Is American withdrawal from Afghanistan cast in stone?
Is the US really about to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014? There are reasons why I have been a sceptic so far.
On Dec 22, 2001, at the Bonn conference, convened by the UN, Hamid Karzai was placed at the head of a "provisional government" in Kabul. But after having been president for nine years, the "provisional" leader established his own indispensability: at the Kabul Conference on July 20, 2010, he obtained a mandate to remain president until 2014.
At the time he declared himself president until 2014, the stated policy in Washington was that the US would leave Afghanistan by 2011. But those in the US establishment whose job it was to supervise US withdrawal had started inserting caveats: 2011 was not cast in stone; withdrawal will be dictated by ground realities; the Afghan National Army has to be ready to take over; only combat troops will be withdrawn.
Then, as now, American military leaders were quite straightforward on the centrality of Pakistan to the withdrawal process.
In fact. Gen. Stanley McChrystal had expressed exasperation at the success of India's socio-economic, development work because it distracted Pakistan from its war-on-terror focus. So what should India do? Go out of its way to become unpopular in Afghanistan so that Pakistan can single mindedly dedicate itself to the task of facilitating US withdrawal? This, believe it or not, was the implication of Gen. McChrystal's lament.
Even after McChrystal was removed and parked in the groves of academe, at Yale, for his deep thought, his successor Gen. David Petraus, also found it useful to take a swipe at India's "cold start" strategy which has been in cold storage for years. This, he thought, would win him friends in Islamabad.
Building roads, hospitals, schools, providing training to Afghan civil servants, accepting students in Indian institutions, providing hospital facilities in New Delhi -- all this had added to India's image in Afghanistan. This, in addition to Bollywood, which has kept Afghans riveted for decades. All of this was of interest to US ambassadors in the region who are answerable to the State Department.
But the heavy military presence in Afghanistan continues to have the power to trump normal diplomatic ideas and initiatives in the region. In 2011, the Pentagon's priority was to enlist Pakistani support for US withdrawal. This, exactly, is the priority now, even as the clamour grows in Washington - withdraw by 2014 end, withdraw by 2014 end.
The interesting detail that should not be overlooked is this: even as Messrs McChrystal and Petraus were talking "withdrawal" in 2011, Karzai had already contrived an extension until 2014. Karzai established his indispensability at a time when the Western media had written him off as "not even the mayor of Kabul" one "whose writ does not run beyond the Presidential palace".
If there was no consistent American stand on withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2010, why should we be convinced that the 2014 deadline is cast in stone?
Recent one-step-forward and two-steps-back on Afghan policy happened in Qatar where with considerable fanfare the US set up a meeting last month with the Taliban and Karzai's representatives. The meeting did not take place because the Taliban delegation fluttered the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Karzai threw a fit in his palace.
Supposing, the Qatar initiative was not botched up and Karzai did set into motion a dialogue with the Taliban, what outcome were the Americans expecting?
Karzai and the Taliban are both Pushtoons, concentrated in the South and South-East with durable links across the border with Pakistan. This would leave Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras out of the power structure which would then be overwhelmingly Pushtoon. Pushtoonistan would not necessarily be an automatic outcome but a Pushtoon entity, equidistant from Kabul and Islamabad, would begin to loom.
This would result in the consolidation of the northern alliance sentiment in the rest of the country.
Pushtoon in Pushto means Afghan. It follows that anyone living within the geographical limits of Afghanistan is an Afghan. Emir Amanullah, greatly influenced by Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, knitted the Afghan state by transferring Pushtoon populations to Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara dominated areas. Likewise, other ethnicities were transplanted in Pushtoon areas. This patchwork of nationalities, even on a limited scale, has been something of a deterrent against the state's breakup. Islands of minorities would become targets in the event of ethnic nationalism coming on top.
However, much of this discussion could well be purely theoretical because there is an almighty standoff among the Pushtoons themselves.
Pushtoon are divided into two principal clans - Durranis and Ghilzais. When the Saur revolution of 1978 brought the Afghan Communist parties, Khalq and Parcham, to power, Afghan history took a turn and not only because President Mohammad Daud was killed. His death made way for Noor Mohammad Taraki as Prime Minister. This meant that for the first time in 200 years, a Durrani yielded power to a Ghilzai.
Afghanistan's communists and Talibans, both, derive from the Ghilzai stream. Having wielded power more or less for the past 36 years, Ghilzais will fight tooth and nail to block the return of a Durrani.
Yes, Karzai happens to be a Populzai which is a Durrani sub clan. But he was imposed as a "provisional" ruler in 2001. He has lasted this long only because of US support which helped him rig the 2009 elections so badly that Peter Galbraith resigned his job in Kabul in a huff.
Recently Americans have talked of the "zero option". Which means that come what may, they will vacate Afghanistan by 2014 end even if Karzai does not sign a Status of Forces Agreement for US non combatants beyond that date. Can the US really pick up the chips and leave the game? Of course, not. Why then are the Americans allowing him to hold up their departure arrangements by pretending to be angry. I am using the term "pretending" advisedly because Karzai is too much of a creature of the US to be able to luxuriate in long sulks without a tacit understanding with them.
Maj. Gen. Kurt J Stein, Commander of First Theater Sustainment command, has in a recent interview to the New York Times cited a major hurdle in Afghan withdrawal: "Getting the Gear Out."
After 11 year of war, the US has accumulated 600,000 pieces of equipment valued at USD 28 billion. In the 18 months that remain until December 2014, can the Americans obtain from Pakistan a promise that they will be helped to glide out, across Balochistan without a glitch? Or are we looking at another deadline well beyond 2014? And, remember, getting men and material out is not the only mission unaccomplished.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 26-07-2013)