What “IF” the US and NATO Decide to Leave Afghanistan…?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 29 Aug 2009 0 Comment

On Aug.17, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix, Ariz., and referring to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama said:  “We must never forget: This is not a war of choice… This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again.” He staunchly defended his “new” war strategy for Afghanistan, saying American troops have adopted new tactics that include protecting the Afghan people and improving their lives. “The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight. And we won’t defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy,” Obama warned the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Emphasizing the importance of the Afghan war, he said: “This is not only a war worth fighting,” but “this is fundamental to the defense of our people.” In addition, the American president referred to his “new, comprehensive strategy” unveiled last March. “This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war - that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance. And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies,” he elaborated.

These are definitely not the words of a Commander-in-Chief who is itching to get out of Afghanistan. It should also be of interest that the “new, comprehensive strategy” referred to does not provide even a clue as to when in future the United States intends to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The Pentagon says that by the end of 2009, the US troop strength in Afghanistan will reach 68,000, and rumour has it that US and NATO Commander for Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal may very soon seek as many as 45,000 additional troops. From across the Atlantic, recent statements issued by British military leaders, major partners of the US in the Afghan war, made clear that the last eight years of occupation of Afghanistan has achieved little and, therefore, a fresh effort to arrive at the cherished goal is now very much under consideration.

Does Anyone Want to Leave?

On Aug.8, the British Army’s  incoming chief, General Sir David Richards, told the London Times, “the Army’s role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 to 40 years.” Said Richards: “I believe that the UK will be committed to Afghanistan in some manner - development, governance, security sector reform - for the next 30 to 40 years.” He stressed that British troop involvement, currently 9,000-strong, should only be needed for the medium term, but insisted that there was “absolutely no chance” of NATO pulling out.

In other words, the two major partners engaged in this costly Afghan adventure, the United States and Britain, have no plan to call it quits. Still, the greatest hindrance to grinding out another 30-40 years in Afghanistan could be the ground realities that the foreign occupiers have ignored so far. One may recall that in Vietnam that reality had showed its stark face for years but the powers-that-be in Washington kept their heads turned and “saw” nothing. For years, they did not see what they did not want to see.

It is evident that a similar situation is developing in Afghanistan. In the winter of 2001, the US military had routed its enemy, the Taliban, and forced them to flee to Pakistan. In 2009, not only is the old “Taliban” back, but thousands of other Afghans have since joined the effort to challenge the foreign occupiers and their inadequately-trained Afghan soldiers. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert to be named advisor to Gen. McChrystal, told a Washington audience in mid-August that if the basic parameters of fighting the war in Afghanistan remain the same, US and NATO troops will “fight valiantly for two years” and then declare themselves “defeated, and come home.”

It is likely that the Obama administration will be unable to convince the American people and their representatives in the US Congress and Senate of significant successes in the coming years, and that may force the American president to work out an exit strategy. An added problem that the administration faces is that the US economy is not only in deep trouble, but is likely to get much worse in the coming months, forcing people to question the “wastage of money in a war that cannot be won.” 

However, as of now there is no indication that the Americans will demand an end to the Afghan war within the next two years. Before that, people will have to ponder over the fact that there is very little meaning in the word “win” in the context of that war. All that has not sunk in with the population yet. Nonetheless, the recent show of strength by the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan has made some, but still a small number, of Americans sit up and wonder about the course the Afghan war will take.

It is becoming increasingly certain that when the Americans decide to demand the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, they will have to evaluate simultaneously what long-term cost will be involved in choosing that path of action. The invasion and the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan has distorted the internal dynamics of that country so significantly that a US troop withdrawal could be highly unsettling for Afghanistan’s neighbours. At the same time, if American troops remain in Afghanistan, it is likely that the entire region may get wholly destabilized.

What Could Be the Price?

