Saturday, October 08, 2011

Seize the moment in Afghanistan

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, exactly 26 days after Osama bin Laden’s jihadis destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon. It was an occasion marked by umpteen “Troops out” demonstrations in Western cities and campuses—a testimony to how easily the steely determination of 2001 has yielded way to the hopeless despondency of 2011.

Yet, there were the proverbial loose ends in evidence. In a letter to The Times (London), the time honoured way of drawing attention to an issue, 19 women urged world leaders to ensure that “women’s rights are not traded away in any political settlement with the Taleban.” “You cannot make peace”, they wrote, “by leaving half the population out.”

At a time when the dominant discourse within the British establishment centres on drawing a distinction between the malevolent extremism of the Al Qaeda and the conservative traditionalism of the Taleban that basically wants to be left alone to do its own thing, it is heartening that there are people around to remind governments of the civilising mission that formed the sub-text of Operation Enduring Freedom. Just because the war hasn’t gone according to a hastily written script, does not necessarily imply that it was along a misadventure.

Today, it is only the military establishment on both sides of the Atlantic that argues against a policy of instant disengagement from Afghanistan. The so-called “gains” from last year’s “surge”, they say, must not be frittered away by any hasty withdrawal and the troops must stay in that country till 2014 at least. Predictably, this military assessment goes against the tide of popular feeling in the West. The overall consensus is that this is an unwinnable war and, as such, it is prudent to leave Afghanistan to God and anarchy.

Recent developments in Afghanistan have bolstered the arguments of those favouring a unilateral disengagement. The back channel talks with the Taleban have, quite understandably, made little progress. A Taleban convinced the West has lost the will to fight won’t be terribly accommodating; it can afford to prevaricate. More important, the Taleban has demonstrated through this year that it has the capacity to strike at will and penetrate the deepest security walls: the assassinations of Ahmad Wali Karzai and former President Rabbani and the attack on the ISAF headquarters and US Embassy tell a grim story.

The only positive outcome of the military slide is that the US has finally been forced into open acknowledgement of the fact that the preconditions of positive engagement with the Taleban won’t be possible as long as Pakistan persists with its double game. What India used to say about Pakistani sponsorship of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed is now being said by the US in the context of the Haqqani network, a group also said to be responsible for the attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. In the past, when President Karzai used to point an accusing finger at Pakistan and charge it with harbouring Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, a sanctimonious West used to hurl counter-charges of corruption and nepotism at him. Now there is a subdued realisation that the concerns of the Afghan Government should also have been taken on board.

Over the past few years and more precisely since President Obama entered the White House, the importance of a Taliban-free Afghanistan has been lost sight of. The Karzai administration has a long list of shortcomings which are well known. However, it is a marked improvement from the darkness that enveloped Afghanistan from the Communist coup in 1978 to the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. These 23 years saw a once vibrant society regress into medievalism.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has come a long way, and it is important to not lose sight of the progress. The sight of nervous, sometimes trigger happy, foreign troops patrolling the streets and highways offends Afghan pride and often gives the Taleban resistance a nationalist flavour. But this is offset by the medievalism of a movement that equates women with chattel and treats ethnic minorities as targets of purification. A second Taleban government in Kabul may refrain from hosting those intent on bombing Spanish trains and the London Underground, but it will not display a similar restraint when it comes to India or, for that matter, Pakistan. The generals in Rawalpindi imagine that they control the Taleban and, therefore, by implication, will regain the strategic depth in Afghanistan. In the process, they may find that Pakistan too is a very different place.

Hitherto, India has played a modest role in Afghanistan and concentrated on good works and institution building programmes. New Delhi was always wary of overdoing things for fear that the West would see it as an attempt to replay the Indo-Pakistan game in a third country. Now with the West in retreat and Pakistan having overplayed its devilish hand, there is an opening for India. Last week’s pact with Afghanistan opens up a window of enhanced cooperation, particularly, the training of its army and police. Afghanistan wants a greater Indian role and, perhaps, a measure of involvement.

The problem isn’t India’s willingness to do its bit. It is a question of India’s ability to respond imaginatively, efficiently and, above all, discreetly. Above all, it is a question of prioritising a friend over a hostile neighbour. 

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