Operation Moshtarak, the largest pacification offensive to capture the lush poppy growing fields of the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, can be described as the proverbial last flickering of an exhausted lamp. It comes as a consequence of the London Conference on Afghanistan which provided for an exit strategy for the NATO by reining in the ‘good’ Taliban factions onto the discussion table. This “beginning of the very end”, to borrow Brigadier James Cowan’s phrase, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since the start of the offensive in 2001, the Af-Pak region has been wallowing in missed opportunities and failed strategies, thereby plunging this historically turbulent region into further chaos.
The Past as a Prologue to the Future
The present political and military swamp in Afghanistan, that the US finds itself in now, is America’s own historical undoing. The heydays of the Cold War, particularly during the 60’s and 70’s, were characterized by nationalistic and anti-colonial struggles brewing up in many parts of the world, such as Latin America, Africa and Asia. Obsessed with Communism, the US saw these popular struggles for economic and social justice as nothing more than external manifestation of Communism, deducing that if allowed to progress, the success of these movements would eventually lead to the formation of Communism in their respective homelands.
It was mainly in Afghanistan, perpetually divided among their tribal fault-lines, that this new great game of influence again found its widest expression. On that Christmas Day of 1979 when the first of the Soviet tanks rolled into this harsh terrain, little did the Russians know that this landlocked country would soon turn into a quagmire that would engulf not just them but the whole world, a decade later. Determined to give the Russians their own Vietnam in Afghanistan, the US began a series of covert operations, termed Operation Cyclone, by arming the then recently constituted Mujahideen. Through the period of Soviet occupation, the American and Saudi backed Mujahideen carried out a prolonged resistance movement in order to drive the Russians away.
So far the American strategy to wage proxies and keep the political temperature down was impressive and ensured that the Russians are swamped with minimum direct American involvement. But after the occupation, the Americans made a huge blunder: they did not step in to fill the vacuum that was created after the Russians left. If then the Americans could have directly involved themselves by helping to create a legitimate democratic government in Afghanistan, many future headaches could have been averted for good. Instead, post-occupation, the US left the Mujahideen to themselves, thereby creating another prolonged period of civil war among the tribes and their warlords which destabilized the country even further. This destabilization paved the way for the Taliban to enter into the picture. Even with the Taliban gaining an upper hand over their rivals, the Masud-led Northern Alliance, the Americans refused to step in and only involved themselves with half-hearted financial aid to the NA.
Pakistan and the Great Double Game
Another major blunder that the Americans committed was their inability to recognize the double dealings that Pakistan was indulging in, particularly the army and the highly corrupt Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan’s tryst with the Afghan Mujahideen goes back to the period before the Soviet occupation. During the reign of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan had walked in between both the super powers without tilting towards either. But this balance ended when Mohammad Daoud Khan overthrew the monarchy in a bloodless coup and supported Soviet Union and Afghan Marxists. This support was compounded with a strong crackdown on the nascent Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. These radicals fled to nearby Pakistan where they were nourished by General Zia’s Islamized army and the ISI and sent back into Afghanistan with renewed vigor. Even during the Soviet occupation and the subsequent covert Operation Cyclone, American financial and military aid was always channeled through the Pakistan army and the ISI to the Afghan Mujahideen, as the former always insisted on maintaining a direct link with the Mujahids. After the occupation, these Mujahids returned back to their respective madarasas in Pakistan, their innocence long claimed by a hostile war that was never theirs.
When the land-locked terrain was again torn asunder by a bloody civil war, these former Mujahids, frustrated and disillusioned, regrouped under the new name of Talib (the plural of Talib is Taliban meaning ‘religious students who seek justice and peace’, a term that has today become ironic) and were sent back into Afghanistan by the ISI in order to snatch the reins of the civil war from the rival warlords. The civil war and the gradual destabilization was making this region a new theater of influence between the regional powers. While Iran and India were actively aiding the NA, Pakistan began using the Taliban as an useful buffer to counter the influence posed by its rivals, particularly India. This Talibanization of Afghanistan would not just give Pakistan a strategic leverage but also an opportunity to proliferate the extremist elements into Kashmir. And this is exactly what happened. As a 2001 RAND report noted, the Kashmiri insurgency transformed from a localized secular struggle into a large pan-Islamic movement comprising mostly of foreign mercenaries and militants, all exported by Pakistan from the chaos in Afghanistan.