In the winter of 2001, when a small number of US troops moved in to dislodge the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it encountered weak resistance; and within a few weeks, Kabul came under US control. At the time, the George W. Bush administration’s three stated reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan were: to neutralize and destroy al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden; to destroy the opium industry in Afghanistan, which supports and finances all al-Qaeda operations; and to stop opium traffic from Afghanistan to the US and UK

As one looks into the situation eight years later, it is evident none of those stated objectives have been met. In fact, opium production has exploded; it is now twice as much as the Taliban regime could ever produce. Moreover, the streets in Britain are flooded with Afghan heroin. Though it must be acknowledged that as an organization al-Qaeda has taken many hits during this time and is surely a much smaller organization than it was in the winter of 2001, Osama bin Laden remains free.

Simply stated, the loss of thousands of lives and expenditure of hundreds of billion dollars of American taxpayers’ money during those eight years has produced almost zero result. There is not much to show to taxpayers except thousands of graves, and to make the claim that the occupants of the White House have not allowed another 9/11 to occur on American soil. Americans are now safer than they were in 2001, Washington claims.

But these eight years of war in Afghanistan have brought about a profound change in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. One of the reasons why US troops could capture Kabul almost effortlessly in 2001 was because a majority of Afghans - Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups within Afghanistan - had  given up on the Taliban,  a synthetic product  created by a project launched in the mid-1990s by the Saudis and Pakistani military and intelligence, with tacit approval from both Washington and London. In the winter of 2001, by militarily defeating the Taliban, who were mostly ethnic Pashtuns, and then pushing them into oblivion, Washington had won the hearts and minds of many Afghans, including a large section of Pashtuns.

But the years that followed saw the withering of US credibility inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since most of the Taliban were Pashtuns, the foreign troops identified the Pashtun people as their enemy and trained their guns on them. Indiscriminate bombings that killed and maimed thousands of Afghan men, women and children alienated the Pashtuns, not only from the United States, but also drove a wedge between them and the US-supported, democratically-elected Karzai administration in Kabul. Routine retaliatory air strikes by the Americans to avenge the death of a single foreign soldier inflicted death on many Afghans over the years. Those actions have created a large pool of permanent enemies of the United States within the Pashtun community, many of whom are now militarily challenging the foreign troops.

The Greater Pashtunistan

During the period 2001-2002, a defeated Taliban and threatened al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan across the non-demarcated Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They sought refuge in remote tribal areas of Pakistan adjacent to Afghanistan. While the Pakistani military and the ISI, helped by President Musharraf, fended off Washington’s efforts to eliminate its enemies by moving into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda set about with zeal to establish their networks within Pakistan. Their objective was not only to hide from the foreign troops, but to regroup, recruit and re-train to resume the fight another day. This they did with success, and they did a whole lot more.

FATA and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) adjacent to Afghanistan are Pashtun areas. Following the wars of 1838-1842 and 1878-1881 between the British Raj and the Afghan rulers, Afghanistan was finally accepted as a buffer state between the Indian subcontinent then under British control and Russia. The border with British India and Afghanistan was marked by one British bureaucrat, Mortimer Durand, in 1893; and a treaty was signed by the Afghan ruler, Amir Abdul Rehman (1881-1901). 

As British rule appeared to be ending in mid 1940s, Afghanistan laid claim to areas along its western borders, based primarily on economic grounds as the landlocked country wanted an outlet to the Arabian Sea. Kabul’s claims about the rights of Pashtuns and signing of the 1893 treaty under duress did not carry weight then; the fact was that Afghanistan was always a multi-ethnic state and that no force had been used to sign the Durand Line agreement.

Pakistan, on the other hand, argued that the 1893 treaty was a valid international agreement. It was a bilateral agreement with British India and confirmed by successive Afghan rulers. As a successor state, Pakistan inherited all agreements and treaties and gained full sovereignty over the areas inherited from British India. But the issue never died down completely. Prior to the formation of Pakistan, some fiercely tribal Pashtuns of the North West Frontier Province's Tribal Areas demanded “Pathanistan.” However, this effort failed and voters chose Pakistan by a margin of 9 to 1 in 1947. A later loya jirga in the Tribal Areas also opted to become part of Pakistan.

