It isn’t really all a conspiracy theory but I don’t mind if we begin with this premise. What has befuddled analysts as well as non-analysts in recent times is the question that what has America gained by its adventure in Afghanistan, which has also cost it over a trillion dollars?
Let’s detail some of these gains: Al Qaeda has undoubtedly been weakened and is no longer a significant force in the AfPak contiguity. The flip side, however, is that al Qaeda now has its tentacles spread on newer shores: in Yemen, the Arabian peninsula, Southeast Asia, the Maghreb and also various cells reported to be presented in Europe.
It all began with George W Bush’s “smoke ‘em out” determination. Of course, no one will deny the need to commiserate with the Americans on the dastardly 9/11 tragedy, but the invasion of Afghanistan only seems to have ended up spreading al Qaeda to other regions of the world. Instead of containing it, it has been transformed into a geographically diverse movement, and one cannot rule out that it will not plan or carry out further attacks. Furthermore, the result also has been an overly indebted American economy, the threat of another recession, a fracturing polity and, all in all, a humiliating drawdown of American stock in the world. Nations pay for a long time after their leaders make poor decisions and bad choices; in the case of superpowers this is even more acute.
The next sin, and an opportunity lost, was when Barack Obama chose to stay the route in Afghanistan. He shunned Iraq because he had a choice, but never got the nerve to dump Afghanistan. He may continue to explain that to his grandchildren with grand moral overtones and religion-draped patriotic zeal, but he will find it hard to explain to his Democratic Party Caucus, how he lost the magical superiority that he and his party had achieved in the 2008 elections. Perhaps he was too weak to answer the call of his conscience and do what he always knew was the right course, but he could not appear as a wimp to the American electorate.
That meant that the US would remain embroiled in Afghanistan. Let us assume that Afghanistan’s key strategic location as a saddle amidst energy-rich Central Asia, a deviant Iran, and a nuclear and religiously polarised Pakistan, was the underlying objective. It certainly would have been a laudatory objective worthy of both time and treasure for the lone superpower of the time. There are two ways for America to entrench itself in Afghanistan to achieve any of the above interests as well as to checkmate China and Russia from making forays into the mineral-rich region. One would have been to convert Afghanistan to an entity that would mirror America and create socio-political identities that would keep both in a natural embrace — a kind of America away from America. That was not to be though; initially the US diverted its focus back to Iraq, and then when attention went back to Afghanistan, a lot of time had elapsed and the US economy was unable to support two wars at the same time. That is when the counterinsurgency mission scaled itself down to counterterrorism. As such Afghanistan hasn’t morphed into a mini-America and has not developed socio-political linkages that would have given the US a natural parking slot and pervasive presence.
The next option, and that still is very much on the cards, is to sign a strategic agreement for a prolonged presence in the country. Under this, Afghanistan would have control and ownership of military bases that the US may occupy at any time of its choosing. That would clearly need a multi-partisan acquiescence in Afghanistan and a long surviving political structure that will continue to honour the agreement. So in case there is a future coalition government in that country with a Taliban presence, this arrangement, of the US having access to bases, may not materialise.
An extended formulation of the same concept, to enable America to revisit the region at the time of its choosing, is to leave enough turmoil behind for Washington to say that it believes that its vital interests, vis-à-vis energy-rich Central Asia and strategically important Iran and Pakistan would remain threatened, and hence it would be able to invite itself to justify a prolonged presence. Even Karzai isn’t game for the longer-term bases deal and is insisting that any such proposal be decided by a loya jirga.
Hence, America’s most credible way out of the quagmire it finds itself in, is to leave a sustaining chaos behind instead of a sustained peace and a political order that will keep creating conditions where US intervention may be necessary from time to time.
Enter the Haqqanis, and America’s wrath for both Pakistan and the Haqqanis. If the Haqqanis, as the more formidable militant group, can continue to cause this region and Afghanistan to be engulfed in conflict, that should foot the bill. What better if Pakistan, too, can be coerced into taking on the Haqqanis and create a wider zone of a continuing conflict. Perhaps that may put into perspective the outbursts from America’s military and political leaders, all pinning blame in recent days on Pakistan.
It was interesting to hear an American analyst say on an Indian television channel, that all of America’s and India’s “pains” could be removed if the Pakistani military were brought under civilian control. That’s insidious: not only would they like the military to take on the Haqqanis, they would like the politicians to push the military to take on the Haqqanis, and in doing so both would be at odds with each other. That way the turmoil would be just about perfect. Add to that what goes on in Balochistan and Karachi, and you have a coalescing set of conditions inviting foreign (read American) intervention on humanitarian grounds — to ward off a possible ethnic and/or civil war (the latter threatening the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear assets).
Of course, much of this is conjecture and some may call it a conspiracy theory. In any case, it awaits the test of time. Till that happens, however, it is worth remembering that what remains supreme are interests and that altruism in global politics is a misplaced notion.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2011.