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Opinion

June 16, 2017

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Method to this madness

Method to this madness

It is amazing when the dots connect. In a recent discussion with an American friend, a specialist on geopolitics and American policy, we investigated how Afghanistan might fare given all its predicaments. One thing stood clear: if indeed the American interest was to deliver peace and stability to Afghanistan, and ensure it doesn’t remain the hotbed of terrorism, American presence in Afghanistan wasn’t helping matters.

 

The Afghan Taliban do not have an international agenda and only wish to regain control of their country away from those they think have usurped it. The US wishes to deliver it back to its people away from an obscurantist Taliban mindset. Each has its own perspective. Roughly a trillion dollars down and sixteen years later the US isn’t anywhere close to such delivery of the ideals of freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights, nor are the Taliban on the anvil to win their country back. To a conservative Afghan his Bill of Rights is not only different from that of the US’, it is equally sacrosanct. That makes the two sides diametrically opposed.

And when the two sides battle, they perpetuate war, far from any peace and stability they seek. Overlapping this mosaic of strife is the failure of any effort towards a negotiated truce between them alternately undermined either by deliberate leak of Mullah Omar’s death, an ill-timed drone strike taking out a key Taliban interlocutor, or the bomb attacks which rock Kabul and its vicinities.

Allegations, counter-allegations, proxies and players keep Afghanistan on a boil. The IS is the newest addition to a growing list of outfits which don the landscape. Al-Qaeda may have been the original sinner but has since been relegated to obscurity where many others have found eminence as principal perpetrators of aimless killing astride the Pak-Afghan border. Sometime even Iran gets rocked, though there are other more refined minds with longer arms enacting a newer element to this spate of regional instability. Groups (like the IS) from other lands find it a convenient backdrop to hide in even as they find things hard back in Syria. That is how Al-Qaeda established its footprint and that is how the IS will find its new theatre. The continuing war in Afghanistan is just such a convenient subterfuge.

The US apparently knows it all and how it will never overcome the Taliban – what the 150,000 could not do can hardly be overcome by the 9,800 present there now. The US administration is almost agreed to feed in the additional 5000-7000 requested by the commanders there. These 15,000 too will only keep the war alight, provide some garrison defence to the American bases, and continue to nudge the puppets in Afghanistan to win an unwinnable war. You did not read a word about Ghani or Abdullah or the NDS in this piece on Afghan predicament. These entities have little to do with events as they enact in a country they propound to rule. They are only pawns in a larger game in a state which is fragmented and a government that only exists only on paper.

The NDS has just about as much freedom as it needs to keep Pakistan simmering. Pakistan thinks it does so in service of an Indian agenda; whatever might be the motivation, it hardly serves Afghan or even regional interests. Since it forces Pakistan into a deadly quid pro quo, despite denials – sometimes genuine – it also keeps Afghanistan embroiled in its own stew. Afghanistan continues to burn, while Pakistan has this second front to deal with. That it also places Pakistan’s own stability at risk is an attending reality which the strategic thinkers are struggling to grapple with. Respond in kind and you only perpetuate what is vile in your neighbourhood and on your borders, sometimes finding a riposte right in your midst; keep taking the punches in and you will soon be beaten into a bag.

Pakistan needs peace desperately, but is being forced into a war. Pakistan’s peace is inalienably linked to peace in Afghanistan but forces in control there only perpetuate more strife and instability. The Taliban will fight on till they evict all foreign forces, while forces in Afghanistan cannot defeat the Taliban despite superior technology and better intelligence. This will keep the war going. And the US, despite the time elapsed, the treasure spent and the lives lost will just not give up on the project.

Why? It is not to keep others out. That includes Russia and China. Each is a reluctant player. Russia, a distant neighbour with bad flashes of memory about the great game; China overly cautious of the ramifications of engendering trouble in the restive Xinjiang Province while hobnobbing too intimately from where the ideology might be sourced in the region. But each wants a rather peaceful neighbourhood devoid of strategic gaming.

The heat from Afghanistan though keeps touching both Pakistan and Iran – the latter an immediate concern as enunciated in Riyadh recently, the former a medium-term objective. Both because they with their nuclear programmes threaten America’s global order and Israel’s security. The two may thus be sucked into a looming inferno where Afghanistan serves to set all alight. Hence the stoking of the fire there and hence the American interest to keep their presence in Afghanistan despite the losses.

The second arm of the pincer is in play in Syria, a bit too far for American liking. Its effect is remote and unable to generate the requisite heat either on Iran or extendedly on Pakistan. The recent Trump trip to the Middle East filled in the missing links nicely. Were the Sunni Arab forces to somehow collide with Iran and suck Pakistan into the brew, American strategic objectives could be well served. Of that then there is little shortage of willing bidders. With the Saudis leading, Qatar has begun to be pushed to disavow its independence.

Qatar, a reluctant fiddle to Saudi domination, is holding its ground. Turkey has promised it military support, and if Qatar can hold a bit longer a little fire may just erupt in the Gulf, a fire that promises to burn the house down. A fratricidal war, as happened between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, will only enervate the rich Gulf nations to the point of inability in stoking more ideological imagination around the world; call it the Trump strategy to fixing extremism. Syria might then inwardly melt without anyone a victor. A weaker Iran can only be less trouble. Pakistan may become a collateral victim despite its nuclear weapons – of which it could be easily divested.

The Americans and the Israelis will have their interests served; the Saudis may still survive to be the hegemons of the vanquished. Muslims would fragment further and debilitate each other in an internecine self-consuming battle. Iran will never have its nuclear weapons, and Pakistan would lose theirs. Yes, Afghanistan too somewhere in there will have met its end – but whoever cared about a match that has burned itself down?

 

Email: [email protected]

 

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