A Nato air strike killed 12 children and two women in the southern province of Helmand on May 27. President Karzai, then in Turkmenistan, cut short his visit and returned to Kabul in reaction to the tragedy. He called on the US military to avoid operations that kill Afghan civilians, saying this was his last warning to Washington. The toll on civilians as a result of direct air strikes in Afghanistan is a staggering 30,000 Afghan men, women and children.
The basis for US invasion of Afghanistan was said to be intended to eliminate Al-Qaeda following the Sept 11 attacks. But the death and destruction caused by the United States in Afghanistan in past decade has provided a reason to young Afghans to join the ranks of the Taliban. Their joining the Taliban is not a result of coercion. Unemployment, the absence of job opportunities and shrinking means of other means of livelihood become an added incentive for them to do so. Added to this is the powerful motivation of ideology and religion.
Now that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been eliminated by the US forces, it will be hard for the administration of Barack Obama to sell the idea of putting in more money in the war in Afghanistan. More and more people have come to realise that the Afghan war has lingered so long not because Ben Laden was the pursuit for the Americans but because they sought to use his presence as the main justification for the conflict. This is a war where American field commanders have been both judges and executioners, no matter whom they were dealing with, combatants or non-combatants. Many Republican and Democratic leaders have started questioning the wisdom of the Obama administration to continue the funding of the war in Afghanistan. In any case, there is no moral justification for the continued killing of Afghans, as in the case of the latest atrocity that took place on May 27.
The American military forces assassinated Osama bin Laden in a night raid in Abbottabad on May 1-2. His assassination was celebrated across the United States despite the fact that it was another instance of US forces meting out rough justice to the enemy. The media joined in by commenting on every grisly detail of the operation. The outburst of jingoism and anti-Muslim bigotry took a truly vulgar form when some Americans spray-painted the walls of a mosque in Portland, Maine, with slogans against Islam and Muslims.
US administration officials appear to believe that the assassination will persuade the Taliban to turn to reconciliation and engage with the state of Afghanistan. Even it that reconciliation materialises, the United States’ assumed desire to stay on in Afghanistan – in one form or another – will prove to be an impediment in the way of a permanent settlement in that country. If press reports on US-Taliban talks over the past few weeks are accurate, it would appear as if the endgame in Afghanistan is not too far off. However, the United States wants to utilise the talks’ process for two objectives: one, to augment Obama’s support for the Afghan war despite Osama bin Laden’s death; and, two, to create fissures in the Taliban ranks over their ties with Pakistan. The Taliban are being offered hefty amounts of money to distance themselves from Pakistan and in the process weaken the Taliban’s resolve to stick with the decade-old demand for US withdrawal as a precondition for any talks on reconciliation. Without any regard to Pakistan’s interests despite the great sacrifices rendered by this country in the “war on terror,” the Americans have not taken Pakistan into confidence, even though the Afghans have been briefed, as was appropriate.
The UK’s point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan told journalists in Islamabad that “the Taliban leadership was engaged in talks with various stakeholders with the full backing of the US with the sole aim of finding a solution to Afghanistan from within, without any involvement of foreign players.” This indicates the lack of trust the United States and its Nato allies have in their frontline ally in the “war against terror.”
Meanwhile, the US moves on Afghanistan fail to take into account the relationship of Pakhtun tribes across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The ancient tribal and social bonds across the divide are too strong to be affected by the existence of an international frontier.
The United States is doing everything to divide the Taliban. At the same time, it is trying to sideline Pakistan in talks on an Afghan settlement. Both efforts are destined to failure in the long term – especially the latter. It would be a great geo-strategic blunder if the Americans sideline Pakistan, rather than make use of it as a critical player in the Afghan reconciliation progress. Whether the Americans recognise this or not, Pakistan is a part of the solution in Afghanistan, not part of the problem.
Osama bin Laden’s elimination has created a historic opportunity for the United States to move forward in Afghanistan. But the opportunity will slip if Washington does not play its cards well. The United States would be committing its greatest folly if it did not take Pakistan on board in the reconciliation process. Long-term stability in that war-torn country will remain a pipedream.