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Crisis of confidence

Last updated: 19 February, 2011
By M K Bhadrakumar

War in Afghanistan

Grossmans appointment is a tacit recognition that the US needs someone with experience, tact and tenacity to leverage the Pak military.

Full two months it has taken for the Barack Obama administration to find a suitable successor to late Richard Holbrooke, United States’ former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, it isn’t easy to replace a titanic figure. But life ought to move on. Some speculate that the issue became the stuff of turf war between the White House and the State Department.

Be that as it may, the appointment of former career diplomat Marc Grossman as Holbrooke’s replacement indicates an element of ‘continuity’ insofar as the incoming special representative is broadly in the same mould as his predecessor. Grossman has some pluses as well, given the unusually long stint he had in the American embassy in Islamabad (1976-83) when, too, Pakistan was a ‘frontline state’ in the US regional strategies.

Grossman is familiar with the Afghan ‘jihadi’ culture and the ethos of Pakistan’s security and military establishment. Additionally, he has rich professional background of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and in Kosovo, in fact, he was a participant in the alliance’s first encounter with conflict situations in a post-cold war setting.

Grossman’s appointment gives away clues to US priorities. One, primacy lies in working with Pakistan. Two, despite the public US claim that the Pentagon’s ‘surge’ is working, there seems to be uneasiness that ground realities are stark and gains can at best be transient, which means political track needs to be opened. Three, US is strongly pitching for Nato’s presence in Afghanistan in the long term. (Grossman held the Nato portfolio in the state department at a turning point in the alliance’s evolution as a global security organisation.)

However, Grossman faces an uphill task ahead. Cutting across any plane in the Afghan situation, we have been witnessing a drift in the recent months — be it as regards the ground situation in Afghanistan, US’ equations with Hamid Karzai or US-Pakistan relationship.

Bluntly put, there is no convincing evidence to substantiate the claims by the US military that the Taliban momentum is being steadily broken. The brazen attack by the Taliban fighters on the headquarters of the Afghan police last week in broad daylight killing 15 policemen speaks volumes about the fragile security situation in the epicentre of the US’ ‘surge’. Again, Kabul city itself has become unsafe, as repeated attacks in the recent weeks testify.

The insurgency is spreading in the northern regions. The Afghan opinion is turning hostile to western occupation. While on the one hand Taliban has no dearth of ‘manpower’, western attempt to build up an Afghan national army seems to meandering. The much-vaunted ‘Afghanistaion’, too, has lost steam.

Sour relations

The US’ equations with Karzai have dipped to an all-time low point. Karzai has become extremely wary of the US intentions. The US attempt to prop up a ‘hostile’ Afghan parliament as a rival power centre checkmating Karzai’s authority and Washington’s overt dalliance with the former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh (who was sacked by Karzai last July) have created a grave crisis in confidence between Washington and Kabul.

Meanwhile, the unravelling of Kabul Bank, legal proceedings against the president’s brother Mahmood Karzai in a US court, International Monetary Fund’s strictures providing alibi for the western ‘donors’ to refuse routing their aid through the Afghan government, the imminent ruling by the special court investigating fraud in the Afghan parliamentary elections — all these controversies are potential ‘time bombs’ waiting to explode. Things have become very messy, indeed. Some American commentators speculate on a ‘colour revolution’ to drive Karzai out of power.

The ‘standoff’ is quintessentially over the US push to secure a status of forces agreement that would legitimise American military bases. Karzai has misgivings about the idea despite sustained US pressure tactic and insists any such agreement will need to be ratified by the Afghan parliament and a Loya Jirgha, which is hard to obtain.

The US objective is to get the matter sorted out before an Afghan settlement (which may include Taliban) materialises. The ‘standoff’ lies at the root of the US’ discontent with Karzai. And it adds to the US paranoia that Karzai is steadily strengthening ties with Russia, Iran, China, etc and reducing dependence on Washington.

Far more important than all this is of course the state of play in US-Pakistan ties. The troubled relationship seldom touched such a low point. In sum, Pakistan cannot go along with the US’ surge policy and it refuses to undertake military operations against Taliban groups entrenched in North Waziristan. Pakistan is increasingly suspicious about the American agenda and regards Taliban as its ‘strategic asset’. Of late, Pakistan is linking up with Karzai on the basis of shared concerns to kickstart an ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue even without US blessing. Indeed, Raymond Davis case highlights the covert US activities inside Pakistan.

To be sure, Grossman’s appointment is a tacit recognition that the US needs someone with experience, tact and tenacity to leverage the Pakistani military at the present crucial juncture of the war. But does diplomatic style and acumen alone suffice? The geopolitical reality is US-Pakistan relationship is riddled with contradictions, which are hopelessly intertwined, too. Even as the US boosts military ties with India, these contradictions can only become more acute. And their shadows on the Afghan chessboard will only be lengthening.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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