A Legacy of Failure
In this ensuing chaos what was most appalling was the silence of the US. While reacting to the 1998 American embassy bombings in Nairobi, President Clinton ordered Operation Infinite Reach, a series of cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in order to hunt down Al Qaeda operatives. Unfortunately, these corrective measures were not carried forward by Clinton’s successor, George Bush and his coterie of Neo-Conservatives, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. In fact, so ignorant was Bush about Afghanistan that he thought the Taliban were an all-girls pop band! As Ahmed Rashid tellingly notes, a decision to aid the NA was taken just a week before 9/11. After 9/11, of course, everything changed.
When the War on Terror started and the subsequent quick victory over the Taliban, the Afghan watchers hoped that at least now the region would get what was long overdue – namely a committed action towards nation building. Here the Americans made, perhaps, their biggest blunder yet: nation building was pushed to the back burner as Bush and his neo-con coterie in the White House prepared for another offensive in Iraq. Throughout the early years of the war in Afghanistan, there were calls for a new Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. These calls were successfully thwarted by the White House who refused to commit to any action related to nation building. Instead, the CIA followed a policy of arming the Afghan warlords such as Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan in order to minimize American troop concentration in the Afghan soil. Not only the warlords fought among themselves thereby causing great civilian casualties, the situation became untenable for UN nation building efforts and humanitarian works. They even undermined the CIA’s main objective to capture Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives. For instance, in late December 2001, the Coalition started a major offensive in the hilly regions of the Tora Bora citing intelligence inputs about Bin Laden’s presence. In this offensive, the warlords proved ineffectual in securing a mountain redoubt and some even helped Laden to effectively escape.
An ineffectual government and absence of an Afghan standing army eventually led to increased Taliban insurgency. Moreover, Coalition troops were not available to provide an effective security backup to the newly formed Karzai government as they were busy fighting in Iraq. Increased concentration of American aid for the Afghan National Army started only in 2007. With things spiraling out of control, Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had warned in July 2008 that stabilization of Afghanistan would require at least three brigades of American troops, but also conceded that the same cannot be deployed because they were engaged in Iraq. Nevertheless, Mullen managed to divert troops from Iraq into Afghanistan so that Taliban could be cleared of provinces adjacent to Kabul and reopen Taliban blocked roads for better mobility. But such tactics provided only temporary relief to the whole operation.
This legacy of failure was what Barack Obama inherited from his neo-con predecessors. What was remarkable about Obama was that he recognized the ultimate importance of Afghanistan and, hence, sought to reorient American focus towards it from Iraq. He then appointed Richard C. Holbrooke as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a very wise decision given Holbrooke’s reputation as a canny deal maker with a vast knowledge of the region. Moreover, it was a welcome step away from his predecessor who sought to cure the world’s ills only through intelligence gathering and arming dissidents. Second, and more importantly, Obama sought to improve America’s image in the Muslim world, something that had taken a serious beating at the hands of the misshapen policy decisions by Bush and his gang. The Cairo speech and orders for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Prison are important markers towards that objective. In spite of all these important and wise decisions barely a year into his presidency, Obama committed one grave error in his Af-Pak policy: he mistimed the 2009 Afghan presidency elections.
As given in the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan, a presidential election was supposed to be held not less than 60 days after the expiry of the present president’s term, namely July 2009. But there were serious doubts among the various political factions about the inaccessibility of some mountainous regions and the ability to get sufficient manpower and materials by July. These misgivings led the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reschedule the dates to August. On the other hand, by the time of the 2009 polls, the popularity of the Karzai government was on an all time low as he was besieged by corruption charges and even the resurgent Taliban threatened with widespread violence if the people went out to vote. The US, despite Holbrooke’s claim that America wanted a fair ground for all the candidates, lacked any coherent strategy to stall the Taliban’s threats and control Karzai. By this time Karzai went around striking deals with warlords and drug traffickers. The end result was a very low voter turnout and blatant electoral riggings, enabling Karzai to win with a thumping majority over Abdullah Abdullah.
By the time he assumed the top military job in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal knew that without a serious troop deployment, the war against the insurgents was all but lost. Shortly after assuming command, the NATO forces commenced Operation Kanjahar directed at the Taliban strongholds in South Afghanistan, particularly in the Helmand province. Since 2006, the British and Estonian forces were in a stalemate vis-à-vis the Taliban, with neither able to gain an upper hand. Operation Kanjahar was meant to break this military stalemate and push the Taliban further backwards. This offensive proved to be a blunder because although the Taliban stronghold was weakened, it only made them leave South Afghanistan and move towards the North and West, in turn jeopardizing the German and Italian forces who shelter there. The NATO allies now questioned whether America has enough troops to win the war and crush the Taliban.
Keeping these worrying developments in mind, McChrystal wrote a 66-page report to the Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, urging for urgent troop deployment or else lose the war. When Barack Obama became the President, in his first Af-Pak plan he had already increased military presence to a massive 68,000. But now McChrystal wanted an additional troop deployment in the tune of 10,000 to as much as 48,000, a risky venture given the rising opposition to the war in America. In early December, in an address at West Point, Obama, amidst opposition from within his own party, he agreed to deploy an additional 30,000 troops. But this decision came with a hanger attached to it, namely the troop deployment would be accompanied by a timetable to ‘bring the war to an acceptable conclusion’ by 2011. The London Conference was the next step that sought to carve a plan to bring Obama’s decision to effect. The core element of London was to rein in the moderate Taliban factions and incorporate them into the civilian government. The ongoing Operation Moshtarak is an extension to this London Conference, the strategy being able to inflict a weakening blow to the Taliban before reining them to the negotiation table.
Talking about any settlement with the Taliban cannot be complete without Pakistan. Obama’s presidency has seen a gradual disruption of trust between US and Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan has also seen an erosion of ISI control over the Afghan Taliban. As Ahmed Rashid notes in a recent article, with both sides wary of prolonged battle, there has been a gradual softening of Taliban’s stand. While visiting Saudi Arabia, Karzai’s advisor, Masoom Stanekzai, interestingly noted, "There are many groups involved in violence, and somebody has to be brought to justice and somebody has to be forgiven." But these attempts would remain futile without Pakistani and ISI involvement. The recent tensions between Washington and Islamabad have arisen because of increased American pressure on Pakistan to launch a massive operation against the top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Quetta Shura and Haqqani factions. This is a request the Pakistanis are hesitant to oblige because doing so would undermine losing out on the strategic leverage that Pakistan could exercise once the moderate Talibans are brought formally to the discussion table. In fact, seeing themselves isolated, Pakistan has initiated a major policy change by offering to mediate talks between the Allies and the Taliban. But for doing so they have also suggested that individual talks between the CIA, MI6, the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan’s intelligence agency) and the Taliban have to stop. It is a condition that would be difficult to accept, particularly with the NDS as it can’t even see eye to eye with the ISI.
Pakistan’s previous and current posturing has to be seen in context of it’s deep-seated, albeit baseless, insecurities vis-à-vis India. In fact, it has repeatedly questioned India’s role in Afghanistan, something which is purely humanitarian and quite popular with the Afghan civilians. As observed by Steve Coll, Pakistan and the ISI, at present, seems rudderless vis-à-vis their relationship with the Islamic extremists. This change has assumed a significant proportion particularly after the 2007 Lal Masjid incident and the subsequent increase of terror strikes inside Pakistan. So now they would fight the Tehrik-i-Taliban at all costs because they threaten the very existence of Pakistan. With the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan would fight to a certain extent, because of American pressure, but would definitely like a settlement when both the sides are exhausted after continuous warfare, an occurrence that seems to be happening now. Pakistan’s third dealing comes with groups like the Lashkar and Jaish. These groups would definitely be protected because they can be used as proxies against India. It is this doubleness that India ought to recognize, and that requires a massive rethink concerning our Afghanistan policy.
Afghanistan at present is on dangerous crossroads. For talks to succeed, Washington should firstly evolve a comprehensive strategy and bring the entire neighborhood into confidence. But it is something that Washington, at least as of now, does not seem to be interested in. This lack of any coherent strategy throws up many unanswered questions: if the Taliban is back in power, can the Afghan government be expected to be stable? What about the erstwhile American allies, the Northern Alliance? Would the NA accept any talks with the Taliban, a force they had fought for the last two decades? With NATO pulling out, would the region again see a spate of civil war, like the one that followed the Soviet withdrawal? Would Pakistan stop covertly nurturing the Islamic extremists and cease using them as strategic assets against India, a case which seems, at least at this time, to be quite unlikely? Would the Taliban be able to shake off the Al Qaeda influence from their heads, in order to gain international acceptance? And above all, would the common Afghan civilians ever have a life devoid of the scars of warfare?
Perhaps, only Time holds the key to these questions.