Damocles’ sword hangs over the fate of Afghanistan
The United States initiated three major operations since 9/11 attacks: Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; Operation Noble Eagle to provide enhanced security for US military bases and other critical infrastructure in the homeland; and Operation Iraqi Freedom that started in the latter half of 2002 with the build-up of troops for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and continuing counter-insurgency and stability operations. According to Congressional Research Service publications, “…the cost of war continues to be a major issue including the total amount appropriated, the amount for each operation, average monthly spending rates, and the scope and duration of future costs.” The cumulative total appropriations for these war efforts since 9/11 work out to about USD 1.283 trillion, including about USD 806 billion for Iraq and about USD 444 billion for Afghanistan. According to Congressional estimates, approximately USD 6.7 billion are being spent in that country by the American tax-payer every month. According to Fareed Zakaria, 24 million Americans are unemployed or under employed and that is the crucial issue underlying all problems. With the Presidential elections fast approaching, this is going to be the greatest challenge for President Obama seeking re-election. The economy has once again taken centre stage post country-wide celebrations after the killing of Osama bin Laden. In this backdrop, can the United States continue to spend on the Afghan war, without counting the increasing number of body-bags, with no end in sight? While addressing the American people as President in March 2009, Obama said, “The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbour, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe-haven to hide, train terrorists, communicate with followers, plot attacks, and send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world…’
“As President, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people… So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you…” The New York Times has described in some detail the President’s first review of the Afghanistan policy later that year. Some of the questions that Obama raised were — “Does America need to defeat the Taliban to defeat al Qaeda? Can a counter-insurgency strategy work in Afghanistan given the problems with its government? If the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, would nuclear-armed Pakistan be next?” After hearing all stakeholders, Obama, who had kept his views to himself, finally came up with his new strategy for Afghanistan.
According to the New York Times report, “When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day… may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war. …Obama decided to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight.” That means, the American troop pull-out has to begin in July 2011. That is a Presidential commitment. Members of the International Security Assistance Force, led by the NATO, are also keen to get out of Afghanistan.
During a recent international conference jointly held by the Harvard Kennedy School and NESA, an American speaker referred to the confidence of the then Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan that the Americans would get out of Afghanistan in six months’ time after commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom! That, perhaps, dictated the Pakistani strategy of protecting the Taliban’s leadership, popularly called the Quetta Shura, hoping thereby to retain their influence in the future when the Taliban would return to Kabul. Apart from regional stakeholders in Afghanistan, like India, Iran, the Central Asian Republics, China and Russia who would also be interested in the unfolding drama, within Afghanistan itself, there are strong voices which clamour to be heard regarding their future. Members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, especially those led by the assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, are bitterly against any arrangement with the Taliban without appropriate guarantees and safeguards. India has endeared itself to the Afghans by investing in the peoples’ future, with over a billion dollars for its reconstruction and development.
Afghanistan would be a gateway for India to the energy rich Central Asian States, especially Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. India has signed a contract for the Turkmenistan India gas pipeline project that would pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan, the TAPI project. We have had bad experience of Taliban rule in Kabul, when Pakistan sent Kashmiri boys to the al Qaeda training camps there. Their collusion with the ISI was apparent when we had to exchange three hard-core terrorists, including Azhar Masood and Omar Sheikh, for the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814. Nevertheless, the Indian Prime Minister, during a recent visit to that country, while increasing aid to it, also saw merit in the reconciliation process that Karzai has initiated with the Taliban.