[Note: The words Pushtunistan, Pakhtunistan, Pushtoonistan, Pakhtoonistan, Pukhtunistan and Pathanistan are variants of the same word, adopted from the words Pushtun, Pakhtoon, Pukhtun and Pathan. The hard sound is used in the north, whereas the soft one is used in the south. The word “Pathan” is the Indian variant adopted by the British.]

The territory of Pashtunistan shown on some Afghan maps not only embraces territories inhabited by Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, but also the whole of Balochistan, south of Quetta. There is a clear and distinct difference between Baluchis and Pashtuns. The inclusion of Balochistan is strange, since its population consists of Baluchis, Brahuis, Jats, some Pashtuns, as well as some other people, none of whom could be regarded as Pashtuns.

Despite the formal acceptance of the Durand Line on the Pakistani side, Pashtuns from FATA and NWFP have been crossing the border without official documents ever since, and Islamabad never interfered with that arrangement. In fact, the entire mujahideen operation against the erstwhile Soviet Army between 1980 and 1989 was carried out from inside the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. At the same time, Pashtuns on both sides remained separated by their tribes and sub-tribes, more so on the Pakistan side than on the Afghanistan side. The tribal veneer of Afghan Pashtuns has worn off significantly because of their emergence as a whole as rulers of an independent nation - Afghanistan. Simply put, more Pashtuns on the Afghanistan side identify themselves as Afghans than the Pashtuns on the Pakistan side identify themselves as Pakistanis.

But the incursion of al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters into the FATA began to change all that. Interestingly, both Washington and Islamabad knew what was happening inside FATA; they also knew that whatever was happening there may have serious repercussions in Afghanistan and in adjoining areas of Pashtun tribe-inhabited Pakistan. 

Over the eight years since US forces entered Afghanistan, the process stated above has begun to combine the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In other words, instead of isolating the militant fundamentalists and those who were downright thugs, Washington and Islamabad adopted a policy which combined millions of Afghans against them. When the US left the area in 1989 after the Soviet military retreated from Afghanistan, the directionless Peshawar Seven, armed and trained  outside of Afghanistan by anti-Soviet forces to defeat the Soviet Army, fought against each other the way the Pashtun tribes usually do (since all tribal groups refuse to accept a leader belonging to another tribe). By contrast, the Tajik mujahideen remained under one leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, as did the Uzbeks under Abdur Rashid Dostum.

At that point in time, the Pakistani ISI (guided by the Saudi-British controllers) came up with the concept of combining a section of Afghan Pashtuns by unleashing the Taliban movement, whose binding force was the Wahabi version of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia. They were fundamentalists, and hence virulently anti-India and anti-everything.

That was Islamabad’s trump card and it worked for a while, of course. Other Pashtun leaders could not counter that Islam-based ideological force; but a vast majority of Pashtuns inside Afghanistan did not accept the Taliban. That is why in 2001, when the US put in a small number of troops, the regime collapsed like a proverbial house of cards.

Now, the United States and NATO have united the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan with support from Islamabad. But the process has created a new dilemma for Pakistan, in particular. A majority of Pashtuns residing in FATA and NWFP have begun to identify Pakistan more as an enemy than a friend because Islamabad has allowed Americans and other foreigners to kill Pashtuns. Further, Pakistani troops have also joined in killing the Pashtuns under the pretext of eliminating the extremist Pakistani Taliban.

As a result, there is every likelihood that when the Americans choose to leave, the Greater Pakhtoonistan movement may rear its head as never before. Neither the Taliban, nor the drug lords, nor even the powerful warlords, would be able to counter that storm. A large section of Pashtuns from both sides of the Durand Line, a much larger group than supported the Taliban, could also join the fray. The irony, a tragic one as such, is that the longer the US and NATO choose to stay in Afghanistan and goad Pakistan to “tame” the Pashtuns on the Pakistani side, the more closely consolidated and formidable a force the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan will become.

That is a genuine fear in Islamabad, and perhaps as well in Washington. The threat of breaking up Pakistan will allow Islamabad to accept any number of diktats from Washington with the intent of keeping American troops stationed in Afghanistan; and it would also provide Washington the  needed justification to set up permanent bases in Afghanistan for an extended stay  in that country.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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