U.S. debating future posture in Afghanistan
As the two frontrunners in the Afghan presidential elections - Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - prepare to best each other in the second round of voting, the Obama Administration is keeping a careful distance from the process, at least in public, to avoid any taint of trying to wield influence.
Official U.S. spokesmen have stressed the need for a "peaceful transition" in the face of intense jockeying by the two aspirants to build support from other candidates and parties. Neither got 50 percent of the vote in the first round required for outright victory (Abdullah 44.9 per cent and Ghani 31.5 per cent), necessitating a runoff.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has tentatively set June 7 for the second round of voting.
Even though both Ghani and Abdullah have taken great care to signal their friendly intent toward the United States and promised to sign the bilateral security agreement, there is a sense that Americans might prefer Abdullah because he has expressed his support for them longer. He also has taken a stronger position against the Taliban and extremism.
Pakistan's military-ISI complex doesn't favor Abdullah for precisely those reasons and additionally because he is seen as being close to India. His mixed heritage - he is half Tajik and half Pashtun - and his association with Northern Alliance, which fought Pakistan-supported Taliban government in the 90s, are also negatives for Islamabad.
Even though both candidates understand the need for a "minimum common programme" with Pakistan, the question is how much would be enough for Pakistan to feel safe.
U.S. Special Envoy for the region, James Dobbins, was in Pakistan last week meeting key officials in a new round of diplomacy to discuss the post-election scenario in Afghanistan and U.S. troop withdrawal.
Washington is still debating the length and breath of its role in Afghanistan -- the White House is pushing for lower troop levels post-2014 while the Pentagon is asking for more.
In Congressional testimony in early April, the commander of the international forces, U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, cited a figure of 8,000 to 12,000 forces. He said the troops would train, advise and assist Afghan forces. Then he said several thousand more US troops would conduct counterterrorism operations.
The politics in Washington could compromise what is necessary to maintain a semblance of a credible force to deter the Taliban. President Obama, driven by domestic concerns and distracted by crises in Ukraine, Syria and the one-again broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has chosen to let the chips fall where they may in Afghanistan. The White House has chosen to declare his "surge-and-withdraw" strategy a success while sidestepping the need to stand behind the Afghan people who came out in great numbers to vote in defiance of the Taliban.
The Soviet experience in Afghanistan can and should serve as an important lesson as the White House debates its profile post-2014. The Najibullah government began to falter only after Moscow withdrew support for the three "F-s" - food, fuel and firepower.
Thus the importance of long-term financial and logistical support for the Afghan National Army cannot be stressed enough if it has to make a go of it.
As Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, wrote last week, "It is vital that the US partner with the Afghans to prevent a Taliban resurgence which is fundamental to combating the global terrorist threat. If the Taliban reestablishes its influence in Afghanistan, it will provide not only a safe haven to al-Qaeda but also a base of operations for a host of other terrorist groups."
A Taliban resurgence won't be successful without Pakistan, whose cooperation or lack thereof would be one of the most important factors in Afghanistan's future stability.
Carlotta Gall recounts in her book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014" a meeting of about 60 Taliban and Pakistani militants and their handlers in Peshawar in December 2001. While the world was celebrating the fall of the Taliban, these men vowed to "trip up America" - a feat they repeatedly accomplished over the next decade.
"Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy," Gall says, for "driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons."
The Americans know it and they also know that chaos is Pakistan's weapon of choice in Afghanistan so long as the military-and the SI control policy. U.S. officials understand that the "center of gravity" of the war is in Pakistan and they will face an ongoing problem with Islamabad. The sanctuaries and safe havens have not disappeared.
Pakistan did seal the Durand Line during the Afghan election but the U.S. administration views Pakistani "cooperation" as a tactical move designed to win favors from the west. Foreign aid to Pakistan has been decreasing and no one but the Saudis are opening their coffers for Islamabad.
Whatever the level of U.S. presence in Afghanistan in the future, one task that no U.S. president can easily ignore is keeping an eye on Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Conventional wisdom in Washington remains that while Pakistan may not be a "failed state," it is on the edge of being one. The prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands terrifies the U.S. as it does India and other countries.
This leads to the most difficult question - will the U.S. provide long-term funding for Afghanistan? Popular and Congressional support for the war has been waning over the years. A CNN poll conducted in December showed that 82 percent of the Americans oppose the war. They see it a war of diminishing returns, one that has cost 2,300 troops and USD 600 billion since 2001.
But continuing financial support is necessary if Afghanistan is to hold on to its gains. Only 10 percent of the Afghan budget comes from the country itself. Nearly 64 percent comes from the U.S. and 26 percent from other sources, according to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
After a bulk of the international troops depart, experts say Afghanistan may register a severe brain drain and flight of capital. Small business owners may leave as 2014 draws to a close. Reports say that some NGOs have already started to leave.
The new Afghan president will have to marshal his energies and resources to woo business back while keeping the Taliban at bay.
The views expressed in the above article are that of Ms. Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist based in Washington D.C.
(Posted on 29-04-2014)