It is said that a clever general in the face of an imminent defeat declares victory and orders retreat. The US plan for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is more in the nature of an organised retreat than anything else.
The surge of the American troops in Afghanistan ordered by President Barack Obama failed to quell the Taliban insurgency. The high frequency of green-on-blue attacks reflects the general disenchantment of the Afghans vis-a-vis foreign soldiers, who are increasingly seen as an occupation force. The disregard by the US of the ethnic and tribal divisions in Afghanistan and its traditional conservative values has exacerbated its difficulties.
It also appears that despite all the heavy investment by the US and its allies in the Afghan national security forces, the latter are in no position to enforce the writ of the state in the country. The prospects of the survival of the Karzai regime, which has a narrow political base, without foreign military support remain extremely bleak.
The turn of events has forced the US to review its force-based strategy targeting the Taliban, particularly because of the growing domestic political opposition to the 11-year long war in Afghanistan. It appears that while Washington would continue its campaign through military and non-military means to dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda, it would pursue a more subtle approach regarding Afghanistan’s internal situation.
Henceforth, it is likely to place greater reliance on political means than on the use of force to restore durable peace in Afghanistan and deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary in the country. This is inevitable as the process of the withdrawal of American troops gradually unfolds and the balance of power within Afghanistan definitely shifts against the current US-imposed political dispensation.
The initiation of an intra-Afghan dialogue among the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and other important political Afghan groups would be an indispensable condition for the success of any plan for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, the resumption of contacts with the Afghan Taliban, which were interrupted earlier this year, would be an important part of the new American strategy. Besides other factors, the US would need Pakistan’s help for reopening channels of communications with the Afghan Taliban and the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Washington is now engaged in rear guard action, as it implements its plans for military retreat with a view to ensuring the safe return passage of its soldiers and military equipment from Afghanistan and the survival as much as possible of the political order that it had established in that country. While the former is entirely possible with the help of Pakistan, the successful realisation of the latter is becoming more and more doubtful as the number of the US and other Isaf troops draws down.
Washington must, therefore, make significant new political moves as early as possible to retain the initiative in its hands, if it does not wish to leave a chaotic situation in Afghanistan in the wake of its military withdrawal.
It appears that now when President Obama is no longer restricted by the compulsions of winning re-election to the presidency, this is precisely what the US administration is likely to do. There are several straws in the wind, which indicate moves in that direction.
Pakistan was subjected to intense pressure in the past by the US government, generals and politicians asking it to “do more” in fighting the Afghan Taliban in its tribal areas. Islamabad was also frequently criticised for its unwillingness to start a military operation against the Haqqani group in North Waziristan.
A pleasant change in the tone and content of the American statements is now discernible. One now comes across instead statements appreciating Pakistan’s contribution in defeating al-Qaeda and recognising the importance of its future role as a facilitator in the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan.
According to media reports, a senior US official stated in Brussels on the 3rd of this month that Pakistan was pressing forward with facilitating the peace process in Afghanistan and had showed no hesitation in enabling talks between the Afghan and Taliban leaders. He also noted that Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US had already formed a group for providing safe passage to the Taliban leaders for talks with Afghan officials.
It was also pointed out that earlier in response to a request from the Afghanistan High Peace Council, Pakistan released a group of Taliban prisoners in November to push forward an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process.
Separately in Brussels, the Secretary General of Nato, reflecting undoubtedly the US views, told Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on December 3, 2012, that Nato understood well that “Pakistan has paid a high price” in the efforts to defeat terrorism.
The changing mood in the US academic and official circles is also reflected in a recent report issued by the Afghan Study Group. The report points out that the surge of American troops in Afghanistan, instead of eliminating the insurgency in Afghanistan, had the opposite effect. From 2009 to 2012, the number of militant attacks in Afghanistan increased.
It also notes that the war in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly unpopular in the US. According to a recent Pew poll, 60 percent of the respondents supported the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
Noting the unpopularity of the war in the US, its long duration and its high cost, the report opposes continued US military intervention in Afghanistan. It emphasises that “prosecuting the war in Afghanistan is not essential to US security.”
The report also rejects the notion that the conflict in Afghanistan is a struggle between the Karzai government and an insurgent Taliban movement allied with international terrorists. It correctly points out that the conflict in Afghanistan is a civil war about power-sharing with lines of contention that are “partly ethnic, chiefly, but not exclusively between Pashtuns, who dominate the south, and other ethnicities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, who are more prevalent in the north.”
Because of the US military intervention, the conflict in Afghanistan also includes the “resistance to what is seen as foreign military occupation.” The report suggests the resolution of the conflict through negotiations aimed at an agreed distribution of power among the various Afghan factions.
America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan is the compulsion of the ground realities. It is important, however, that this withdrawal takes place in an orderly fashion leaving behind a political structure, which is capable of sustaining durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and preventing al-Qaeda from regaining a foothold in that country. Such a political structure can be established only through an agreement among the various Afghan factions free from foreign interference.
Pakistan must play its own role in facilitating the dialogue among the Afghan parties in the interest of peace in Afghanistan and the region. We must also strengthen bonds of cooperation with Iran in view of its critical importance for Pakistan’s security and economic well being as well as for the successful conclusion of the intra-Afghan dialogue.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs. Email: email@example.com