This question overshadowed the minds, and discussions, at two global meetings of top leaders last week, the Afghanistan conference in London and the World Economic Forum in Davos. On all evidence, it would now be safe to conclude that the big powers have decided in principle on the issue of whether to exit or not. The questions that now remain are, when, and how. Public opinion in Britain and even in the US is tiring of the war. Clearer indication of this came from a statement made by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband at the London conference that this war had already gone on longer than World War II. So the implication is, it cannot become just a war without end or purpose. So time has come to fix “realistic” targets and objectives or, rather, devise a new definition of victory.
This is what India needs to think and worry about. More importantly, we now have to start thinking about the sequence of events that may unfold as the US-led forces fight, talk, negotiate and bribe their way out of Afghanistan.
The clearest indication that they had thrown in the towel already came in the London conference when an idea so far whispered in off-record briefings was stated publicly: the need to find “good” Taliban to share power with. Even Hamid Karzai was made to endorse it. Nobody was talking of winning that “war” any more, but only of bringing it to a stage where a large “moderate” section of the Taliban can be persuaded to break rank and agree to a power-sharing arrangement. Of course, the funniest moment in that conference was Karzai announcing with a straight face that the Americans will now help him fight corruption in his country.
Theoretically, there are four ways Obama could begin his withdrawal middle of next year, or maybe a little later, but in this presidential term for sure:
* With a clear-cut military victory with the annihilation of the Taliban and the ceding of all Pashtun loyalty to a West-supported government in Kabul. This is a near impossibility given the military realities and tribal divisions. More importantly, this is an outcome that suits Pakistan least of all, and they will ensure it does not come to pass. Also, the modern history of big-power military expeditions tells you that such decisive military-political outcomes are impossible.
* With a total defeat for the US-led forces and a humiliating retreat as in the case of Vietnam. This is an impossibility too. Military realities of Afghanistan are very different from Vietnam where the Soviet-Chinese bloc was actively aiding the Viet Cong and where, even domestically in the US, the justification of terrorist threat was not available. That war was purely ideological. This is also about self-preservation.
* A withdrawal after a division of Afghanistan, much on the pattern of the Koreas, leaving the south-eastern, mostly Pashtun regions under a different, Talibanised local leadership “supervised” by Pakistan, and securing the rest with a friendly regime of the northern tribes. This would have been a possibility if the Americans were sure of the Pakistanis being able to keep this Pashtun government in control. Chances are even the Pakistanis will fear this as a Pashtun government in Kandahar would make their hold on their own Frontier districts untenable.
* The fourth scenario is the Americans being able to declare some kind of a victory and get out, leaving power to a friendly and “protected” government in Kabul much on the pattern of Iraq. This is the most likely and, from the Western powers’ point of view, the most desirable of all prospects. But it can only be achieved in collaboration with Pakistan. The Pakistanis will have to help broker some kind of peace, and a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban that promises, besides other things, that their territories will no longer be available to Al Qaeda. The signals from policy-makers in both London and Davos last week were clear: a new thrust was now being launched to reach this outcome. This was no longer going to be a military war to the finish.
This is what India has to prepare for, and there is no time to lose. In the course of a war that has gone longer than World War II already, while we have harped non-stop on the dangers next door, we have also become complacent. This is the kind of smug complacence that sets in when, to use an Americanism, you know that there is a fire tender parked permanently next to your door. Translated, it means, yes, there is trouble in the Pak-Afghan region but the Americans and their drones are dealing with it so we can wait and watch. This is going to change soon.
Even the progress to that outcome will challenge us. As Pakistan’s role in such a “settlement” becomes more pronounced, it is bound to pressure its Western allies to lean on India to “resolve” the Kashmir issue as well.
Already, frustrated at their failure to control terrorism, many Western leaders are whispering that Kashmir too is a major cause of pan-Islamic radicalisation. As their own notion of military non-success (if not defeat) in Af-Pak grows, they will be more inclined to join the Pakistanis in pressing for a more “comprehensive” solution for “the most dangerous region in the world”. Except, now they will add India to that region, even if as the country most exposed, and vulnerable to jehadi terror.
The game is now beginning to change and we have no choice but to play to new rules. Soon enough, we and Pakistan may pretty much be on our own. The comfort of an almost permanent Western military presence on Pakistan’s west will eventually go and we will watch very carefully for what replaces it, and if we have any leverage with that successor. Even more challenging is to guess what kind of a regime will be ruling Pakistan by then. It is, therefore, even more imperative that we continue to engage with whoever calls the shots in Pakistan in coming months. We cannot be lazy because, as they often say, objects in this mirror are far closer than you think.