Losing the new Great Game in Afghanistan

June 28, 2010

A version of this appeared in Daily News & Analysis on June 29th. Here is the URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_losing-in-afghanistan_1402597

and the pdf of the page can be found here: http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/29062010/28main%20edition-pg12-0.pdf

Losing the new Great Game in Afghanistan

America has gotten itself into an unholy mess thanks to Pakistani duplicity

The news from Afghanistan is not good for the US, nor for India. US President Obama dismissed the commander of his troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, ostensibly because of rude comments he made in a magazine article, but in reality because a scapegoat was needed for the increasingly inept war efforts there. The same fate befell his predecessor too.

The facts on the ground indicate that Obama’s announced plan – surge, bribe, declare victory, and run like hell – is not working. The current thinking is no longer about winning, but about spinning a face-saving retreat. Says the Washington Post, “[the] administration is looking for a decent, negotiated exit. The Pakistani intelligence service would act as a surrogate (and guarantor) for the Taliban… The deal might leave the Taliban in control of large parts of Afghanistan…  ”

In other words, Obama is explicitly outsourcing the war to Pakistan’s ISI. This would be a questionable choice anyway. But given that the Taliban are basically ISI in baggy pants and beards, an instance of diplomatic theater (after all, it is astonishing that these alleged theology students suddenly started driving tanks and flying planes), the policy is suicidal. A recent report from the London School of Economics and Harvard University emphasized the links between Pakistan’s government, ISI and the Taliban.

This report, “The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents”, indicts the ISI, which, it says, “orchestrates, supports and strongly influences” insurgents. It “provides huge support in training, funding, munitions and supplies”, which is “official ISI policy”, not the work of some rogue elements. Furthermore, it claims Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari promised to release jailed Taliban leaders if they kept quiet about it. This amounts to “collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state [Pakistan]”.

A New York Times report suggests further that “Pakistan is presenting itself as the new viable partner for Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai, who has soured on the Americans. Pakistani officials say they can deliver the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ally of Al Qaeda who runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan, into a power-sharing arrangement.”

The Haqqani network and the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are among the ISI’s assets. Ironically, Hekmatyar, now a sworn enemy of the US, received over half of the billions that the CIA lavished on the war against the Soviets, thanks to his friends in the ISI.

It is remarkable that the ISI has hoodwinked the Americans to such an extent. ISI protégés are killing Americans, while the ISI and the Pakistani Army pretend to be fighting on the side of the Americans. In other words, the Americans are fighting people whom they are indirectly funding! It is as though, in Vietnam, they were funding not only the South Vietnam Army, but also the Viet Cong guerillas.

When the history of the Afghan war is written, historians may pinpoint the exact moment the Americans lost it. That was the siege of Kunduz in 2001. The rampaging Northern Alliance had much of the top brass of the Taliban corralled at the fort in Kunduz. Unbelievably, the CIA authorized an airlift by the Pakistanis (now called “Airlift of Evil”). At least a thousand of the Taliban were spirited away – and the open secret is that they were mostly midlevel Pakistani Army and ISI officers in turbans. That singular event sealed the fate of the entire campaign.

It is high time that America recognized that the problem is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s scheming Army and ISI.

The ISI has also put about an interesting theory, that Afghanistan is per se not conquerable. That is not quite true: Greeks, Persians, Mongols, et al, did conquer. Yes, the British were routed. That was because, despite propaganda, the British were poor warriors: they were able to win victories in India only because of a disastrous Indian habit of betrayal. There are Mir Jafars aplenty in India; but Afghans do not betray their own to foreigners.

When properly handled, Afghanistan can be conquered and held, as Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire demonstrated not too long ago. The reason most conquerors left Afghanistan is that it is stark, inhospitable territory with no apparent value: the returns were not worth the cost of holding it. Of course, that may change now that they say the country holds trillions of dollars worth of strategic minerals: that may encourage Americans to hold on.

But a comprehensive American defeat in Afghanistan would be strategically bad for India too. It would encourage triumphalist fundamentalists, who could now reasonably claim to have defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. Worse, it would mean that China, through its proxies, has defeated the Americans yet again: this would be number three in a row, after Korea and Vietnam. Imagine their hubris!

825 words, Jun 26, 2010

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