The great American betrayal
HOWEVER else it is dressed up, the reality is that the world is about to witness a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, one that can have disastrous consequences for the region It is well known that of all military operations, retreat is the most difficult and complicated. A victorious march that takes a wrong turn can end in a stalemate, but a retreat gone wrong will most likely turn into a disaster. These are the grim forebodings that come to mind when we think of the forthcoming withdrawal of the American-led military forces from Afghanistan. The Obama Administration is putting it out as though the withdrawal is a great achievement, since it will pull it out of the quagmire that it has been stuck in ever since George Bush declared a "global war on terror." But the reality is shoddier - we are witnessing yet another western retreat from Afghanistan, one that can have baleful consequences for others. No matter what the Americans say or do officially, they are, essentially, whistling in the dark.
The departure of the Americans and their allies - even though reports suggest that a small force will remain - is a fraught moment for the Afghans, the United States and neighbouring countries. Last month, representatives of India, Russia and China met in Moscow. According to an official in the know, the discussion was businesslike and devoid of the double-speak that often marks the occasion. The subject was Afghanistan. Faced with the withdrawal of the American-led alliance from the country, the three regional powers are scrambling to see how they can stabilise the situation. Each of them has interests there, and none of these really clash.
But all three have an interest in ensuring that Afghanistan is stable and secure, witnesses economic growth and reconstruction, and is integrated into the regional economy. India and China are interested in ensuring that a war-ravaged Afghanistan does not once again become a place where militants are able to establish training camps freely. Both have important investments - India's $ 2 billion are spread in development projects to promote Afghan stability, while China's $ 3 billion could aid in its prosperity. As for Russia, it is the primary security provider to the Central Asian states and has an interest in preventing the return of a situation of civil war.
It is important that the post-U.S. situation does not degenerate into an India-Pakistan battlefield. The responsibility here lies heavier with New Delhi, since Pakistan can be trusted to follow its baser instincts. Indeed, New Delhi's strategy must be to prevent Islamabad from trying to turn the Afghan clock back to the pre-American days. In this, it can fruitfully use the dialogue processes it has established with Russia and China and, separately, the U.S. Interestingly, in the recent India-ChinaRussia talks, the Chinese pointedly avoided projecting Islamabad's case and spoke for their own interests, just as the other interlocutors did.
But for things to work, there is need for both Washington and Islamabad to confront the hard realities. As for the U.S., writing in Foreign Policy, Vali Nasr wrote "America has not won this war on the battlefield, nor has the country ended it at the negotiating table. America is just washing its hands of this war." According to Mr. Nasr, who worked in Richard Holbrooke's AfPak team in the U.S. State Department, President Obama's attitude to the American commitment in Afghanistan has been dictated by domestic politics - when it was popular back home he backed it, and when it became unpopular, he pushed for terminating the U.S. commitment. The American withdrawal, Mr. Nasr argues, is without any concern for the fate of Afghanistan itself, or for the possible chaos that may follow in the region.
As for Pakistan, the belief among some key players, notably in the Army, that there can once again be "Fateh" (Victory) in Kabul is delusional. Nothing in the ground situation suggests that the writ of the Taliban will run across Afghanistan again, at least not the Taliban that Pakistan so effectively aided and controlled in the 1990s. Indeed, the most unstable part of the country will be the eastern region bordering Pakistan, whose own border with Afghanistan is the site of an insurgency led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP). If anything, the TTP could be the principal beneficiary of the withdrawal, since it will find it easier to get sanctuary and arms from the Taliban. As of now, in the international process, we have the western countries trying to work out a negotiated settlement that will bring elements of the Taliban into the governance of the country, based on the constitution of the Loya Jirga of 2003.