Afghan conflict in a changing world —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

There may be a return to the idea of a confederacy of tribes held together by an authority figure, a veritable dictator who trades transfer of power to him for guaranteeing core western interests such as the two major bases of Bagram and Shindand

The American presidential election is a long drawn out process during which perceptions of domestic and international issues and the semantics employed to articulate them keep undergoing subtle and not-so-subtle transformations.

This time around it has already gone on, in one form or another, for two years. These two years have seen a continuous erosion of paradigms and doctrines associated with the name George W Bush. As his wars became a trillion-dollar affair and Wall Street faced a meltdown, the mystical belief that the United States can afford to expend blood and treasure forever has suffered a blow.

Time has not stood still and other centres of power and influence have emerged. Admittedly, no direct challenger to American power has surfaced but when Americans vote on November 4, they would be aware of more actors on the international stage than at any time since the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. While Bush might have won India to the extent that proud and ambitious Asian nation can ever be won over, he has lost much goodwill in the post-Soviet Russia. He is also leaving China more distrustful of American intentions than before.

In the region that he vowed to reconfigure, Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with insurgencies or ravages of conflict that lasted much longer than Bush had imagined. It is doubtful if even Israel is more secure after the ill-fated project to re-engineer the Greater Middle East. Above all, Iran may not have realised its great economic potential but it has now a larger strategic outreach in generations. While international opinion might not have done it, the Wall Street crisis will in all likelihood keep Bush’s mind off invading Iran in the dying hours of his troubled reign.

Rhetoric apart, both the presidential candidates know deep in their hearts that the strategic landscape has changed and that they would have to defend their country’s global primacy in circumstances less propitious than eight years ago.

John McCain says he can do it at all crisis points. Barack Obama limits the battlefield mostly to the lands between the modest Amu Darya and the mighty Indus. He would divert troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and the armies of the West may have up to four more brigades. He is categorical about hunting down Osama bin Laden and his senior associates through unilateral action if the Pakistani government appears to be unwilling or unable to do the job. But his heroic statements are anything but reckless and he does not claim that these additional troops would produce an outright military victory.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, strong voices in the West seek to reverse the stand that there could not be any negotiations with the Taliban. A British commander re-defines the mission: reduce the Afghan insurgency to manageable proportion and let the Kabul regime grapple with it. Karzai or his successor would have to do it with an army, the officer corps of which would be dominantly non-Pashtun, a good enough reasons for the dispossessed Pashtun tribes to continue fighting.

Kabul would be expected to resurrect the battered Afghan state with a national economy dwarfed by billions of drug dollars shared alike by the friends and foes of the regime. Prospects of the international community creating a robust Afghan economy capable of squeezing out the drug-based economy diminish by the day. If this talk about engaging the Taliban includes a plan to invite them into the mainstream of Afghan politics, the rest of world has not quite been taken into confidence nor has it been told how it could be implemented.

Across the border, the Pakistani army and air force are already battling to degrade the power of insurgent groups that have diverse agendas for the future but a common purpose at present in carving out territories outside Islamabad’s control. The Pakistani campaign has certainly helped the coalition forces in Afghanistan but it has so far not been very successful in blocking the reverse flow of volunteers, weapons and money into Pakistan from Afghanistan. Nor has Pakistan succeeded in limiting the conflict to the tribal belt; the enemy continues to stretch the security structures by challenging them randomly all over the country.

We may witness significant changes in the battle for Afghanistan in 2009. Having reduced the intensity of conflict in some selected areas the West may well revise its mission objectives. Freedom and democracy will recede into the background; even reconstruction may take a back seat.

Instead there may be a return to the idea of a confederacy of tribes held together by an authority figure, a veritable dictator who trades transfer of power to him for guaranteeing core western interests such as the two major bases of Bagram and Shindand and a dozen other military facilities to project western power in the mega region. On their part the Taliban may lower their theocratic profile and let the ethno-national factor play a somewhat greater role to retain a dominant presence in the Pashtun belt.

This is speculative at best but is the assembled Pakistani parliament discussing emerging scenarios for the future? Has the foreign minister given his assessment of the dynamics at work in the region from which Pakistan cannot hope to de-link its troubles? When will the prime minister outline his plan for the political and economic rehabilitation of areas that are bearing the brunt of current fighting? The state did not move into Swat effectively with such plans and the army had to launch the Second Swat War.

Pakistan is likely to face greater pressure whatever way the situation in Afghanistan is reconfigured in 2009. It needs to go beyond securing parliamentary “ownership” of the ongoing military operations and put together a strategic plan incorporating political, diplomatic and economic initiatives to pull the country out of the quagmire in which General Musharraf left it. We do not have unlimited time to do so.

Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 13/10/2008

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