By Dr. Subhash Kapila
Afghanistan, the hapless Muslim nation, brutalized for a decade by the medieval fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Taliban which was superimposed by Pakistan, is inextricably enmeshed in the conflicting strategic interests of the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.
The London Conference held on January 28, 2010 on Afghanistan flaunted by the United Kingdom as finding a ‘new roadmap’ for peace and stability in Afghanistan is foredoomed to failure as it has significantly deviated from US original war aims which prompted its military intervention in Afghanistan post-9/11.
Afghanistan is a strategic imbroglio whose solution primarily rests on strategic underpinnings. The most significant flaw of the London Conference was that it was a ‘political conference’ being held against the backdrop of the forthcoming British General Elections in which the British exit from Afghanistan is a major election plank. Political expediency rather than realistic strategic imperatives seem to have determined the outcome. Domestic political compulsions in other NATO countries have similarly determined lack of full support to the United States war effort in Afghanistan leading to resurgence of the Taliban, courtesy Pakistan.
The United States as the major determinant in the solution of Afghanistan’s turbulence was not the moving force behind the London Conference. The prime movers were the United Kingdom and Pakistan with United Nations and the Afghan Government providing the umbrella as hosts of the Conference, originally scheduled to be held in Kabul.
Afghanistan after nearly two decades of strife generated by Pakistan’s proxies, the Al Qaeda and Taliban, and induced by Pakistan’s strategic imperial pretensions in Afghanistan, required a strategic blueprint to emerge at the London Conference to “surgically disconnect” Pakistan from interference in Afghanistan and assist emergence of Afghanistan as a moderate, democratic Islamic nation. Contrastingly, the London Conference’s most significant outcome has been the West and NATO sanctifying the Taliban as part of the solution in Afghanistan. Inherent in such a detestable formulation is the pre-ordained strategic failure of the London Conference.
Strategically, still more shocking is the reported co-opting into the proposed power- sharing to follow in Kabul of Afghan war lords close to the Afghan Taliban Shura. These are the outfits which have consistently waged war on US & NATO Forces in Afghanistan for the last ten years as part of Pakistan Army’s Grand strategy of inducing strategic fatigue in the United States and prompting its exit.
Guarantees given by Pakistan or its terrorist affiliates are not even worth the paper they are written on. In this connection, this Author would like to draw attention to General Musharraf’s address to the nation soon after he succumbed to US pressures to be co-opted in the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. General Musharraf asserted that in the Holy Teachings of his faith, words to the effect, that temporizing with one’s enemy wars permissible and pledges so made could be reneged later on at an opportune time.
The London Conference while proclaiming lofty goals of transferring full power and authority for security to the Afghan Government is at the same time facilitating a ‘back-door entry” of the Taliban in the governing structure of Afghanistan. How will the United States and NATO prevent the reneging on the pledges made by the so-called “good Taliban” once they are ensconced in power-sharing in Kabul, courtesy the Western Powers.
The overall nagging question that hovers in the review of the London Conference 2010 is as to what was its necessity when the new US President Barak Obama had unveiled his much publicized “Af-Pak Strategy” on Afghanistan only ten months back? And there have been many other NATO Conferences in 2009 on this issue. Has NATO given up on the US crafted Af-Pak Strategy?
India as South Asia’s regional power, of which Afghanistan is a part, and with significant and legitimate interests in Afghanistan stood sidelined at the London Conference. The sponsors of the Conference allowed Pakistan to get away with its strategy in side-lining India on the Afghanistan issue. Induction of the Taliban in power-sharing in Kabul as envisaged by the London Conference carries political and strategic implications for India which it can ill ignore. This aspect is being touched in brief in this Paper although it merits a separate Paper for discussion.
This Paper intends to examine the following strategic aspects which necessarily flow from the doubts raised by the London 2010 Conference:
- The Af-Pak Strategic Blueprint and the London Conference End Aims: Differing Emphasis.
- Al Qaeda Reference Missing From London Conference: The Mystery.
