The Afghan dilemma

The Afghan dilemma

Impending chaos

President Barack Obama has tried to reconcile the irreconcilables – the requirements of his domestic audience and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. It will take a while before we know whether he has fallen between stools.

After all, the loss of 1,500 American lives and the spending of $450 billion in Afghanistan war, will need to be explained in the run upto the US presidential election in November 2012. As Obama has said, some sort of a beginning will have been made when 10,000 troops begin to return home in the coming six months.

The subsequent choreography is also geared towards the 2012 election: in May of that year, six months prior to the election, Obama has announced the holding of a summit with Nato allies and partners in Chicago “to shape the next phase of this transition.”

Obama dwells at length on the ‘terrorist safe – havens in Pakistan.’ And he leaves no one in any doubt that “so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve”. Notice, only those in Pakistani safe havens who ‘kill us’ are the objects of the president’s ire.

In his speech delivered on December 1, 2009 at the Military Academy at West Point, Obama promised an induction of 30,000 additional troops. That surge did take place. So, on the induction of troops Obama was able to keep his word. But on the drawing down of troops? Let us wait and see.

President Hamid Karzai has grown in confidence which is largely because the American media, which takes its lead from the establishment on critical issues, no longer calls him ‘the Mayor of Kabul.’ But is there evidence that his popularity is growing, even in arithmetical progression, in such a way that he will be able to survive in Kabul after 2014, the deadline Obama indicates for the final withdrawal? Surely, between now and 2014, another script will be written, most certainly after the results of 2012 election is known.

US diplomats in Islamabad were pretty frank in 2008-2009. “It will take at least 10 years to train the Frontiers Guard.” Clearly all this training was focused on Afghanistan. A more straightforward statement was: “We are here for the long haul”.

This ‘long haul’ becomes quite transparent when you travel in Afghanistan. The huge block which passes for the US embassy in Kabul, with 700 hands, is being doubled. In Mazar-e-Sharif the US consulate under construction would dwarf large embassies elsewhere. Not quite the looks of folk saddling up to leave!

Mystic elements

The current ‘talk-to-the-Taliban’ incantation also resonates differently with ethnic groups and regions. The Rais or the chief priest of Mazar-e-Sharif, Atiq Ullah Ansari, abruptly ends his conversation on mystic elements in Hindustani classical music at the very mention of Taliban. Mention Serajuddin Haqqani, Taliban leader in Pakistan, to Hamid Karzai, and he sees red.

Pakistanis insist on inserting themselves as interlocutors with the Taliban, something the entire spectrum of opinion in Afghanistan firmly resists, the Afghan Talibans most of all.

‘Talk-to-Taliban’ has another dangerous dimension. During my stay in Kabul a riot broke out between the ‘Hazaras,’ a Shia sect and nomadic Pushtoons called ‘Koochis.’ Where would the Koochis turn for protection – Hamid Karzai or the Taliban who are being projected as the future rulers?

All Taliban are Pushtoons. Further, Pushtoon is synonymous with ‘Afghan.’ Herein lies another potential for future conflict. Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmans constitute 60 per cent of the population. Consider the complications.

For instance, any talk of regional conference to address the Afghan problem is anathema to the Taliban (Pushtoon) because Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will never accept Pushtoon dominance. Also, Pushtoon dominance conceptually opens up a cross border Pushtoon link up which is neither totally under the control of Kabul nor of Islamabad.

And yet it need not be a tidy tie up. King Amanullah, greatly influenced by Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk’s strategy of submerging all ethnicities under the over arching Turkish identity, tried to knit a Pushtoon nation by transferring Pushtoons to regions dominated by other identities. Likewise, minorities were transferred to Pushtoon dominated areas.

Pushtoons coming on top can lead to retaliation against them in the regions. Ethnic cleansing and civil war could follow. There is yet another complication. The Saur (April) revolution of 1978 ousted Daud Khan, and paved the way for Noor Mohammad Taraki and other Khalq and Parcham, Communist parties of Afghanistan to come to power.

Outsiders do not notice that history was made in a sense that seers Afghan memory. Daud was the last in the chain of Durranis, the ruling class from among the Pushtoons, who ruled Afghanistan without a break for 200 years. Taraki, who broke this chain, was from another line of Pushtoons called Ghilzais. The Taliban, including, Mullah Omar, are Ghilzais.

The Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, proposed a ‘provisional’ government under Karzai, who is a Populzai, from the Durrani line. He was imposed, in a manner of speaking.

Will the Taliban (Pushtoons) of their own free will, settle under a Durrani? These are just some of the complications. Bring in the role of Pakistan and the discourse assumes a different dimension altogether.

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