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‘We are going nowhere’

December 6, 2010

The question took me by surprise. It was on the CNN website. An opinion poll as to whether US should have permanent bases in Afghanistan. More than 70% thought it was not a good idea while around 30% felt it should be done. I do not remember which way I voted – what I do know is that I was just so startled by the question that I stared at my computer screen for some time.

Since last evening I have been, perhaps in my unconscious mind thinking about this whole idea. The opinion poll on the CNN was perhaps prompted by the fact that U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham had propounded such a move. What shocked me, as it were, was the fact that most of us believe that the US is going to start withdrawing sometime in mid 2011, and that is just a few months from now. It is also true that the US and the coalition forces called the ISAF have invested a lot in terms of sweat and blood in Afghanistan. They have worked hard to make the gains that they have and they have lost quite a few of their comrades in the process.

Map of Afghanistan

It is a well known fact that the US has not vacated any country that they have entered. They have ended up making a permanent presence in the form of military bases. American bases are there in Germany, Japan and South Korea among other countries. The real numbers are not clear and is a well guarded secret but the fact remains that US has bases all over the world and that gives the Americans a strategic depth that can be crucial in their geo-political maneuvers. I am not for this kind of expansionist agenda as a matter of course. I take this as a threat to international peace. But in the case of Afghanistan and perhaps even Iraq, I would make an exception. I may point out that both Germany and Japan resent American presence 60 years after the War and the Okinawa base in Japan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Be as it may, nothing excites me more than a permanent base of western forces in Afghanistan. The question is why?

What Senator Lindsey Graham says makes sense! A permanent US presence in Afghanistan will be for US interests in a wide variety of ways. Fighting terrorism will of course be at the core of this agenda. But apart from that American and western presence in Afghanistan could be the harbinger of peace in the region. But American bases in Afghanistan will have to be scattered and will have to encompass the whole of Afghanistan – from Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif to Herat and Kunduz. There will have to be permanent western presence in Afghanistan.

It must also be clear to the Americans that these bases will be ‘active’ bases and not the kind that they have in Japan and Germany. It will not be a picnic for those stationed there. These facilities will be targeted by the radicals from time to time and they must be battle ready for any eventuality. There will also be casualties and the American leadership should be ready to take hits in their stride. It also goes without saying that aerial reconnaissance will be critical for the security and military objectives of these facilities. It should also be taken as a given that drones will be used as a matter of course to keep the enemy at bay. Without these back ups the forward bases will not be able to sustain. I know the drones are a headache for the common Afghan and I do not condone a people in a constant state of alert and under seige, but at least in the short to medium term drones may be the only answer to pre-empting any terror strike on troops stationed in these sensitive forward bases.

Were the Americans to have permanent bases in Afghanistan it will achieve multiple objectives! The one major statement that such a move will make from the present military posture of the west is that it will give a clear message that ‘we are going nowhere’ that ‘we are here to stay’ – till such time that our strategic objectives are met. The latter part will be an addendum which may not be spelt out. Once the Afghans know that the west is serious about their commitment to the nation lots of things will fall in place automatically. Critics of any permanent presence of US in Afghanistan point out that this will be propping up a corrupt Karzai regime that has not hesitated in accepting sacks full of dollar bills from the rogue Iranian government. Yes, this is true, there will be stability in Afghanistan and in the short run the present regime may be the beneficiary but in the longer run this may lead to a sea change in the attitude of the Afghan population. For one, if there is a permanent US presence people will look at their own nation differently. There will be hope and positivity in the air that will change the political and social discourse in the nation. Next time there will be an election people will come out in droves and make sure they vote for the candidate that promises them development and progress and not vote for the one that may be corrupt but the best bet against the dreaded Taliban. The Taliban will then be out of the equation and the common Afghan will be able to think constructively. In all probability, if Afghans know that Americans are here to stay and that Talibs are never coming back then they will become fearless and that will be such a departure from the present state of uncertainty that they will then demand the right things from their government – like infrastructure, education and health care. Afghanistan will then be on the move and this will propel a process of development and progress which I am sure will reach across the border into Pakistan. Development is infectious. With development will come the urge to educate and to excel! A nation can be transformed and a region can be revived.

You know what – this is perhaps the most positive thought process that I have witnessed for a long time. I have not given up on Pakistan either. Pakistan is a nation full of possibilities. Pakistanis are an intelligent people and they have a rich history and culture. They are enterprising and there are institutions in place that have been corroded by graft and lack of commitment. For world peace, a progressive and forward looking Pakistan is a must. If the US declares setting up permanent bases in Afghanistan then Pakistan’s attitude vis-a-vis Taliban will also change and they will be less enthusiastic about backing any of the Taliban factions including Mulla Omar or the Haqqanis. In all probability the US will not have to reach out to Taliban but it will be the Taliban that will reach out to the US, and then there can be real negotiations without any direct interference from Islamabad. The semantics would have changed and the chaos that is Afghanistan will turn to some sense of purpose and direction.

If there are permanent American bases in Afghanistan and Washington does not make any bones about it and makes it as a cornerstone of its Af-Pak initiative that President Obama so rightly is focusing on, then things will become much easier for western troops stationed there. They will be surprised as to how people will reach out to Americans and give them vital information that will help them fight radicals. Right now when they know that Americans are here today and gone tomorrow as is the belief then they are scared to come out and help the western forces. I will not be surprised if local Afghans reach out and help create an army of men who will then fight the dreaded Taliban. It is all a matter of showing commitment, rest will fall in place.

I am told that the American army is encouraging the setting up of schools and dispensaries for the local population. Such efforts will have to be increased manifold. The American troops will also have to learn to conduct themselves in a responsible manner that earns them respect of the local population. If the western forces are ready to weather the storm that will inevitably rage once Washington announces their intent on establishing permanent bases, things will cool down and there will inevitably be peace and tranquility in this beautiful land of unmatched possibilities. These bases will be ones that will be active bases and the west must be ready to take some collateral damages, including loss of life at least in the short and medium term. As said earlier, any positive change in Afghanistan will inevitably have a positive spin on the way Islamabad functions. The region will transform and terror will subside not only in Af-Pak region but this will be a decisive blow to terror infrastructure worldwide. If Washington does decide on permanent bases in Afghanistan, I guess this is one time they will be doing it for the right reasons. These will be American military bases for peace. And when I say peace, I mean it.

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