KARACHI: Eminent author and journalist Anatol Lieven summarised how the much-anticipated United States withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 would actually play out during a talk at the Oxford University Press office on Wednesday.
“The US is not withdrawing from Afghanistan and 2014 is not really a cutoff date,” was the emphatic announcement with which Lieven began the 45-minute-long talk. “The US continues to feel threatened by Taliban because of which it will continue to retain bases and military advisors for the Afghan government. However, they have learnt to accept what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan as they were responsible for choosing the country’s administration.”
Without beating around the bush, Lieven summed up the main reason preventing the US from making a clean exit from Afghanistan – “America does not have an exit strategy.
They haven’t formulated any plan about how they will handle the next year’s presidential elections in Afghanistan either.” Lieven explained that at times, people express the fear of a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan if the Americans left. “What do you think is happening right now,” he asked. “Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since long before the Soviets withdrew from it.”
According to Lieven, the Taliban will not win the upcoming elections. “The different factions in Afghanistan will enter into temporary truces and armistices to prevent the Taliban from forming a government in Kabul,” he explained. “And sensible Pakistani officials know that a Taliban government would be bad for Pakistan.”
Theories and predictions
He stressed that India and Pakistan also needed to come to terms with the fact that both nations will not have much say in the set up of the Afghan government. “There is deep mistrust and misinformation between Pakistan and India as both believe that the Taliban in their countries are being supported by each other’s government.”
While recalling a student he met in Delhi who was convinced that Gwadar was a Chinese military base, he explained that Indians feared “being encircled by Pakistan.”
Lieven also recalled discussing the change in government in Afghanistan with some “relatively pragmatic Taliban” he met in 2012. “They admitted that they couldn’t hope to conquer and hold the country,” he explained. “In addition to realising that Afghanistan cannot have a government run only by clerics, they also discussed the need to create some space for technocrats to be brought in to build the country.” The journalist told the audience that even the group he met refused to give up arms or concede to not having a guarantee of their share in the government.
Although Lieven agreed that America’s fears of being invaded by Iran and North Korea were largely imagined, he quoted incidents of recent terrorist plots nabbed by its government to emphasise that not all was paranoia. “If there is a terrorist attack on the US, I fear that the Americans might lose their head and do something stupid.”
Every now and then, a question from the audience would result in a detour in the conversation. At one point, a somewhat tickled Lieven felt that he must explain why talk of the British government crafting a ‘containment policy’ towards Pakistan was not to be taken seriously. “If Britain was to contain Pakistan, it will have to undertake the impossible task of cordoning Bradford and Leeds from the rest of country.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2013.