An Afghan 'My Lai'

An Afghan 'My Lai'

Winding down

The US strategy to establish military bases in Afghanistan is going to be severely contested by the Afghan people. 

The answer could be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the question: Is it Afghanistan’s My Lai? Indeed, the mass murder in South Vietnam 44 years and 4 days ago was far more gruesome – between 347 and 504 civilians were slaughtered.

But the Panjwayi massacre is also a watershed event in the Afghan war. The rampage by a United States Army sergeant last Sunday in a remote village in Panjwayi district near a NATO base in Kandahar province, killing 16 Afghan villagers, irredeemably seals the fate of the 10-year old war in the Hindu Kush.

The faultlines hold ominous portents. Afghan nationalism is on the rise. The national mood has turned against foreign occupation and it has become a moot point that the western troops are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate. Second, the morale of the US troops is breaking down and a cycle of revenge killings involving them and their Afghan ‘allies’ may ensue. Three, Afghans deeply resent the Pentagon’s handling of the Panjwayi massacre – especially that the suspect was spirited away to the US – as a slur on their national honour.

All this, in turn, greatly complicates the US strategy to wind down the war. It is not only a question of the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of western troops and their heavy war equipment out of an increasingly unfriendly environment – which itself could be problematic – but also a matter of what sort of Afghanistan the US is leaving behind. President Barack Obama has emphasised that the ‘transition’ will commence in 2013 and the ‘combat mission’ will end in 2014, no matter what US commanders might say to the contrary. Hamid Karzai has since called for restricting the US troops to major bases.

In reality, what lies ahead is a downhill slope fraught with great dangers. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was carefully choreographed. Moscow tenaciously forged secret understanding with the Mujahideen forces operating in the Amu Darya region and could tap into the regional consensus urging troop pullout. Most important, Afghan state structures that the Soviets built were holding. But none of that is in place today as the US begins to withdraw.

Besides, there was transparency about the Soviet intention to withdraw. The US, on the other hand, continues to pursue a ‘hidden agenda’ by almost cynically using the struggle against al-Qaeda as a pretext to advance its geopolitical objective of establishing a permanent military presence in a highly strategic region of immense mineral resources, which also overlooks five nuclear powers.

Looking ahead, though, the US strategy to establish military bases in Afghanistan is going to be severely contested by the Afghan people and the regional powers. The strategy was predicated on a peace agreement with the Taliban but the latter have broken off the contacts with American officials. Conceivably, Taliban sense that ‘victory’ is at hand. But it may prove to be an illusion as the non-Taliban groups would almost certainly resist a Taliban takeover.

Strategic defiance

Equally, Pakistan may harbor a sense of triumphalism that its calibrated ‘strategic defiance’ of the US in the period since the 2-month detention of the CIA agent Raymond Davis in January 2011 has paid off. Washington is knocking at the gates seeking resumption of the partnership. Paradoxically, however, this is also the moment of truth for Pakistan. Pakistan needs to decide what sort of Afghanistan it wants as neighbour. It is way past Pakistan’s capacity to underwrite the Afghan economy. Over and above, Pakistan needs to take a long-term view and ponder over the profound implications of having a Taliban-run regime across the Durand Line.

The statements by prime minister Yousuf Gilani and foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar suggest incipient signs of new thinking. These are early days, but India’s interest lies in encouraging Pakistan to jettison the outmoded notions regarding ‘strategic depth’ and so on and reorient its Afghan policy in a way that serves the interests of regional security and stability.

How can India do this? First, India needs to clear up the cobweb in its own thinking regarding the Taliban. Second, India should encourage Pakistan to work for a broad-based government in Kabul. This needs to be handled at the highest level of leadership. Three, India will be stupid to force the dynamics of its presence at this juncture. It will be just fine if India keeps its diplomacy in a state of animated suspension during this transitional phase. The Afghan people aren’t running away anywhere and trust any Kabul government – even one led by Taliban – to reach out to India.
Actually, the most formidable challenge is the absence of any regional security architecture.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] could have provided a framework but Indian diplomacy lacked the vision to accelerate its quest for membership as a top foreign-policy priority in anticipation of the uncertainties in regional security. The ebb and flow of relations with China (and Iran) and the slow pace of normalization with Pakistan work as negative features. And, it needs to be kept in view that almost all countries surrounding Afghanistan have fortified themselves one way or another to meet the exigencies of the post-2014 scenario for regional security. The latest was Beijing’s initiative to create a trilateral framework with Pakistan and Afghanistan – on top of the SCO and the ‘all-weather friendship’ with Islamabad. India is the exception as a lone ranger in regional security.

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