This is not goodbye

Courtesy:- Malik Muhammad Ashraf

According to a recent report in the New York Times, President Obama has signed a secret order authorising US forces to continue executing missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening US troops and Afghan government for another year, meaning thereby that the earlier announcement and pledge by Obama for ending combat role for US troops beyond 2014 stands effectively rescinded. 

Reportedly, the new authorisation also allows US air strikes to support Afghan forces on combat missions and US troops to occasionally accompany Afghan troops on operations against the Taliban.

The decision to extend the combat role of the US forces has ostensibly been dictated by the prevailing ground realities. And the ground realities are that after a decade-long military adventure in Afghanistan that has consumed 1,800 lives of US soldiers and 763 private contractors besides injuring 14,342 servicemen and $450 billion spent on securing and rebuilding Afghanistan, the US finds itself in a no-win situation. Despite having dismantled Al-Qaeda it has failed to achieve other objectives in the country 

The Taliban have not been defeated and still remain a major threat to the US-NATO forces. The security situation in Afghanistan remains perilously fragile, as is evident from the ability of the Taliban to attack highly fortified security installations, their repeated attacks on US-Nato soldiers and the latest suicide attack during a volleyball match in Afghanistan on November 23 which killed 50 people and injured 60 others. The US plan to build and train a strong Afghan army comprising 352,000 soldiers to take over the responsibility of the security of the land by the end of 2014 also seems to have gone awry. 

The frequent defections by Afghan soldiers as well as assaults on fellow Afghan and US-Nato soldiers are a strong testimony to the fact that the Afghan army has been penetrated by Taliban sympathisers. There is a growing feeling among the American intelligentsia, politicians and media that the American strategy of counter insurgency, which combined military action with winning support of certain elements of the Taliban by driving a wedge between them, has failed. 

The new order by Obama, therefore, is no surprise. It was quite expected by those following events in Afghanistan. In fact American military commanders have been quite sceptical about Obama’s decision to end US combat mission by the end of 2014. Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director from 2009 to 2011 and secretary of defence from 2011 to 2013 in the Obama administration, had categorically stated in early August 2012 that the US would continue relying on its military might to subdue the Taliban and that the region might remain volatile for a long time to come. 

The obtaining scenario in Afghanistan is undoubtedly a sequel to the unimaginative policies of the US. The Afghan army that the US tried to build consists mostly of supporters of the Northern Alliance. The Pakhtuns who are 40 percent of the population of Afghanistan genuinely feel deprived of their legitimate share; a very strong factor in swelling the ranks of the Taliban. 

The Taliban are a potent political force in Afghanistan and not merely a militant outfit as viewed by the US. They take US-Nato troops as an occupying force, as do the majority of the people of Afghanistan. They have categorically opposed the presence of US forces on Afghan soil and declined to accept the legitimacy of the government installed there as a result of the elections held under the auspices of the US. The US attempts to eliminate the Taliban was inherently an ill-conceived policy option divorced from the demographic, historic and political realities of Afghanistan. 

After having dismantled and uprooted Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, the US should have immediately announced the cessation of its military operation and worked on a way to end animosity between different factions in the country and initiate a political process that is participated in by all political entities. That initiative would have certainly invoked a much more positive response from the Taliban and Afghanistan would have been extricated from the three-decade old conflict that has consumed thousands of human lives and destroyed the entire infrastructure of the country. It would have also helped check the spread of terrorism in the region and beyond.

As things stand at the moment, the prospects of peace returning to Afghanistan in the near future remain as elusive as ever. The decision to extend combat role for US troops in Afghanistan might provide protection to the Afghan government for as long as they remain involved in military operations against the Taliban but it certainly cannot establish peace in that war-torn country. To the contrary, this decision might lead to the escalation of confrontation in Afghanistan and further complicate matters.

Nevertheless, the installation of a representative government in Afghanistan and the newfound bonhomie between the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments characterised by a desire to recalibrate there relations to promote shared economic prosperity, strong regional linkages and a joint fight against terrorism, are surely encouraging developments. 

The new narrative jointly developed by the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan has invoked a very positive response from the Afghan side and there is an imperative need for an abiding commitment to follow this path. The new Afghan government is also committed to reconciliation with the Taliban because the ultimate solution to the Afghan conundrum lies in bringing the Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics through an Afghan-led and Afghan owned process of reconciliation encouraged and supported by both the US and Pakistan.

The US, therefore, must re-engage the Taliban for a meaningful dialogue to address their apprehensions by recognising their role in orchestrating peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan, as it did in facilitating the Doha talks between the two sides, can still play a significant role in bringing them together. 

The US would also have to revisit its stance on assigning a significant role to India in Afghanistan in the post-US era. India has been supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and therefore its involvement in Afghanistan in any form would not be acceptable to them. This policy is also inimical to the strategic interests of Pakistan. What the US could not achieve through its military might can surely be accomplished through intelligent handling of the situation keeping in mind ground realities.


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