The Afghan end game

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Situationer

M. Ziauddin

A recent column in the New York Times by Steve Cohen(We Can’t Win in Afghanistan Because We Don’t Know Why We’re There)has renewed the question, why the US is in Afghanistan and how the war is going to end, if at all. And of course, the role of Pakistan in the on-going US muddle in the war torn neighbour.
Lest we forget, the Americans went to Afghanistan first to bleed the Soviet Union out of existence. And then it went in again looking for the ‘bravest’ of Mujahideen it had created—Osama Bin Laden— who had turned against his own creator and had successfully planned the 9/11 twin-tower attacks. On both occasions, the US succeeded in its core mission.
With the killing of Osama in May 2011, the US military interest in Afghanistan should have ended and the occupying troops should have gone back home.
Most did go back by 2014 leaving behind a skeleton numbering less than 10,000 troops in the war ravaged country that had now entered a civil war phase with the dethroned Taliban trying to regain its fiefdom and the new occupants installed by the departing US troops resisting.
Since then the US has been accusing Pakistan of extending clandestine assistance to the Afghan Taliban in their dare-devil terror campaigns being allegedly mounted from their safe sanctuaries straddling the Durand Line.
Here is what Cohen is saying : “An uptick in high-profile attacks in Kabul over the past week, including an attacker killing more than 100 people on Saturday by detonating an ambulance filled with explosives, underscored America’s failure to quell the unrest in the country.
“Why is this problem so hard? Why, since the Sept. 11 attacks, has the United States been unable to prevent Pakistan, a notional ally that has received billions of dollars in aid, from succoring the Taliban at such a high cost in American lives and Afghan misery?
“One major reason is American war aims in Afghanistan have been, and remain, riddled with contradictions and illusions that Inter-Services Intelligence can exploit. President Bush, President Barack Obama and President Trump have all offered convoluted, incomplete or unconvincing answers to essential questions: Why are we in Afghanistan? What interests justify our sacrifices? How will the war end?
“For years, almost every American general dispatched to command the Afghan war has conceded that the conflict must ultimately end with a political settlement, supported by regional powers, and that there is no purely military solution possible against the Taliban. Nonetheless, the United States continues to prioritize military action over diplomacy. Stalemated civil wars like Afghanistan’s can last a very long time. They end only through negotiations with the enemy.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that the increase in US military action in Afghanistan over the past year has been accompanied by a higher number of casualties, with 141 American service members killed or wounded in the 12-month period through November.
“The figures amount to a 35% increase in US military casualties over the previous 12 months, according to US military data provided to Congress. The military said 14 were killed in action and 127 wounded through November.”
Pakistan on its part believes that the US isn’t serious about engaging Taliban in peace negotiations, and is pursuing a path to complete military victory in Afghanistan, which Islamabad insists shall remain elusive no matter what Pakistan didor did not do to help.
That is why many Pakistani analysts contend that Islamabad does not intend to go after the Taliban and Haqqani network and end up inviting their wrath against the Pakistani state which potentially would pit Islamabad against the ultimate winner in Afghanistan—the Taliban.
A victory of the US in Afghanistan, if at all possible would end, Pakistan defence analysts believe, in the Americans walking away leaving an India-friendly dispensation in Kabul which would mean Pakistan would be facing a perpetual two-front situation. Since this scenario does not suit Pakistan, these analysts believe it would be foolish on the part of the US to believe that Islamabad would do anything to facilitate a clear victory of the US over Afghan Taliban.
And what if the US has no intention to leave Afghanistan at all and is planning to set up a permanent base in the country to watch over China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?If this is what is being planned by the US then it would certainly not find Pakistan cooperating willingly in helping it achieve its goal.
From Islamabad’s perspective it looks as if the US does not entertain any serious interest in engaging the Talibanin any peace dialogue. It is also well known that as of today nobody, especially the US takes our complaints about Indian intentions and the fear of two-front situation seriously. And finally one also needs to keep in mind that on more than one occasion the Trump administration has named China and Russia as its strategic competitors needing to be doubly restrained.
Now let us study the problem from purely Pakistani perspective. What would happen if the US were to concede defeat and walk away from Afghanistan? The Taliban would get a walk over within a matter of hours. Would it, then suit Pakistan socially, politically and economically to have as its neighbor a Taliban ruled Afghanistan? Hardly.
The domestic elements given to day-dreaming about a Sharia compliant Pakistan would find the development God-sent and decide to launch a mass political campaign for introducing Sharia in Pakistan failing which—a certainty—there is no guarantee that they would not take up arms challenging our defence and security forces, TTP style, creating an ideal situation for the Daesh taking roots in the country.
An alternate scenario: Taliban are completely defeated and the US troops leave handing over Afghanistan to an India friendly Government. Would India be able to create a two-front situation for Pakistan? Hardly.
Even the US needs our air and land spaces to sustain its presence in Afghanistan. Therefore without Pakistan offering these spaces to India, New Delhi would hardly be in a position to create such a two-front situation. They would never find it economically or politically feasible to send even a small contingent of troops to Afghanistan. And if at all, that becomes the sole purpose of India over the next of couple of years then it is bound to lose the clout it now wields as a potential market cherished by most in the world led by the US.
The third possibility that the US has no intention to leave Afghanistan ever is one that perhaps would suit Pakistan ideally as this would preclude a war between India and Pakistan burying forever the nuclear flashpoint fear. And with the four major economic giants of the world—US, China, India and Russia—competing for markets in the region Pakistan would stand to gain immensely both economically and politically. And at the same time none of the four giants would dare take liberties with Pakistan’s sovereignty as the very presence of the other three in the vicinity would automatically cancel such an attempt.

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