Endgame in Afghanistan and the Musharraf Factor

The United States' apparent determination to somehow ensure a second term in office for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is closely linked to Washington's efforts to 'manage' Afghanistan that is fast spiralling out of its control.

Information pieced together from diplomats as well as military and Western security sources reveal that the US is embarked on a course to orchestrate the 're-coronation' of Musharraf in return for his assistance in brokering a deal with the 'good' and 'moderate' Taliban.

The groundwork for this course of action, backed by Washington, was laid by the Pakistani president during the 'peace jirga, or tribal council, in Kabul last month.

Providing an inkling of Washington's drift, deputy secretary of state and former intelligence chief John Negroponte was careful in not dismissing the Taliban's offer of talks during his Kabul visit on Sep 11. He was also careful not to refer to them as "terrorists".

"Whatever happens, these talks by the Taliban should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country," Negroponte declared at his press conference in Kabul following which he visited Islamabad.

An analysis of recent statements by US and Pakistani officials, input from intelligence sources and the overall ground situation in the turbulent region, shows that Washington is indeed gearing up for the endgame in Afghanistan leading to its withdrawal from the insurgency-ridden country.

"The US administration's aim is to try and bring about some modicum of stability in Afghanistan via Musharraf and, more importantly, provide beleaguered Washington an acceptable escape route as realization dawns that it is engaged in an un-winnable conflict" a senior Indian diplomat said, declining to be named.

The US, he prophetically added, is seeking to 'outsource' Afghanistan to Pakistan in order to exit from a turbulent tribal region that, historically, has defied any solution imposed on it from the outside.

Senior American military planners now accept that six years of sustained operations against the Taliban by the US military and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have failed in containing its rise or dealing a significant body blow to Al Qaeda's proliferating influence.

There is growing frustration in Washington and ISAF contributing nations that peace in Afghanistan remains illusive.

Their collective operations are making little or no progress as both forces are not only battle fatigued but collateral damage, despite the recent change in tactics of using leas lethal munitions, is creating more supporters for the Taliban than those being killed in fire fights or aerial attacks. It is widely believed in military circles that five Taliban are created for every innocent Afghan killed.

In addition, there are reports of Al Qaeda and Taliban consolidation inside Pakistan after the Pakistani army's assault on armed jihadi's holed-up in Islamabad's Lal Masjid and the emergence alongside of "neo-Taliban" elements supported by the country's military and the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID).

Waziristan on the Afghan border and the adjoining tribal area of Swat had also become major launch pads for the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda into Afghanistan. Security sources said the Al Qaeda leadership or shura-which reportedly includes Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri-is believed to have installed itself in the predominantly Pashtun dominated Bannu region of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

There are also reports of the Taliban leadership concentrated in areas around Dera Ismail Khan, south-west of Islamabad to bolster their cadre in Afghanistan's worst insurgency wracked southern provinces of Helmand, Urzgan, Zabul and Kandahar with devastating effect.

To make maters worse there are growing, and often irreconcilable differences amongst the coalition forces over tactics and overall deployment against the Taliban as the number of fighting men remain woefully inadequate and with little hope of reinforcements.

This, in turn, has triggered greater dependency on air power leading to excessive collateral damage which has the negative effect of alienating locals and staunching the inflow of badly needed 'actionable intelligence'.

So dire is the situation that the new British administration bluntly informed the US recently that in Afghanistan the coalition forces were "winning local battles but losing the war". Amongst the Afghan government too, there prevailed a growing sense of despondency over the coalition forces war fighting strategy.

It is against such a calamitous backdrop that Washington is gearing up for the 'endgame' of politically engaging the Taliban, a strategy for which it believes Gen Musharraf is indispensable.

Hence the slew of recent events in Pakistan-Nawaz Sharif's unceremonious deportation, ongoing talks with Ms Benazir Bhutto and the stratagem surrounding Musharraf's future intentions to be reelected as President whilst continuing as army chief, all appear to have Washington's imprimatur. "Washington's aim in trying to determine Gen Musharraf's future is a vital adjunct to its future Afghan policy" a senior Indian military officer declared.

This then begs the question as to why is Gen Musharraf remain crucial to Washington's future Afghan strategy?

For this the answer lies in Gen Mushraff's address to the Washington-backed Kabul jirga's concluding session that resulted in the establishment of a 50-member committee to kick-start the intra-Afghan peace process.
These include 'good' or 'moderate' Taliban alongside associates from its Hizb-i-Islami ally headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISID's favoured Pashtun warlord.

Alongside, the US is attempting to broker deals with Tajik Northern Alliance groups in a bid to push for Afghanistan's ethnic reconciliation. An indication of this move was provided by former Afghan president and erstwhile anti-Soviet Mujahideen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani. At a seminar in Peshawar recently Rabbani suggested that negotiations on Afghanistan's future should involve all Afghan factions, including the Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami.

For Musharraf the positive spin off of fostering such a union will help in politically consolidating his position domestically in the upcoming Presidential elections aided by the fundamentalist Mutahid Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) group of six parties by signaling to them that he was not abandoning their jihadist cause.

And though this stratagem might eventually result in an MMA split, it would suit Musharraf as it would doubtlessly isolate the revitalised Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML(N) headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif following his bold, albeit futile return to Pakistan last week.

But the fundamental question that follows is how much are these grand plans of an "intra-Afghan dialogue" worth. And does the US believe that these can be finessed at a time when the situation in Pakistan itself is fast spinning out of control?

The answer is that the domestic political crisis in Pakistan is still unfolding.

The battle lines are being constantly re-drawn with Musharraf fearing for his survival. Mainstream political parties, although a divided lot sense an opportunity to push the military on to the back foot and emerge as important stakeholders in the system.

But there are two more players in the complex and cynical equation to muddy the waters.

These are the religious parties and their fundamentalist supporters including Pan Islamic forces who also anticipate victory and remain wedded to spreading their jihadi message of Islamic purity to the rest of the country.

Regionally too the return of the Taliban would engender great trepidation. Iran, for instance, would be greatly agitated over the Taliban's rehabilitation in whatever form or configuration as would the Central Asian States backed by Russia and China. All remain fearful of the jihadist specter spilling over into their territories.

In short, a dangerous and loaded end game with the propensity to engulf the entire region appears to be unfolding with largely undeterminable consequences.

(Rahul Bedi is a writer on military affairs. He can be reached at shahji@spectranet.com. Arun Sahgal can be contacted at arunsahgal@hotmail.com)


More by :  Brig. Arun Sahgal

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