As the American-led war enters its tenth year and the much awaited review of the Afghan strategy is out, there is still no clarity about the real American objectives and interests in the region. Never in history has politics been what major powers and their players state in public. All politics, domestic as well as international, has an inside story which is revealed when none of the players involved is around to answer questions, unless the information is leaked deliberately. Therefore, going by public statements regarding American objectives in the Afghan war will be a mistake for any commentator or policy analyst.
Any war is a complex affair; it is partly a recognition of the intricate nature of the Afghan war that American strategy has alternated between maximal objectives like nation-building to more modest ones like going after al Qaeda leaders.
Nobody can escape some of the troubling questions about the current Afghan war, let alone Pakistan or Afghanistan itself. Some of these questions are about the end and the means of the war and how likely the American power establishment is to achieve them. In the initial heat of the military intervention, the war focused on removing the Taliban regime, the capture and killing of al Qaeda leaders and rebuilding of state institutions, infrastructure, economic rehabilitation and social recovery. The Americans soon lost the momentum on more crucial functions of state and nation-building in Afghanistan by hopping on to another costly war in Iraq. In the words of one of the observers of the Afghan scene, it was reduced to a “poor man’s war”.
There cannot be a better reflection of ignorance of Afghan history and the social dynamics of Afghan society than the belief that the Afghans would see foreign intervention in their own interests and welcome it. A faction or some narrow-based social and political fragments on the losing end of local conflicts in Afghanistan have always welcomed foreign intervention. It was a mistake for Americans and their European allies to see this as a sign of domestic support.
Perhaps the narrow social constituency of support would have broadened if there had been some demonstrated dividends of peace and reconstruction and their recognition and ownership by wider sections of the Afghan populations. It was partly the frustrated expectations about the post-Taliban regime that provided a big window of opportunity to the Taliban to re-emerge as a resistance force.
The second review of the Afghan strategy of the Obama Administration says it all about both the complexity of the war and the big challenge of winning the war in the face of growing public anger and declining political support back home. For regional states, the question of what the objectives of the war are, how long the Americans are going to stay and what means they deem appropriate to pursue these goals remains a matter of concern. The longer the Americans stay in Afghanistan, the more likely they are to be presented by the Taliban as an occupation force. And the longer this war draws on, the worse the security conditions of neighbouring countries become. It is better that the Americans follow the brave initiative of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban and end this war rather than continue fighting. They must search for an honourable exit through a political settlement among the Afghans; continuation of the war through surges will only increase the pain for everyone. But such a recognition will require a bold ownership of strategy by a visionary political leadership.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2010.