Feb 1, 2010

Strategic gamble

The US is taking one critical policy decision on Afghanistan after the other

By Aimal Khan

After failing to secure assurances for intensifying operation in North Waziristan and Islamabad unenthusiastic response to accepting the unarmed drones, Pak-US ties are touching its lowest ebb. The shooting down of drone in Pakistani tribal areas by militants on January 23 has added a new dimension to the drone issue in Pakistan.

For quite some time now, the VVIP US Officials’ visits to Islamabad seem to be causing dents in Pak-US ties instead of sorting out differences. The recent visit of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was no exception. Instead of coming down, the number of irritants spoiling Pak-US ties seems to be on the increase. No doubt, the new US administration is desperately trying to get out of the Afghan quagmire, an honourable exit if possible. The option of talking to the Taliban is gaining currency. Everyone is stressing the need for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan imbroglio.

The UN special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Edie, went a step ahead and called for removal of some senior Taliban leaders’ names from the UN list of terrorists and to speed up the review of Taliban detainees at various US detention camps. These measures will serve as confidence building measures.

Pakistan has been reaching out to Taliban in the past for bringing about reconciliation in Afghanistan but it has not met success. The US had recently announced troop surge and indicated that its forces would begin withdrawing from July 2011. The external actors, particularly the regional ones, are desperately trying to protect their interests in the post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan while the internal actors are looking for their allies in the region. The re-alignment of forces at national and regional level cannot be ruled out.

In response to the US troop surge, the Taliban claimed of a matching increase of their fighters. The increased acts of violence are indication of the war preparedness of both the sides and their resolve to take the current phase of conflict to a possible conclusion. As both the sides are using all the available resources to get an upper hand in the war, their external supporters will not hesitate to pump million of dollars in this decisive phase of Afghan conflict.

On the one hand, the new US policy aims to win over militants while on the other, it is causing disappointment and unease among the Afghans shattering their confidence. It will be unfortunate and disastrous if the Afghan people are left at the mercy of militants by the international community. The training of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) for replacing international forces by assuming major responsibilities is another issue of the ongoing debates.

For some, the US and NATO forces’ exit is imminent while for others US will not completely withdraw and will maintain its presence. Some question the viability of ANA and ANP training plan and wonder how this goal could be achieved in a few months.

Most of the observers are not ready to accept the argument that the Taliban could be forced to come to the negotiating table. Strategic debates are underway in prominent capitals of the world for devising contingency plans for tackling the post-withdrawal scenario for gaining maximum leverage in Afghanistan. It seems the civil war-like situation is far from ending in Afghanistan and war clouds still hover over the unfortunate country. The ongoing proxy wars are expected to intensify.

Whether it is a summit involving Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan or Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan it looks as if the process lacks substance and sincerity. As far as Pakistan is concerned such a process further created misunderstandings and mistrust between the political and military leadership. In such meetings, commitments are made that a country’s soil will not be allowed to use against another country. Unfortunately, regional efforts are aimed at forcing rivals from the Afghan scene or at least minimize their strategic clout. No wonder, hectic diplomatic activities at regional and international level about Afghanistan are going on.

The Afghan government is expected to unveil a major new plan of reintegration of militants by offering jobs, security, education and other social benefits to those Taliban who are ready to defect. The reintegration plan, which could cost more than US$ I billion, is aimed at luring 25,000 to 30,000 militants. The plan is supposed to be financed through pledges to be made in London Conference.

Whether these activities will bring peace or stability to the region in general and Afghanistan in particular or will further complicate the situation, only time will tell? The next 18 months are very important and the future of Afghan people is at stake. The US and its allies want victory at any cost and the militants are bent upon foiling their plans. It is to be seen how the US and its allies, who repeatedly failed to solve the Afghan conflict in eight years, could do it in eighteen months.

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