By Air Commodore ® Khalid Iqbal
As the US Strategy Review on Afghanistan is nearing completion, divergent perceptions are being aired by statesmen, resistance leaders, think tanks, military organisations, eminent persons, lobbyists, well-wishers, spoilers etc.
President Karzai has recently spoken his heart out during an interview to the Washington Post. He has urged the United States to reduce the visibility and intensity of its military operations in Afghanistan, and end special operations forces’ raids.
He pointed out that the highly visible presence of US troops in Afghanistan is counterproductive and that Afghans have lost patience with the long-term presence of American soldiers. Karzai said, "The time has come to reduce military operations… to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life… The Afghan people don’t like these raids”. He wanted “US troops off the roads and out of Afghan homes, so that Afghan countryside is not so overwhelmed with the military presence”. President Karzai’s views are indeed mirror reflection of the aspirations of Afghan people.
Afghan President also voiced his opposition to US done attacks in Pakistan, and said that he now realises that the Pakistanis are suffering more than Afghans due to terrorist violence afflicting the region.
President Karzia’s frank talk has not gone down well with the American field commander in Kabul. General David Petraeus expressed "astonishment and disappointment" at the remarks and said they undermined the war effort.
In contrast to President Karzai’s vision, some of the American officials are playing down the importance of July 2011, the day foreign forces are to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan; they are stressing for continuation of full combat mission till 2014.
On the other hand, to make their ‘final push’, insurgents have stepped up their attacks to record levels. In the past two weeks or so, bombs have exploded in Kabul and other areas; fighters attacked a NATO observation post at the Jalalabad airport. Airport assault sparked a lengthy gun battle. There is no let up in the determination of resistance forces; extent of their reach is expanding and audacity is on the rise.
Mullah Mohammad Omar in his message on the eve of Eid has ruled out talks as long as foreign forces continue to occupy Afghan soil. Nevertheless leaving aside his declaratory position, there have been very high level negotiations between the Afghan government and all major factions of Taliban. Now as these parleys are entering a decisive phase, Americans want to assume the overall control.
Head of British contingent in Afghanistan, General David Richards, has recently said that Al-Qaeda can never be completely beaten; he argued that outright victory is "unnecessary". He also opined that the British military and the government had been 'guilty of not fully understanding what was at stake' in Afghanistan. He acknowledged that Afghans were tired of NATO's inability to deliver on its promises.
After the mid term elections, Bush era hawks are jumping into action. Richard Armitage is advocating the expansion of combat zone deep into Pakistan. In a study ‘US Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan’, under the auspices of ‘Council on Foreign Affairs’, he has suggested that the United States should use drones to target Lashkar-e-Taiba hideouts if Pakistan does not destroy them. Mr Armitage, further said, “I would hope they would see the Haqqani network in the same way they see Pakistani Taliban, that this is ultimately a threat to them as well”.
First thing that the Republicans are vying is hpw to disrupt the policy of a gradual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan beginning July next year. Congressman Buck McKeon, prospective head of the House Armed Services Committee, has said that one of the first priorities for his committee will be to continue the war in Afghanistan and attack Obama’s plan to start drawdown by July 2011.
Obama administration’s plan unfolded during NATO summit in Lisbon reflects a concrete vision for transition in Afghanistan. It may be taken as a prototype version of the forthcoming ‘Strategy Review’. This phased four year programme aims at transferring security duties in select Afghan areas to native security forces over the next 18 to 24 months with an eye toward concluding the US combat mission by the end of 2014. Plan caters for a gradual reduction of foreign troops. ‘Transition will not happen overnight, it's not a single event, and it will not be a rush for the exit’.
Transition process will unfold based on local conditions in Afghanistan, it will not be remotely controlled from faraway capitals, and criteria will include progress in proficiency level of Afghan forces. During the transition, there will also be security assessments by Afghan and international experts.
America’s two track approach of engaging Taliban into processes of negotiations, while at the same time fighting them out on the pretext of weakening them is not leading towards a viable framework for transition. It is akin to simultaneously applying accelerator and brakes to a fast moving automobile. There is almost a consensus amongst United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan for promoting a meaningful dialogue process. In the recent past there have been ever increasing supportive voices.
There have also been reports that Americans want to have direct negotiations with the Taliban elements. This is indeed a good omen, provided Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the process; and a clear cut policy is announced to effect a seize fire. For any negotiation process to succeed, NATO/ISAF military operations have to recede to background; use of force by NATO/ISAF should be limited to self defence only.
Furthermore Iran has to be a part of the process. Beside adjoining borders, Iran has substantial influence in Afghanistan. Ultimately Americans will have to reach an understanding with Iran, as they had to, in case of recently formed government in Iraq.
Ironically, transition process hinges on efforts to build up Afghan forces so that they could contain a widening insurgency. Dependence on Afghan security forces is fraught with serious flaws. Due to compositional inadequacies, these forces are viewed as alien in Pushtun majority areas. Moreover, from professional capacity perspective, these units are far below satisfactory level.
There is a need to think about stationing a UN peacekeeping mission, comprising around 50,000 soldiers, for about 5-7 years, as a stabilizing agent. This mission should replace ISAF/NATO in a phased programme starting from July 2011. For popular acceptance, this mission should be composed of contingents from Muslim countries, excluding this region.
Hopefully, the strategy review to be unveiled next month by President Obama, would strive to bridge wide ranging conflicting perceptions into a concrete peace and stability plan for Afghanistan and, as a corollary, for Pakistan.
Air Cdre Khalid is Masters in Political Science along with War and Strategic Studies. He has also done Air WarCourse, Fellow of Air War College. Instructor’s Course. Senior Command & Staff course. Combat Commander’s Course. He has been a Directing Staff at various institutions of Pakistan Air Force. Presently he is a visitng faculty at:
- PAF air War College (Staff Wing &War Wing).
- School of Army Air Defence.
- Naval War College, Lahore.
- Quaid-i- Azam University (DSS Department).
- He is a regular contibutor to Opinion Maker and Member Board Of Advisors.