- Regional Approach to Afghanistan Stability Discarded in Favor of Islamic Nations Coalition Approach.
- The Taliban Appeasement: UK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States
- The Taliban are Not Part of Afghanistan’s Political Fabric.
- The London Conference: The Seeds of Strategic Failure.
- India’s Afghanistan Policy: Political and Strategic Implications Arising from the London Conference
The Af-Pak Strategic Blueprint and the London Conference End Aims: Differing Emphasis.
Dispensing with a detailed recount f the objectives of the Af-Pak Strategic Blueprint and the London Conference 2010 Roadmap, comments on the differing emphasis in the two are briefly stated as under:
- Af-Pak Strategic Blueprint implied that Afghanistan and Pakistan were strategically joined at the hip in terms of security and stability. Hence in US strategic planning an integrated view and operational planning would be required to liquidate the Af-Pak region of the Al Qaeda and Taliban menace to Afghanistan.
- The London Conference 2010 communiqué implies focus on Afghanistan taking over control of Afghan security and stability without any reference as to how Pakistan’s destabilization of Afghanistan through the Taliban affiliates would be neutralized. No references have been made to Pakistan’s growing instability and possible disintegration which would seriously impact the end aims of the London Conference.
- More regrettably, the London Conference changes the entire complexion of Afghanistan’s strategic challenges. No references are made to the aim of liquidating the Al Qaeda threat. Further, within 10 months from unveiling of Af-Pak Strategy Blueprint by the US President, the Taliban as a strategic threat to Afghanistan and NATO Forces are sanctified as politically worthy of inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul in Western perceptions.
- The Af-Pak Strategy Blueprint only hinted at some time-lines for Western pull-back from Afghanistan. The London Conference spells out specific time-lines in a graduated manner for the next five years, facilitating a possible exit.
- The Af-Pak Strategy Blueprint was a statement of strategic intent of the United States on Afghanistan as the predominant power. The London Conference seems more of a ‘political broth’ prepared by too many cooks with different political flavors of political expediency.
On analysis, two major strategic considerations strike one’s mind and these are:
- London Conference reflects the NATO’s allies of USA unwillingness to shoulder further military burden in Afghanistan. It was a cosmetic exercise to allay domestic political discontent over the Afghanistan involvement.
- The United States in its strategic contingency planning may now have to be prepared to a strategic “go-it-alone” military blueprint in Afghanistan.
With US troop’s involvement in Iraq declining, it should not be difficult for the United States to strategically handle Afghanistan alone. Nor should one doubt United States dogged determination to ‘go-it- alone’ strategy in crisis situations. Parallels with Vietnam War are unjustified.
Al Qaeda Reference Missing from London Conference: The Mystery.
The strange missing of a reference to the liquidation strategy of the Al Qaeda threat to the Af-Pak region and whose liquidation was the predominant component of the US Af-Pak Strategy is mysterious. It is more curious when viewed in the context of the Taliban boasts of its strong linkages to the Al Qaeda.
Is it a Western ploy to make things easier for the Afghan Taliban to join power-sharing in Kabul? Is it a ploy to remove the heat on Pakistan whose Army still continues to have intelligence and other linkages with Al Qaeda and Taliban? Or what is it?
The fact is that neither the United States nor NATO HQ have asserted that their Forces have liquidated Al Qaeda from the region.
Pakistan on the other hand has assiduously cultivated the impression with US military commanders that the Al Qaeda are mixed-up and sheltered by the Pakistan Taliban only and that the Afghan Taliban Shura is not so linked and that Mullah Omer may be persuaded not to shelter Al Qaeda in Afghanistan on return to power in Kabul.
Incidents in the coming weeks may throw up some more definite indicators to this mystery.
Regional Approach to Afghanistan Stability Discarded in Favor of Islamic Nations Coalition
In US President’s Af-Pak Strategy Blueprint, it was envisaged that the key to long term security and stability in Afghanistan required a concerted regional approach of regional powers in the region. The reference was to Russia, China, India and Iran, besides grudgingly to Pakistan.
With British connivance, Pakistan has managed to derail the US-envisaged regional powers approach to solution of Afghanistan conflict and hijacked the approach to one of an Islamic Nations Coalition comprising Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and a handful of Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan’s aim was to deny India a strategic role and presence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s plea was that only nations with geographical contiguity with Afghanistan should be part of a regional powers council solution. If that be so, how can the United States and the British explain the role of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They do not have geographical contiguity with Afghanistan.
Iran did no attend the London Conference even on invitation. Russia and China while keeping an interested watch are still reticent. The British, Pakistan and the UN sidelined India at the London Conference. Russia, Iran and India can hardly have any strategic convergence with those who espouse Taliban power-sharing in Kabul with the Karzai Government.
A coalition of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all of whom today have a “strategic trust deficit” with the United States can hardly contribute to long term stability of Afghanistan.
The Taliban Appeasement: UK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations
The striking keynotes of the London Conference 2010 have been
- Luring the Afghan war- lords close to the Afghan Taliban into power-sharing in Kabul with the Karzai Government.
- Lure Taliban foot soldiers by money inducements and with this bribery hoping to divide the Taliban politically
What has come into play here are the traditional divide- and -rule strategies of the British, so ably repeated over the years by Pakistan on its frontier regions and Saudi Arabia elsewhere.
Such strategies have led to disastrous results in South Asia and in the Middle East. Such a strategy as the building block of the London Conference will also lead to strategic failure.
In this sordid appeasement of the Taliban what is painful is that a respectable body like the United Nations has been drawn into such games affecting its non-partisan international credibility.
To facilitate the easing in of prominent Taliban figures into Kabul’s power-sharing as per London Conference plans the United Nations has removed five top Taliban leaders from its sanctions list of ‘international terrorists’. So much for political expediency and discard of principles to achieve questionable strategic ends
The Taliban are Not Part of Afghanistan’s Political Fabric.
This classic assertion was made by US Secretary of Defense, Gates, some time back. It is a travesty of the political realities of Afghanistan on the following grounds:
- The Afghan Taliban was a Pakistani imposition in the vacuum that followed after US disengagement and Russia withdrawal from Afghanistan.
- The Afghan Taliban was not a grass-roots insurgency that originated from the soil of Afghanistan. They were mercenaries paid by Pakistan Army.
- They bulk of the Taliban in Afghanistan were Pakistanis from the Pakistani madrassas.
- The Pakistan Army officered, financed and did the operational planning for the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan as Pakistan’s proxy clients. Has the United States forgotten its airlift of hundreds of Pakistan Army officers and their Taliban affiliates from Konduz on Musharraf's pleas to save them from the vengeance of the Northern Alliance which was spearheading the US drive to Kabul to displace the Taliban regimer?
However, attractive this assertion may be made at the moment on grounds of political expediency, it is a travesty of truth in that the Afghan people never welcomed the Taliban. On the contrary the Afghan people were subjected to brutal medieval suppression by Islamist fundamentalist Taliban protégés of the Pakistan Army.
More importantly today, the majority of the Afghan people dread the return of the Taliban to power-sharing in Kabul by permissiveness of the United States induced by its strategic obsession with Pakistan Army and its sensitivities.
The London Conference: The Seeds of Strategic Failure
The London Conference 2010 to acquire lofty and noble contours has laid a lot of emphasis on the transference of security responsibilities, governance and economic development to the Afghan Government in the coming years.
Regrettably, with the same stroke of the pen, the London Conference undermines the political legitimacy of the elected Karzai Government by incorporating in its road-map the inclusion of the Taliban in power-sharing in Kabul.
The London Conference 2010 roadmap therefore inherently carries in itself the seeds of strategic failure due to the following reasons mentioned briefly:
- NATO imposition of Taliban in power-sharing in Kabul at the instance of the British and Pakistan is against the wishes and predominantly anti- Taliban sentiments in Afghanistan.
- Such a NATO imposition of Taliban in Kabul and Afghan political processes could spark a civil war in Afghanistan and fragmentation of Afghanistan.
