What are the options? Militarily, a situation may not soon arise for the USA to run away from Afghanistan, though 58% of people expect the President to pull out by mid 2011. However, home realities may force Obama or his successor to disengage from Afghanistan after arranging some kind of international recognition of Afghanistan’s “neutral status” respected by the major powers and all regional powers like India, Iran, and Pakistan etc.
Let’s have a look at the map of Afghanistan. The whole of Afghanistan is not controlled by Karzai government or the US/NATO forces. Iran has a big say in the provinces of Nimroz, Farah, Heart and part of Balochistan; Pakistan controls Helmand, Kandahar, Qalat. Paktia, Khost, Ghazni, Gandez, Jalalabad, Asdabad etc provinces through Talibans of Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani groups. In Northern areas non-Pushtuns have their own militia and are generally aligned to the western forces. The Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmenistani elements have more or less good relationship with the USA and the Russians. China has a common border only with the Afghan province of Faizabad. But China’s presence in Pakistan is rather significant and China is an important member of Sanghai Cooperation Organisation, in which Central Asian Republics, Russia and China are permanent members. Amongst other nations India, Pakistan and Iran enjoy observer status and Afghanistan has the status of a guest. There cannot be any international solution of the Afghan problem without Chinese involvement and agreement. Pakistan knows that it has the tacit support of China behind its ambidextrous policies in Afghanistan and Jammu & Kashmir. In most of such security related matters China and Pakistan work in tandem.
There cannot be any solution without Iranian help as well. Iran is the only Shia nation in the world which has reckonable military power. The USA tried to use Sunni leader Saddam Hussain against Iran. Later they themselves destroyed him. Conflict between Iran and the west is not new. It started over the oil issue and now it has expanded to the contentious issue of nuclear capability of Iran. The USA is in the historic habit of looking at Iran through the Sunni Wahhabi prism of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, moderate Jordan and other allies in the Middle East. The western powers have not gone back into the history of culturally rich Persia which now desperately wants to attain geostrategic status in the Middle East. Western dalliance with Sunni powers has produced wars after wars. Should they not have a second strategic and geopolitical look at Iran?
In case the USA cannot tame the Pakistan army and neutralize the ISI, as proved by WikiLeaks documents, how long it would allow itself to be blackmailed by a country which is nuclear empowered and which has the tarnished record of nuclear proliferation? Can the entire American people agree to pay the Pakistani generals for all the time to come in the name of fighting terrorism, while the same army diverts the fund to kill the American soldiers? A vibrant democracy like America shall not allow its President, the Pentagon, the NSA and the CIA to fund Pakistan with American blood-money for getting their own children killed. The bluff has already been called. It is matter of time when Washington should think of alternatives to an unfaithful bed partner.
Americans are open to radical thinking. What’s wrong if a Shia power develops nuclear research capability in collaboration with the USA and Russia? What if such an agreement is reached? In that case can Iran be used to secure the flanks of Afghanistan in a multination guarantee? Perhaps such an agreement with Iran can be a viable step to ensuring a “neutral” Afghanistan and preventing Pakistan from unduly fiddling with its internal and external affairs. There are recent indications that both Moscow and Washington are gradually looking at the feasibility of this option. Friendly Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should be better assurance to “neutral” Afghanistan than the wolf- at-the-door, Pakistan.
Is a “neutral” Afghanistan possible? Well, some loud thoughts are rebounding from one capital to another. The Kabul Conference held on July 20, 2010 had discussed many items regarding internal and external affairs and providing service to the people. However, none of the super-powers emphatically spoke in terms of a neutral Afghanistan. Some discussions had taken place about future dispensation in Afghanistan, but most leaders were of the view that Afghanistan’s independence and sovereignty should be assured by the international community. Obviously, Pakistan did not enjoy the interlocution and later deputed General Kayani and ISI chief Pasha to have separate discussions with Karzai about Pakistan’s sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Karzai also leaned towards Pakistan with a view to stabilizing his personal position, rather than the position of Afghanistan. But, his relations with the western community are visibly improving.
The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke on the eve of the conference, exuding a high degree of optimism about the war. He wrote that NATO was “finally taking the fight to the Taliban” aimed at the “marginalization of the Taliban as a political and military force … [which] will encourage many who joined the Taliban to quit their ranks and engage in the reconciliation effort.” Starting the transition does not mean that the struggle for Afghanistan’s future as a stable country in a volatile region will be over. Afghanistan will need the continued support of the international community, including NATO. The Afghan population needs to know that we will continue to stand by them as they chart their own course into the future. To underline this commitment, I believe that NATO should develop a long-term cooperation agreement with the Afghan government.’ Obviously he had the support of Obama administration. Obama intrinsically supports the “neutral” Afghanistan idea.
Russia is not so emphatic about “post war” role in Afghanistan, but supports the “neutral” thesis. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly underlined in his statement at the Kabul conference the importance of recognizing Afghanistan’s future “neutral status”, which would preclude any sort of permanent foreign military presence. To quote Lavrov: ‘The restoration of the neutral status of Afghanistan is designed to become one of the key factors of creating an atmosphere of good-neighborly relations and cooperation in the region. We expect that this idea will be supported by the Afghan people. The presidents of Russia and the US have already come out in favor of it.’
The Chinese position is ambiguous. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi chose to visit the idea of a “neutral” Afghanistan, but somewhat tangentially. He said: The international community must give continued attention to Afghanistan and follow through on the commitments made in London [conference in January] and the previous international conferences on Afghanistan. We should respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and work together towards the early realization of ‘Afghanistan run by the Afghans’. We want to see a peaceful, stable and independent Afghanistan.’ It appears that China is leading Pakistan in a joint approach to the Afghan imbroglio.
India has always supported the “neutral” status of Afghanistan and has recently reiterated, “India is committed to the unity, integrity and independence of Afghanistan underpinned by democracy and cohesive pluralism and free from external interference.”
However, Pakistan is not at all interested in any kind of Indian presence in Afghanistan. According to Chris Alexander, Canadian diplomat and former head of UN mission in Kabul wroting in an article in Globe and Mail (Aug 2, 2010), “The Pakistan army under General Kayani is sponsoring a large scale guerrilla war through Afghan proxies-whose strongholds in Balochistan and Waziristan are flourishing. Their mission in Afghanistan is to keep Pashtun nationalism down, India out and Mr. Karzai weak.” Kayani had reportedly offered peace to Karzai in case he agreed to shut down all Indian consulates in Afghanistan.
Though rendering support to “neutral” Afghanistan the USA is planning to set up a permanent military base in northern Afghanistan near Mazar-i-Sharif in Amu Darya region over an area of 17 acres. The base is about 35 km from Uzbek border and is likely to be a part of strings of US bases in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan etc Central Asian countries as part of its forward military missions in the region. Russia and China are not strategically happy with such US plans and consider the Mazar-i-Sharif base as an American plan to have a permanent foothold in Afghanistan.
All said and done, the Afghan kaleidoscope is still uncertain and Pakistan is still busy exploiting Washington’s vacillating indetermination over what to do with an unreliable ally. Obama should decide or face the wrath of the American people. The people can read history faster than the leaders can do. The same had happened in Cambodia and Vietnam. Now in South Asia Washington cannot afford to dance tango with an unfaithful partner which is conspiring with the Talibans, and is known to have links with al Qaeda. Whose war is the USA fighting in Afghanistan? Its own or Pakistan’s?
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
From the Sri Lanka Guardian: