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January 18, 2019

Afghan end-game?


January 18, 2019

The Afghan war is whimpering to an end because of natural causes. The Americans have exhausted their patience to sustain an outpost of little consequence. Why they went there in the first place beggars reason as indeed much that the US has undertaken as policy in the foreign domain in the last two decades. Surely the return on their investment – over a trillion USD by now – has been overly negative.

America’s perception as the sole superpower has been severely dented by a rag-tag militia, while it continues to bleed precious resources in an adventure of monumental proportions. All these years, the world and the region have been working overtime to discern the underlying cause and give meaning to this Afghan expedition which finally has been brought to nought by the futility of it all. The US president implied the fact in a tweet with the desire to cut his losses and vacate. An imperial impulse brought them to Afghanistan, and another will take them out of there.

Deeper strategy is possible but just as most have failed to ascertain one over the last two decades this one too will return empty. Vietnam haunts American psyche and that is the last thing they would like to invoke in suspecting minds. Hence a demeanour plausible to be confused with strategy as the US chalks out a phased withdrawal. To those who might read too much in the retention of some air bases as is the din from the initial two rounds of peace talks – nay, escape – currently underway between the Taliban and the Americans: wait a while, in a couple of years the bases too will close out. Unless a bigger war opens, say against Iran. But if that front too sleeps away despite significant irks, or the going gets tougher in Afghanistan, even this token presence may just fizzle itself out.

The US had a base in Kyrgyzstan which closed in 2014. They may like to have one as an alternate to their full presence in Afghanistan when an opportunity presents. This is where the Taliban may come handy. As Taliban and the US work out the details of an acceptable agreement, the Afghan government is conspicuous by its absence. An attempt to enable them a toe-in was bluntly refused by the Taliban and the Americans seem to not care.

The Afghan government has mostly been a pawn propped up by the occupying forces, having earlier served at the pleasure of the Soviets. Take the annual expense of $30-40 billion that American presence brings to the Afghan economy and imagine the crashing consequence when it isn’t available. This inability of the American expeditionary presence to develop an alternate economy to war may haunt any effort to seek sustainable normalcy after the US departs.

The Taliban occupy over half the country and may feel the moment opportune to convert the advantage on the battlefield to a political gain by engaging in a dialogue to seek peace and normalcy for Afghan society. Such recourse will raise their stock with the people and establish them as bona fide stakeholders in the Afghan political process. The US has granted them two distinct favours: readiness to sit down for talks while recognising their principality; and a timetable of withdrawal of forces were an agreement to finally emerge from the talks. By joining the talks with the US, the Taliban have relegated the Ghani government to a bystander, even as they may settle for shared accommodation with them in an interim setup.

Will an agreement on these lines come easy? Is Afghanistan reconcilable with diverse interest groups and tribal hierarchies exercising their influence in Afghan society and culture? And are most agents external to Afghanistan – but with palpable tentacles – willing to let Afghan society reconcile at the cost of their own expedient gains? These aspects will continue to haunt the prospects, making it a tough ask.

In such a fractious backdrop, and a war which has touched every corner of the country, the best that can be hoped for is some normalcy which if sustained can translate into sustainable peace. This must constitute cessation of hostilities between the warring factions, inclusion of all ethnic groups in a prolonged interim arrangement to infuse sufficient confidence among the people of its ability to sustain an interim order, and most importantly the ability to foreclose hostility between disparate groups. An answer to the question whether an Afghan state is viable in such a backdrop indeed remains at the core of this experiment.

During the process, regional and foreign nations carry the responsibility to provide Afghanistan space through non-interference and providing support which can enable it regular function. The Taliban and the Afghan government will need to work on an inclusive agenda where representation of all segments of society and its tribal infrastructure and various political hues is ensured. A national government should then pave the way for first party-based general elections in the country in due course. The peace dividend for this land-locked nation must include uninterrupted economic relations and connectivity with its neighbours including transit trade facilitation to nations beyond.

The most optimal outcome should alleviate disquiet and strife even when it is prudent to be prepared for the worst. The most hopeless outcome is a new round of internal fragmentation on the back of resurgent warlord-ism and struggle for control of turf seeking financial benefits from illicit trade in narcotics and gun-running – the usual pillars of the Afghan economy. The ethnic divisions may just re-emerge with greater intensity reverting the land to its debilitating and continuing internal war and strife. Eventually this phase too may run its due course because of the inability of an already devastated nation to endure more suffering. The nation may then rise from its own ashes at its own pace and on its own steam, but their wouldn’t have been a greater example of a ruthless world having subjected such untold tragedy on a hapless people for expedient objectives.

Hoping for the best, the worst should be avoided at all cost. And that possibly is the aim as talks set about for normalcy in Afghanistan. An unfortunate and worst outcome will impact neighbours, including Pakistan, making it incumbent on all to help Afghanistan realize the best. The current Afghan government carries an equal encumbrance to this end. As soon as the US responded differently to Pakistan from its earlier inimical stance, Ashraf Ghani decided to appoint people like Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid as the interior and defence ministers respectively – both seen as hardliners, hostile to Pakistan. Little good can be expected by such intent towards Pakistan in such circumstances.

While it may be the most fortuitous moment for the rest of the world, including the US and the people of Afghanistan to find peace, the biggest losers will be the governing Afghan elites and India by some extension for easy money that comes their way and the chance for strategic mischief respectively, which the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan presents to their short-term gains. Fencing the border and an early return of Afghan refugees remain Pakistan’s best bets to mitigate its threat were things to go south. The best-case outcome though assures an unimaginable windfall for the entire region.

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