans and Pakistanis deserve better lives but the answers have to come from within. And those answers will be real and more permanent, because the solutions will be their own, as are the problems. We need to give them space.

In Herat, there was a bomb explosion in which the city police chief was grieviously injured. Twenty people died and more than three dozen were injured.

Update 05.08.2009: It is reported that one of Baitullah Mehsud’s wives has been killed in drone attack in Ladha, a small town in South Waziristan. Mehsud is the chief of Tehrik-i-Taliban and has a bounty of $5 million on his head. His wife’s father, Ikramuddin was also killed in the attack. Source: Times Online, London.

Drone attacks may be a smart way of targeting militants without any colateral damage on the American side but they have been counter productive till now. At the best of times the intelligence is half-baked and at others positively sketchy. Why should the family of a known extremist be targeted? It leads to discontent among the people there and gathering intelligence in future becomes that much more difficult. Drone attacks should be resorted to only if there is some verifiable intelligence. For starters, these drones should be parked in their hangers till such time when the intelligence on the ground gets good enough, if the west is serious about fighting the Taliban. The killing of Mehsud’s wife has been reported in the western press as if it is a great achievement, but the ground reality is that this will only lead to more animosity among the people towards the west and the government in Islamabad, which is increasingly being seen by them as a stooge of Washington. For they ask, what kind of government is it in Islamabad that cannot protect its own people?

Update 07.08.2009: It is being reported that Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of Tehrik-i-Taliban has also died in the drone attack in South Waziristan, along with his second wife. If so this is one of the few instances when the drones have hit their target. This is one success for this state of the art technology. However, for this one good strike there have been innumerable bad ones and innocents have been killed in large numbers. One needs to be more judicious in the use of the drones. A verifiable intelligence is a prerequisite before any more drone attacks are embarked upon.

Update 08.08.2009: The Tehrik-i-Taliban, Pakistan now says that Baitullah Mehsud has not been killed. If it is so, then it will be very difficult to get this man through drone attacks. The Hellfire missiles are very potent but their strike capability is also limited. Mehsud will be extra cautious now and may take refuge in mountain caves that such missiles cannot target. He will avoid open areas and may make any such mountain cave his abode. The Americans and the Pakistanis have no plans to enter Waziristan. The only danger he has is from the drones. And with some precaution, that can be negated. That is if he is still alive. It will take some time to get a clear idea as to where lies the truth.

There was a news item where one of the journalists wondered whether the Pakistan government will give the Americans the 50 million rupees that was put on the head of Mehsud by the Pakistan government, now that the drones have done the job? Promises are promises, are they not?

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