In Afghanistan, US Prepares to be Chucked Out
The new US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, has had an eventful trip to Kabul. In addition to the Taliban suicide bombs, he had to face President Hamid Karzai’s accusations of Americans and the Taliban colluding to destabilise Afghanistan.
Karzai’s frustration is understandable: he knows that the US is hanging him out to dry and there is little he can do about it. Obama may have thought of Afghanistan as a “necessary war” once, but no more: he wants out by next year.
Washington would clearly like some residual military presence in Afghanistan to continue hunting terrorists, but any such agreement is unlikely to materialise. Karzai wants to stay on in power, but he knows that the US cannot deliver it. Better then to be the nationalist who threw the Americans out.
For Washington, not being allowed a residual presence will not be a deal-breaker. In any case, it is unlikely that such a presence in Afghanistan will be secure for very long as the Taliban grow ever stronger and Afghan forces weaker.
The consequence for Afghanistan is fairly clear. It is possible that the nimble Karzai might escape the fate of former president Najibullah who was hung from a lamp post in Kabul after the Taliban took over in 1996. But Karzai’s political future is no less bleak.
As the American military venture winds down, diplomacy has picked up. India, US and Afghanistan have held two trilateral meetings about the future of Afghanistan.Meanwhile, India’s NSA Shivshankar Menon met with his Russian and Chinese counterparts to discuss the same topic. And now it appears that India and China are to have a bilateral dialogue about the future of Afghanistan.
If there is a desperate, rearranging-the-deckchairs-on-
Apparently, the logic of such diplomacy – in addition to the lack of much choice – is that all the parties want a stable and neutral Afghan-istan. All that is needed now are appropriate mechanisms to convert this into reality. But Pakistan has little interest in such an outcome because it knows that others, such as India, are trying to stave off an even worse outcome. China’s chief motivation seems to ensure that its all-weather friend does not come to any harm.
For India, the key problem is that it has done little in the last several years to build any alternative military force within Afghanistan to counter the Taliban. The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, India and Russia kept the opposition alive through the Northern Alliance, a ragtag guerrilla force built around non-Pashtun groups and led by the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud. There is little sign of any such charismatic leader or capable military force this time around. The Afghan National Army is a possible candidate but India has built few contacts with it.
This was partly the mistake of American policies. Beholden to Pakistan, Washington was wary of accepting any large role for India outside of infrastructure projects. New Delhi, in turn, seemed happy to confine itself to building up its “soft power”. It might not be too late to build a new version of the Northern Alliance. But that requires a change in New Delhi’s strategic mindset.