Let us now see whether the Taliban’s attitude towards al Qaeda has undergone any change in these nearly 10 years since 9/11. Bin Laden’s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar in the Nineties is contested today by insiders. According to an insider, the relations were rocky even in the beginning. According to this report, “the ‘allegiance’ to the Afghan Taliban professed today by al Qaida and its Pakistan-based allies — including the Haqqani network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — is more a strategy of expediency than a sign of real harmony. To be sure, there is currently a significant alignment of interest between these groups and Mullah Omar’s Taliban movement, as they share a common enemy in the Afghan government and its Nato supporters. Yet at the same time, al-Qaida and its militant allies in North Waziristan are bent on waging a much wider conflict, the pursuit of which Mullah Omar has repeatedly denounced as a direct threat to his movement’s goals in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar has characterised the Afghan Taliban as a ‘nationalist movement,’ an ideological position that al Qaida has labelled ‘Satanic’.” Ayman al Zawahiri, the new amir of al Qaeda, in a recorded message released on June 8, mourned the death of Sheikh Osama, and in the same message, he addressed, “Our Muslim, dear and beloved Ummah: the Shaykh, may Allah have mercy on him, left toward his Lord as martyr — as we consider him — and we have to continue working on the path of Jihad to remove the invaders from the Islamic homelands and purify them from injustice and the oppressors. And so, we renew the oath of allegiance to the Amir of Believers Mulla Muhammad Omar Mujahid, may Allah protect him, and we promise him to hear and obey, in bad and good [conditions/times], and on Jihad for the cause of Allah and establishing Sharia and supporting the oppressed.”
What exactly is the strategy behind this renewal of oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar? According to latest reports emanating from the US, the combination of Drone strikes and counter terrorism operations has virtually crippled the Qaeda leadership. Osama was himself disgusted with his deputies who appeared scarred for their lives. According to these reports, 15 of the 20 targeted terror leaders have been killed in the FATA bad-lands. Zawahiri may not be able to survive without the Afghan Taliban’s support in a new dispensation in Kabul. Would Mullah Omar provide the Qaeda with this support? Let us not forget that Mullah Omar refused to hand-over Osama bin Laden even after the 9/11 strikes on the US, preferring to try Osama in Afghanistan provided the US gave him evidence. In a recent interview, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the former Ambassador of the Taliban to Pakistan, said that the Americans had only one demand, to handover Osama bin Laden to them. He said they offered to try bin Laden in Afghanistan, if the Americans provided evidence. According to Zaeef, the Americans refused to understand Afghan traditions and culture, and that the Taliban had to defend the country’s independence, as a religious responsibility.
Have the Afghan traditions changed so much over this period? The Afghan government, backed by the US led NATO, would like the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution, renounce violence and split from the al Qaeda. Karzai has said a few days back that the US government have established contacts with the Taliban. The US had earlier initiated a process in the UN to remove the names of members of the Taliban from the UN’s proscribed list so that they can move around for negotiations. However, there has been no stoppage of ISAF operations in Afghanistan itself, or in the Drone strikes in FATA. The Taliban’s attacks on NATO and Afghan government targets also continue at a furious pace. Operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban, targeting mid-level leaders, are intended to weaken the adversary before commencing negotiations. This line has come under criticism, on the ground that targeting mid-level leaders would bring violent youngsters to assume leadership role, adversely affecting the reconciliation process. The non-Pashtun group in the government are not happy with either the constitution of the High Council for Peace by Karzai, or its mode of working in the reconciliation process. The Pentagon generals would like the current surge levels in the armed forces in Afghanistan to continue for at least over a year. President Obama is due to announce his decision on troop cuts in a few days from now.
He will necessarily have to do some cutting of troop levels, if only to keep his commitment made last year. The Abbottabd operation ending in the killing of bin Laden has certainly given new options to the President. The latest count on the crippling of the Qaeda leadership strengthens this argument. Obama has to, moreover, focus on the US economy, with an eye on next year’s elections. The Afghan forces, consisting of both the police and the army, may not yet be ready to take on the challenges that the Taliban could pose, if the reconciliation process fails, after the Americans withdraw. A civil war situation can still develop in this scenario. Everyone is watching with bated breath, the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the regional powers including India, China and Iran, Russia and the Central Asian States. There is a great opportunity for peace, but will the al Qaeda and their affiliates permit this to happen? Will the Taliban take over Kabul with Pakistani backing, and then go to their bad old ways? Will the Taliban give up the al Qaeda? Osama has done a lot of favours for the Taliban, apart from funding their projects, constructing their buildings, training their cadres, and most importantly, assassinating the great Tajik Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the biggest obstacle for the Taliban, a day before 9/11. The drama is slowly unfolding.
(The writer recently retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir)