Monthly Archives: March 2010

“Hey, don’t leave now – what ever happened to killing bad guys?”

So, as promised, I went and talked to some informed people about India’s interests in Afghanistan. And by talked to I mean, of course, listened to. The informed Indians in question were Ambassador KC Singh (former Indian Ambassador to Tehran and current Co-ordinator on Counter-Terrorism for the Indian government), Ambassador Kanwal Sibal (former Foreign Secretary, amongst many other posts) and Praveen Swami, an assistant editor at The Hindu. They were joined by Pakistanis Gen (r) Aziz Khan (a former Chief of General Staff), Talat Husain (of Aaj TV) and Aamir Rana (Director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies).

Right, so what’s the story?

Well, as far as one can tell, Indian interests in Afghanistan seem to be driven by two material concerns. First, there is the security dimension, and the concern regarding having a possibly religiously radical and ideologically driven State in the neighborhood, with the associated concerns regarding possible attacks on Indian soil. To be fair, one of the panelists did note that attacks on Indian soil did not rise during the Talibans’ previous time in power, from 1996 to 2001, as compared to other periods, so this link is not entirely direct. Nevertheless, there is the concern of having a State that can harbour militants antagonistic towards India in the neighborhood.

The second interest is perhaps the more pressing one. India needs a stable Afghanistan in order to have a stable land route into Central Asia. This land route is not, of course, for Manmohan Singh to have a convenient and picturesque place to take off on a road trip to: it’s for trade. As noted rather interestingly here by Yousuf Nazar, the Indian model of power is built not primarily on military strength, but on economics (though this was not admittedly the thrust of Nazar’s piece). Indian foreign policy is driven by two things, both linked: economics and energy. In that sense, having a stable Afghanistan is vital in order to have access to both power from, and trade to, Central Asian states.

In fact, while the debate at the panel began in the expected rather friendly and conciliatory tones, as time went on one panelist said that if it came to a situation where the Taliban were seen to be taking control in Afghanistan in a manner inimical to India’s ‘interests’ (security, trade and ideological opposition, in this panelist’s case), India would not hesitate to work “together with Iran and Russia” to work towards ousting that regime and to defend its interests.

The Indian argument is couched in strong moral tones. The words ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘evil’ often make an appearance, with one ambassador terming the West’s apparent turnaround in its stance on talks (“We won’t talk to those evil terrorists” to “Well . . we’ll talk to those of them who are willing to lay down arms, to the reconcilable elements” to “Well, we’re going to have to talk to them eventually, aren’t we?”) intensely “disheartening”. He then delivered a grimace to his mostly British audience, as if in reproach.

Now this is not to say that morality doesn’t have a part to play in international relations. I’m just not sure what such a role is, and, further, whether or not this is just another case of packaging real strategic interests in easily defended moral terms.

So India supports the Karzai regime, because at the moment that’s the only game in town that protects its interests in that country. And the underlying reality to such a strategy is this: India’s strategy in Afghanistan is defensive, not offensive, and is certainly not directed against Pakistan in particular. This may come as a shock to some Pakistanis. Deal with it – we are not the be-all-end-all.

There are other underlying issues within this discussion. The first, obviously, is the idea that the war is already all but over, that the US-led coalition has lost, and that Afghanistan is going back to the Taliban. The second, flowing from the first, is that the Taliban can be negotiated with in a reasonable manner. Further, there is also the contention that the Afghan Taliban has no outward-looking designs in the region, and that they are essentially only interested in defending their homeland. It seems that on a policy-making and strategy-formulating level, there is a huge disconnect between Pakistani and Indian thinking on this matter.

More on these later.

Today’s random reading:

This, in the Guardian, from Julian Glover, about how Britain needs to figure out how big a power it really can be. Interestingly, Praveen Swami, the assistant editor at The Hindu, raised the same question regarding the United States. “Great powers need to be prepared to make sacrifices. And so the US needs to decide if it wants to be a great power,” he said, responding to a question.

This story from The News, about proposed amendments to the Pakistani constitution. Highlights include clauses making signing on to a PCO by judges an act of treason, and changes to eligibility criteria for MNAs and MPAs (taking out a clause disqualifying anyone if “he [sic] is propagating any opinion or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity of Pakistan or morality or the maintenance of public order or the integrity of independence of judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings ridicule to the judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan.” This, of course, means that I’ll soon be eligible to run for Parliament. Excellent.

This, on Pakistan’s power woes and our lack of movement on a power deal with Iran. Interestingly, also in the paper recently was a story about how we were all set to buy some 85MW from a rental power plant that is to be shipped in on the coast, near Karachi. Something’s not quite right here.

This, from Shahzad Chaudhry in the Daily Times, on issues in Afghanistan.

And finally, this, on Leo Messi’s sublime performance against Zaragoza for Barcelona on in the Spanish League on Sunday. Highlights are here. I watched the game, and, just as Sid Lowe notes, was breathless by the end. Messi is . . magic. I’ve been a Barcelona fan for about ten years now, and, this team that Pep Guardiola has put together is the very embodiment of the club. Receive, Pass, Offer. Receive, Pass, Offer. Being pathologically wary, though, I will note this: Messi’s brilliance this year is making up for the lack of sharpness in Barca’s play this year, as compared to last. Eto’o’s industry is missed, and passes are going astray which were pinging from foot to foot last year. But then, this is me quibbling over perfection.

“Encirclement?” Manmohan asks, perplexed.  “Of who?”

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Right hand grumbles, left hand nabs Baradar.

First off, before we get to any of the fun stuff about counter-insurgency, politics, and rock n’ roll, this: I’m going to try and post a little more regularly here than . . well, my publishing schedule, from now on in, so check back often, if you find any of this even vaguely interesting.

Now, onto things that explode.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an Op-Ed for Dawn about how the US was going to be forced into  negotiations, whether it likes it or not, in order to end hostilities in Afghanistan. I also wrote that Pakistan’s recent capture of Mullah Baradar, Mullah Umar’s right-hand-man, in addition to increased arrests in urban areas, was significant in that it signaled Pakistan’s intent to be central to any negotiations; just in case the US, or other agencies, had any misconceptions about the Pakistani establishment’s interests in that country, and their determination to remain a key player.

Then, this morning,  Lyse Doucet, one of the BBC’s more senior correspondents, breaks this story from Oslo: apparently the UN had been engaged in “secret contacts” with the Taliban (they weren’t particularly secret, to be honest . . everyone just kept quite tightlipped about them when questioned on meetings that everyone knew were happening in the UAE). Anyhow, so Kal Eide, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan says Pakistan “did not play the role it should have” by arresting a high-ranking member of the Taliban.

This is not the interesting part of this story. The interesting part of this story is that while the UN had apparently opened up these “secret lines” of  communication in order to have “talks about talks”, and therefore was unhappy about their points of contact being picked up willy-nilly across Pakistan, the US was saying this: that al-Qaeda is on the run thanks to greater cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan, epitomised by the joint operation that resulted in the pick-up of Mullah Baradar.

So . . what exactly is going on here? Clearly the final Afghan solution is one that no-one has really decided on, or, at the very least, coordinated on. The US is working to its own ends, the UN to its, Pakistan towards some sort of central role in either of their negotiations, and India – well, to be honest, I’m going to hold off on speculating on India’s intentions in Afghanistan until I’ve spoken to some intelligent people about it. Or, alternately, someone involved in Indian policy making.

Other things to keep an eye on:

– Cyril Almeida sums up the Shahbaz Sharif ‘Taliban-gate’ (his words, not mine) scandal quite well here. The issue’s structural, as usual. Too much discourse seems to focus on the superficial: what he said. What we need to look at it is not what he said to the Taliban about leaving Punjab alone, but why he said it. And, for added measure, to whom.

– So a friend informs me that I won’t be able to see the US Senate in session during a planned trip to Washington DC in a couple of weeks because it will be on Easter break. This broke my heart, because I wanted to sit in the observer’s gallery and yell ‘DO MORE!’ periodically at that august gathering. Never mind, because Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has done it for me. Here. [Sadly, I don’t see any direct quotes in that story that attribute the exact words to the FM.]

– Finally, this. Now I have no particular interest in this murder case from Karachi, other than the fact that on my first day at Dawn‘s city pages, my editor and I had a chat about the police’s lack of investigative skills, and their inability to build cases that hold up in court (this ended up being the motivation for many of my stories for the Karachi Metropolitan pages). That day he picked up the paper and pointed out this story, and how based on the case the police had presented, there was absolutely no way a conviction would be achieved. Today, the two accused have been acquitted, for exactly the reasons he outlined. Now I could go on about how the police are ridiculously incompetent in court, but I’ve already done that elsewhere, and, well, I’m sure you’ve had enough for one day.

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There’s losing, and then there’s losing

[Op-ed originally published in Dawn, March 2, 2010, here]

The US-led military coalition is going to lose the war in Afghanistan.

But, of course, there is losing, and then there is losing.

Let me qualify that first statement: The US-led coalition is certainly not going to win the war, militarily, in Afghanistan. In the very description of this engagement, some ground rules need to be laid for definitions. What constitutes victory (and defeat)? Is it the setting up of a vibrant Afghan democracy and the killing of every militant who ever bore arms? Or is it setting up a framework that vaguely resembles a functioning state under a weak central government before retreating to watch the whole mess descend into inevitable civil war? These are extremes, of course – there is a spectrum of possible, and, I hasten to stress, more likely, definitions in between.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US-led coalition cannot win the war against the Taliban outright as things stand. Indeed, cognizant of this, where several years ago policy makers in Washington DC were talking about talks with the ‘evil Taliban terrorists’ being simply out of the question, there is now the suggestion, from both military officials and civilian policy makers, that negotiations are not so much desirable as inevitable.

This is not just US President Obama’s hope and change approach to government (as opposed to  former President Bush’s Shock and Awe doctrine) – this is down to the facts on the battlefield. Without compromise, there will be no peace; and there is no surrender on the cards in this war. The Afghan Taliban are too well entrenched (both militarily and socially), and Western forces are unable to gain, hold and secure significant ground across the country. In fact, their very presence is probably doing more to drive recruitment for the Taliban than any propaganda drive on the part of the insurgents.

And now there are more of them than ever. With the 30,000-strong US troop surge underway, and a new major offensive in the south of the country, ISAF is taking the fight back to the Taliban – so wither negotiations?

Well, if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have somewhere to negotiate from. So while Taliban leaders periodically make statements indicating that lines of communication will remain entirely closed “as long as a single foreign soldier is on Afghan soil”, they must realise that the Western offensive is meant to show them the coalition is resolved not to simply let this fight go, to succumb to war fatigue within electorates back home, pack up and leave (the Dutch withdrawal notwithstanding). Winning, as noted earlier, is unlikely to be at either extreme, and the offensive in Helmand is designed to show the Taliban that they will not be able to simply outlast the coalition. Not without significant losses, at any rate.

Further, drone strikes against significant targets in FATA continue to take out militants involved in attacks on Afghan soil. This further weakens the Afghan Taliban’s position, but does not necessarily cripple it (given the structure of the organisation). All this serves to make negotiations a more desirable option than they perhaps presently are.

When such negotiations begin, of course, Pakistan will likely have a key role to play. The recent capture of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar by Pakistani authorities, even if it was inadvertent (as has been claimed from some quarters), indicates that Pakistan realises this and will not be sidelined in the stepped up offensive. By the same token, US officials of late have been seen to offer a few carrots in with the ‘do more’ sticks it periodically throws in Pakistan’s general direction.

The truth is, ultimately, the coalition will need Pakistan in order to act in what has become its traditional role as negotiating agent. The US will go through Pakistan and its intelligence agencies to access the so-called Quetta Shura – they have no other point of contact, after all.

Any treaty to end hostilities between the two sides will, of course, involve ceding ground on both sides. The Taliban will either have to be incorporated into the existing state setup, or given control entirely of provinces where it has historically held sway (primarily in the south, with the divide roughly following ethnic divisions).

In return for this, and the disengagement of ISAF soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban will have to end all hostilities against both Western and Afghan state targets. Further, any deal will also likely involve a disavowal of al-Qaeda, either allowing Western forces to target the organisation in Afghanistan, or, more likely, expecting the Afghan authorities to do so. This disavowal may not be as unlikely as it seems, seeing as how dispersed al-Qaeda already is across the globe, particularly in Arab states such as Yemen.

Pakistan, meanwhile, it should not be forgotten, will also have a stake in which direction these negotiations go. Any deal, since it will likely be brokered with substantial input from Islamabad, will have to take into account Pakistan’s fears regarding governance in the areas that may become Taliban-controlled, as these will be on the Pak-Afghan border. Negotiating any peace deal will be perhaps the trickiest for Pakistan, the middle man in this particular Mexican standoff.

There is, of course, one other, rather unlikely alternative: the coalition’s original plan. This involves training the Afghan National Army to the point where it is capable of securing the country and ensuring that the state has room to function. Given the fact that in order for this to work the ANA will have to wean popular Pashtun support away from the Taliban and induct members of that community into its ranks in numbers, this is unlikely. It is, after all, seen as part of a Western puppet regime.

And, even if that happens, as one London-based analyst quipped the other day, the best that would do is help to set up a “halfway decent military dictatorship” in Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, we know how that story goes.

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