- The Afghan people have already been hapless victims of joint Saudi Arabia- Pakistan power- play in the past. This nexus is not acceptable to the majority of the Afghan people in any solution of the Afghan Conflict,
- Stability in Afghanistan cannot be achieved in Afghanistan by exclusion of Russia, India and Iran from regional participatory processes.
- Pakistan’s increasing instability and dangers of its nuclear weapons arsenal safety hardly qualify Pakistan as a stable stakeholder in Afghanistan’s security and stability.
- Afghanistan has territorial disputes with Pakistan and a gaping “trust deficit” in Pakistan’s integrity as a well-wisher of Afghanistan’s stability. This foredooms the success of the London Conference prognostications
India’s Afghanistan Policy: Political and Strategic Implications Arising from the London Conference
India’s sidelining at the London Conference 2010 has basically arisen from India’s reluctance to add robust contours to its Afghanistan policies in political and strategic terms. This was an imperative dictated by the contextual moves of Pakistan’s objectives to sideline India from playing an important role in Afghanistan as the regional power.
Politically India has no options but to continue its reconstruction aid to Pakistan until US and NATO Forces exit from Afghanistan or with a Taliban re-takeover of Afghanistan becoming a reality, courtesy of the London Conference. In the latter eventuality, India would have no choice but to quit its reconstruction role in Afghanistan.
India’s reported response following the Conference through its Foreign Minister that India could give a try to Taliban power-sharing in Kabul was a defeatist statement. India’s national security imperatives do not permit such a sufferance.
India is not without political cards in Afghanistan. It should immediately re-activate its linkages with Northern Alliance leaders and the Pashtun elements opposed to Pakistan and in concert with them, plan contingency plans to deal with the return of Talibanization of Afghanistan
India should embark on active diplomacy to forge a joint Russia-India-Iran regional grouping initiative on solution of the Afghan Conflict as has been repeatedly espoused by this Author in his Papers
India must learn the art of political signaling so essential in the exercise of regional power.
In terms of strategic implications, the exit of the United States or the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul or the phase of uncertainty induced by faltering US& NATO intentions to stay embedded in Afghanistan generate serious security turbulence and threats to India. While India has shied away from a military involvement in Afghanistan till date and there is no likelihood of it occurring in future, India must in all seriousness undertake military contingency planning for “The Day After”. This Author’s Paper No 3576 dated 29 December 2009 entitled “AFGHANISTAN: INDIA’S CONTINGENCY PLANS FOR “THE DAY AFTER” refers.
Should India’s policy establishment once again shies away from ‘hard decisions’ then India might as well give up all its pretensions to being a regional power in South Asia and be doomed to political and strategic sidelines in South Asia.
The United States military intervention in Afghanistan in December 2001 took place with the strategic aims of liquidating the Al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan post-9/11. This strategic aim was reiterated by President Obama as late as March 2009 in the Af-Pak Strategy Blueprint.
In January 2010 the prime US strategic aims still remain unachieved. They stand unachieved primarily because US military planners have been reluctant to ‘Surgically Disconnect” Pakistan from interferences in Afghanistan’s stability – a fact now acknowledged growingly in US policy making circles.
If after such an acknowledgement at the highest US military levels, the United States becomes a partner to the diabolical British- Pakistan joint plan to rehabilitate the Taliban in power-sharing in Kabul which would lead to an eventual Taliban regime in Afghanistan, then the United States strategic vision on Afghanistan even after a decade of military involvement there, can at best be termed as strategically myopic.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been the major instigators of Afghanistan’s instability historically. Both were instrumental in the installation of Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. How can then in United States perceptions can they now emerge as saviors of Afghanistan?
The London Conference 2010 Roadmap on Afghanistan is doomed to strategic failure due to the seeds of failure inherent in its misplaced strategic vision on Pakistan’s strategic utility to the West and the West’s willingness to accommodate the Taliban in power-sharing in Kabul at Pakistan’s behest.
(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst.