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Clinton off the mark on Afghanistan

Posted by seumasach on February 22, 2011


Asia Times

23rd February, 2011
The Barack Obama administration’s choice of Marc Grossman as successor to the late Richard Holbrooke, former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is significant for three reasons. If Grossman’s diplomatic career spanned Pakistan and the Afghan mujahideen at a time when Pakistan was a “frontline” state for the United States, his two stints in Turkey in a bygone era, including as ambassador, make him an “expert” on the strange workings of a political democracy run by the country’s military.

Indeed, Grossman also devoted his career to the remaking of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including the denouement to the alliance’s first “out-of-area” operations in the Balkans. Thus, Grossman’s appointment gives away a certain shift in Obama’s thinking – gradually moving away from the military “surge” in Afghanistan to a diplomatic and political track of reconciliation with the Taliban.

The “leaks” last week by administration officials to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll appeared almost alongside Grossman’s appointment – that the US administration is engaged in direct talks with the Taliban. Coincidence or not, this was also the gist of the policy speech delivered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Asia Society at New York on Friday regarding the war.

With Grossman’s appointment, the past two months’ drift in US policies has been punctuated. But the US’s capacity to pull off a denouement to the war that Clinton outlined remains in doubt. The principal points in her speech were:

  • The transition to Afghan-led security will commence as planned in the coming weeks and the drawdown of US troops will be completed by end-2014.
  • Washington will continue to pursue a three-track strategy running on “mutually reinforcing tracks”: a military “surge” combined with a civilian effort to revitalize the political economy of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a diplomatic “surge” to end the war.
  • Reconciliation with the Taliban is subject to well laid out conditions.
  • The US will relentlessly degrade the Taliban and they will face international “ostracism” until they choose political compromise.
  • At the same time, the US recognizes “we will never kill enough insurgents to win this war outright”.
  • Therefore, US civilian and military efforts will aim at supporting a durable political settlement and the US will “intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process”.

    Did Clinton break new ground? The answer is “no”. The war is fast morphing into a “bleeding wound”, to use Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous words of another superpower’s Afghan war. Clinton tacitly acknowledged the stalemate. So, all that the Taliban need to do is to simply “wait it out”. Just as Washington has preconditions, so do the Taliban.

    In a statement on Saturday, the Taliban zeroed in on precisely the aspect of the ongoing US-Afghan negotiations for American military bases in the post-2014 phase (although Clinton deftly glided over the issue in her speech): “Afghanistan is not a country where the native people will tolerate the presence of foreign troops … The Americans should know that neither the rulers of the puppet regime nor the hand-picked parliament is entitled to trade on the destiny of Afghanistan … establishment of permanent bases in Afghanistan is an American pipedream and is not realizable.”

    Most significantly, the Taliban concluded, “The regional countries unmistakably realize the goals and objectives of America behind their prolonged presence in Afghanistan. Naturally, the regional countries will not accept this notion but rather will oppose it. They will even forge an alliance against it if they find an opportunity to do so and will make efforts to hand out a forceful and devastating blow to the American plan.”

    Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to agree with the Taliban. He said in Kabul on Saturday: “This [agreement on US bases] is not something to be done only by the Afghan government and it neither has the authority. It is Afghans who should come up with a decision. In any case, Afghanistan needs peace as a precondition and it wants to make sure that neighboring countries don’t feel any threats.”

    Interestingly, Karzai echoed a Russian Foreign Ministry statement earlier in the day: “This information [regarding US bases] makes one think and it raises questions. Why will the US military bases be needed if the terrorist threat in … Afghanistan is ended? Will Kabul be able to combine negotiations on a long-term American military presence with the reconciliation process? How will Afghanistan’s neighbors view the establishment of a foreign country’s military bases near their territory?”

    Karzai is convinced that Washington is systematically weakening his authority. He and the Pakistani military leadership will see the new approach in Clinton’s speech as a ploy to scatter their nascent endeavor to kickstart an “intra-Afghan” peace process and, generally speaking, to create confusion among Afghan protagonists.

    Clinton failed to concede a pivotal role for Pakistan in the search of a settlement. She defined Pakistan’s role in terms of cracking down on Taliban sanctuaries, keeping up cordial state-to-state relations with Afghanistan, maintaining non-interference in Afghan affairs and principally moving onto a sustained trajectory of settlement of differences (including over Afghanistan) and normalization with India. In short, Clinton offered to Pakistan a “peace dividend” in terms of its own internal stability and enhanced regional cooperation with India.

    She failed to acknowledge Pakistan’s “special” interests, a broader security matrix that also includes the alarming prospect (from Islamabad’s point of view) of a regional imbalance emanating out of the cascading US-India military cooperation and Washington’s unilateral recognition of India as a nuclear-weapon power.

    On the other hand, Clinton made it abundantly clear that the key levers of the political process to reconciling the Taliban as well as regional politics over Afghan problem would remain very much in Washington’s hands.

    Conceivably, Washington counts on its non-Pashtun allies inside Afghanistan to frustrate any Afghan-Pakistan peace process that gets beyond the US’s control or defies its objectives and, second, it counts on Saudi Arabia to be the regional “balancer” vis-a-vis Pakistan and Iran, given Riyadh’s old links with the Taliban. Washington seems confident it can play merry havoc within the Taliban leadership by splintering or atomising the group, thereby denying Pakistan its “strategic asset”.

    The US strategy outlined in Clinton’s speech, wittingly or otherwise, could create misgivings in Islamabad regarding Karzai’s game plan. It all seems rather an audacious hope. The hard realities are:

    The US possesses very limited capability to persist with its much-touted civilian and military “surge”.
    The US claims that the Taliban are weakening and lack conviction. The security situation is deteriorating, war is spreading to the north and Kabul city’s security perimeters have been breached.
    The latest accord among militants in Kurram agency gives “strategic depth” to the Taliban operating out of the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan.
    The US military faces the contradictory situation of adhering to a drawdown deadline while simultaneously degrading the Taliban on the battlefield and reinforcing the political and diplomatic “surge”.
    Washington’s equations with Kabul and Rawalpindi are at an all-time low.
    The Afghan-Pakistan relationship is way beyond the US’s control.
    India-Pakistan relations are fraught with huge question marks and Washington faces an uphill task balancing its ties with the two South Asian adversaries.
    The US-Iran “standoff” is entering uncharted territory following the developments in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
    Major regional powers harbor misgivings regarding the US’s “unilateralist” approach and its geopolitical objectives.
    The war is increasingly controversial in Western opinion and Obama is gearing up for a tough re-election campaign. Clearly, the timeline favors the Taliban.

    Clinton’s optimism seems unwarranted. She said, “Today, the escalating pressure of our military campaign is sharpening a decision for the Taliban: break ties with al-Qaeda, give up your arms and abide by the Afghan constitution, and you can rejoin Afghan society. Refuse, and you will continue to face the consequences of being tied to al-Qaeda as an enemy of the international community. They cannot wait us out. They cannot defeat us. And they cannot escape this choice.”

    Very tough talk, indeed. And no mincing of words, either. But, if only life were that simple and the road ahead that straightforward. British Pakistani author and commentator Tariq Ali once wrote that it is when such eloquent rhetoric appears that a resounding voice can be heard echoing through the valleys and hills of the Hindu Kush – loud, derisive Pashtun laughter.

    Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

    (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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