Thursday, October 23, 2014
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No Exit from Afghanistan

NEW DELHI – Despite frequent turmoil and repeated invasions, Afghanistan has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Nearly 120 years ago, Winston Churchill described the futility of warfare in the region: “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder.” Churchill’s assessment undoubtedly rings true for many United States and NATO officials today, as they attempt to coordinate an exit from America’s longest overseas combat commitment in history.

While the war in Afghanistan may have resulted in fewer American deaths and injuries than previous US wars, the human cost remains substantial – especially after factoring in Afghan deaths and injuries. Moreover, trillions of dollars have been wasted, with the few positive effects of the US-led military intervention already beginning to fade, and its many adverse consequences continuing to destabilize the region.

US President Barack Obama is now trying to negotiate a new “status of forces” agreement with the Afghan government in order to establish how many US troops will remain in Afghanistan and the terms of their deployment. But the reality is that the US is scuttling from a conflict that it has lost, just as it did in Vietnam almost 40 years ago, leaving the beleaguered population to its own devices.

Rather than admit defeat, US officials are resorting to diversionary rhetoric. For example, speaking recently in New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the key to stabilizing Afghanistan is to build a “new silk road” connecting it with central Asia – a cynical contrivance apparently aimed at cloaking America’s failure in illusions of future commerce. Kerry’s insistence that the US is not withdrawing, but “drawing down,” is a similarly transparent attempt at manipulation.

To be sure, America’s presence in Afghanistan has spawned important regional linkages; unfortunately, they are not the kind that support economic renewal. The last decade of war and lawlessness has facilitated the Taliban’s proliferation across Pakistan and Afghanistan, leading the Taliban to consider itself an indefatigable force – a belief that could lead its leaders to undercut any progress toward stability.

In fact, the Taliban’s confidence already drove them to disrupt plans for peace talks with the Afghan government. After agreeing to establish an office in Qatar exclusively to host the talks, in June the Taliban opened a quasi-embassy of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The Afghan government responded by suspending talks with the Taliban, as well as the status-of-forces negotiations with the US.

Pakistan recommends seeking an alternate venue for the negotiations with the Taliban, rather than abandoning reconciliation efforts altogether. This bodes well for the resumption of talks, given that Pakistan played a leading role in facilitating the Taliban’s emergence and is now home to the Afghan Taliban’s ruling council, including its leader, Mullah Omar, along with the Pakistani Taliban.

India’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, is confident that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s anger at the Taliban’s gambit in Qatar will not delay negotiations for long. (Indeed, Karzai has reportedly already met with Taliban representatives for secret talks aimed at restarting the stalled peace initiative.)

Katju attributes the talks’ inevitable resumption to America’s “strategic desperation,” which is so acute that the US would be unlikely even to follow through on Kerry’s pledge to call off the talks if any link to Al Qaeda were found. After all, the US has already accepted the Taliban’s unrealistic assurances that it will not use Afghanistan as a base from which to “foment trouble” – that is, execute terrorist attacks – elsewhere.

Fortunately for the US, the Taliban is no longer a homogeneous group. A decade of running and hiding from unrelenting surveillance and targeted drone attacks has caused the movement to splinter. Yet, as the security expert Sajjan M. Gohel has observed, “the displaced and disillusioned Taliban youth of today” have “found solace and purpose in an extremely radical interpretation of Islam.” The Taliban may no longer be a unified force, but they clearly remain a dangerous one.

All of these developments have put India in a difficult position. In Afghanistan, America’s military was so tactically dependent on Pakistan that, on several occasions, the US encouraged India to curtail development projects, such as rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Following America’s military withdrawal, Afghanistan will most likely revert to pre-war conditions; Pakistan will revive state-sponsored terrorism against India; and extremism will spill into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In order to make the best of a grim situation, India must be prepared to protect its own interests at all costs. After all, as the US extricates itself from its Afghan quagmire, its own national interests will continue to trump all other considerations. But China, Pakistan, and Iran also have their own important national-security interests in Afghanistan that each will now do their utmost to guarantee. So, while US troops may be leaving Afghanistan, an end to the violence spawned by America’s war remains nothing more than a distant dream – especially for Afghanistan’s South Asian neighbors.

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  1. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Es una jugada previsible desde hace mucho. Estoy de acuerdo de que Estados Unidos perdió la guerra como sucedió en Vietnam.

  2. Commentedhari naidu

    American exceptionalism is even more triumphant today under Obama (The new Pasha!) than it ever was under GWB...

    AfPak was a policy disaster from inception. And Kerry is in bed with Pak military.

    India under Manmohan Singh has trusted Obama too much in terms of exit policy from Afghanistan...and its aftermath.

    In strategic terms India, Iran, Pak, and mainland China are all part of the South Asian regional future...and they may have to takeover after US exit and its aftermath.

  3. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Mr Singh writes with a directness unusual among the region's practising politicians. His military training and service may have contributed to this welcome measure of candour. That said, his comment that "trillions of dollars have been wasted," so far stands unsubstantiated. Even if Mr Singh uses the term trillion in the US configuration (in which a trillion is an order of magnitude smaller than the British trillion), he will have to contend with numerous US and other Western studies which demonstrate that while costs of the US-led war in Afghanistan have been very substantial, especially for the Afghans themselves, they were relatively modest when compared to the costs incurred in Iraq, for instance, and that the former did not reach "trillions" of dollars for the US.

    Apart from that actuarial issue rather marginal to the core of the present discourse, Mr Singh does point out the futility of draping a military withdrawal in more "honourable" phraseology. While US-led forces have not suffered a crushing defeat in a single substantial frontline battle with their Afghan detractors, such clear-cut pitched battles are not the hallmark of insurgencies, guerrilla warfare, and counter-insurgency operations. In fact, US-led forces could easily inflict irrecoverable damage on their Afghan adversaries had the two sides faced each other off in such conventional combat. But that is not what the Afghan resistance to foreign invasion is about. In this regard, Mr Singh's reminder of America's Vietnamese experience is apposite.

    As with the Soviet forces in the 1980s, the American-led NATO/ISAF forces have lost much of the original political will, moral authority and a sustainable sense of national (or perhaps multinational) purpose in pursuing bloody violence against local adversaries. Mr Singh hints at this erosion in a sophisticated fashion. Not many friends of the USA have actually done so in public for a long time, and so, his commentary has to be welcomed.

    One suspects that although for practical political reasons, the Obama Administration cannot formally acknowledge the validity of Mr Singh's postulates - after all, the USA is still, and desires to remain indefinitely, the global power exercising near-primacy in shaping the contours of the international security landscape - senior advisors to the President appreciate the basic thrust of Mr Singh's argument and, have indeed, fashioned their withdrawal policy precisely because of a recognition of the campaign's practical unsustainability and its ultimate futility.

    That said, the commentary is less precise and candid with regard to India's national security interests in Afghanistan which, the author insists, Delhi must defend "at all costs." Such an overwhelming necessity warrants greater clarity on what these interests are, and how precisely they are to be defended. Without being uncharitable, it is perhaps reasonable to note that unlike, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China, India does not share borders with Afghanistan. To that extent, its national security interests in Afghanistan are likely to be somewhat more circumscribed and less directly apparent than those perceived by states and societies directly abutting on Afghan territory and populace. That basic difference in the degree of intensity is a reasonable starting point in assessing the most critical regional dynamics in post-Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan. As a seasoned former soldier with both strategic and tactical perspectives shaping perceptions, Mr Singh must be aware of this.

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