by G Parthasarathy
MEETING officials and academics in Washington just prior to the Chicago Summit gave me an interesting insight into the mood in Washington, even as the “end game” in Afghanistan gets under way. Amidst much fanfare, President Obama administered two direct snubs to the Head of State of “major non-NATO ally,” Pakistan. After making it clear that he had no intention of meeting President Zardari unless the supply routes to Afghanistan from Pakistan were reopened, President Obama chose to conclude the Chicago Summit by paying handsome tribute to Russia and Central Asian countries, which had facilitated the transit of American supplies to Afghanistan, while pointedly excluding any mention of Pakistan.
Even American journalists and academics, who have for years been apologists for Pakistan’s military, now fret and fume at the very mention of its name. It is a pity that it was the affable President Zardari, and not the crusty and jihadi-oriented General Kayani, who was to be the Pakistani recipient of this American dressing down.
Nothing surprising emerged from the Chicago Summit, with NATO members falling in line for an extended commitment of assistance to Afghanistan, well beyond the day they would end combat operations. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen averred: “We will stay committed and see it to a successful end”.
Standing beside President Obama, President Karzai made it clear that Afghanistan intends to do its best to ensure that it “is no longer a burden on the shoulders of our friends in the international community”.
There is little doubt that if allowed to determine their own destiny, free from Pakistani malevolence, Afghanistan, which has huge natural resources of coal, copper, iron ore, cobalt, gold and lithium, estimated to be worth $1 trillion, can become an economically vibrant country. It could serve as a conduit for Central Asia’s natural gas to India. And, it has substantial potential for the export of agricultural products. But, will the Generals in Rawalpindi, blinded by their quest for “strategic depth” and “jihad” against India, even as their own country is consumed by extremist violence, have the good sense to allow this to happen?
The road map for future American policies was set out in the Strategic Partnership Agreement that President Obama signed with his Afghan counterpart of May 2, the first anniversary of the day the American Special Force targeted Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad and exposed to the world (but evidently not to our “romanticists” in Pakistan), the duplicity that characterises the policies of General Kayani and his cohorts. This agreement is valid till 2024.The Strategic Partnership Agreement confirms that American combat operations in Afghanistan will end in December 2014.
The US has, however, pledged to provide military assistance to Afghanistan “so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region and the world”. The assurance is, therefore, that Afghanistan will be assisted to deal not only with threats to its security, but also to eliminate terrorists who operate across international borders.
While the lead role for counter-insurgency operations will be handed over to the Afghans next May, after substantial reduction in force levels, the US and Afghanistan will have to negotiate a Bilateral Status of Forces Security Agreement in the next year to provide the framework for a continued presence of US forces in a counter terrorism role beyond December 2004.
Clearly recognising Russian and Iranian anxieties, the agreement stipulates that Afghan soil will not be used against any third country and includes an American assurance that it does not seek permanent facilities in Afghanistan.
Alluding to efforts for dialogue with the Taliban, the Afghan Government has pledged that any agreement reached with the Taliban “shall uphold the values of the Afghan Constitution”. While these affirmations may appear reassuring to some, one has to carefully see how the situation plays out in Afghanistan.
While American officials proclaim that the US will not leave Afghanistan till their task is completed, there is a body of Americans who feel that what happened following American military interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somali could well be repeated. There is, however, realisation that an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan will only embolden radical Islamists to target American interests across the world.
While the Americans and their NATO partners have been able to hold firm in rejecting Pakistani conditions and extortionist demands for reopening of supply lines to Afghanistan, it is evident that the process of American and NATO engagement with Pakistan will continue.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s economic woes are mounting as its internal debt reaches 65% of GDP and its external debt exceeds $60 billion. Pakistan has already defaulted on payments to foreign power producers. While General Kayani and his colleagues know that their grandiose plans for military modernisation will suffer grievously as the US Congress places tight conditions for further American assistance, the civilian government will have to face the public backlash, should it choose to reopen supply routes for the Americans. But it does appear a face-saving way will be found in course of time for reopening NATO supply routes in Pakistan, whose air space remains open for such supplies.
The focus of attention in the coming years is thus going to be on whether the Afghan forces will be able to hold major towns in Southern Afghanistan like Kandahar and Jalalabad in the face of Taliban attacks. It appears unlikely that the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be able to hold rural and mountainous areas near the Durand Line, particularly in South-Eastern Afghanistan. This will necessitate a continuing “counter-terrorism” role for the Americans.
There are, however, doubts if the war-weary American public will relish this. So an important question which remains is whether the Americans will fulfill their commitment to ensure that “terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region and the world”.
Pakistan has two alternatives to choose from. The first will be to join the international community and regional powers in building a stable and self-reliant Afghanistan through regional trade, oil and gas pipelines and development of Afghanistan’s vast resources of gold, copper, lithium, coal and iron ore. India and China are already in the process of investment in resources like iron ore, coal and copper and in oil exploration and steel. Alternatively, General Kayani can continue on the present path of jihad and “strategic depth,” unleashing more destruction and misery on the hapless people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.