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Afghanistan: deal or no deal
Publication Date : 09-05-2012
During his unannounced visit to Kabul last week, President Barack Obama sought to invest the murkiness of the moment with some sort of significance.
"In the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan," he declared in an address to Americans from the US base at Bagram, "we can see the light of new day on the horizon."
That light is not visible to everyone. During Obama's visit, he signed an agreement with Hamid Karzai that supposedly lays out the parameters of the relationship between the US and Afghanistan for a decade following the pullout of most foreign troops in 2014.
It's a vague pact, intended to signal that the military withdrawal will not be tantamount to abandonment, but with all too many specifics yet to be worked out.
What it will mean — in fact, whether it will mean anything — is uncertain. The propaganda value of the visit was underlined by its deliberate coincidence with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s extrajudicial execution in Pakistan, and Obama underlined the fact that the operation was launched from a base in Afghanistan.
His verbiage also focused more on Al Qaeda than on the Taliban, given the former’s presence in Afghanistan is now believed to be minuscule while efforts at negotiations with the latter have stalled but not been given up.
That Obama arrived under cover of darkness suggests the security situation even in the Afghan capital isn’t exactly rosy, a point underlined by Taliban attacks in Kabul shortly after the US president’s departure. It's gratifying that they were taken by surprise, but the same cannot be said about their continuing ability to infiltrate the capital more or less at will.
Much was made last month of the improved ability of Afghan special forces after concerted Taliban strikes — possibly an attempt to replicate the 1968 Tet offensive that decisively turned the tide in Vietnam — were repelled.
More broadly, however, the capacity of troops supposedly loyal to Karzai to hold out against the Taliban without western assistance is far from clear. In theory, negotiations that could lead to the Taliban, or sections thereof, being brought into the tent make sense, but whether they can lead anywhere remains indeterminate.
An intriguing report in The Washington Post on Monday, meanwhile, offered some details of a clandestine project whereby “high-level detainees” have sporadically been released from the Parwan detention centre in Afghanistan in an attempt "to quell violence in concentrated areas where Nato is unable to ensure security".
The report cites one case relating to a Hezb-i-Islami commander whose release led to the Hezb “providing useful intelligence on the whereabouts of Taliban fighters”. Quoting a senior US officer, the report goes on to say: "Before long, the US troops and Hezb-i-Islami fighters were conducting joint operations, travelling in the same vehicles and sleeping on the same bases."
The Hezb-i-Islami — a key component of the Mujahideen alliance during the 1980s, when the faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was particularly favoured by both the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) — has also been known to collaborate with the Taliban. The so-called endgame makes for interesting bedfellows.
There are striking parallels, incidentally, between the present circumstances and the period of the drawn-out Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
At that time, the occupation forces were keen to strike local deals in the interests of security — notably with the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was perceived by elements in the Soviet hierarchy as more of a nationalist than a religious fanatic, and a worthy opponent who could potentially be persuaded to join a non-communist coalition in Kabul.
Najibullah, however, was dead set against any deals with Massoud; he was more keen on working out a modus vivendi with fellow Pakhtun elements of the Mujahideen. He failed — and, according to Massoud, declined an offer of safe passage out of Kabul when the Mujahideen regime retreated to make way for the Taliban takeover.
That Najibullah defied predictions by holding out for three years after the Soviet troop withdrawal may bring some consolation to Karzai, although he can ill-afford to shut out the grotesque images of the last Soviet-sponsored leader’s ultimate fate.
The Red Army’s pullout followed an agreement under United Nations auspices, but Moscow’s efforts to convene a regional conference with the aim of persuading Afghanistan’s neighbours to play a constructive role in the nation's future came to naught.
There are no such initiatives at the moment. The vacuous US-Afghan agreement preceded a Nato conference in Obama's political home ground of Chicago, where more empty promises are likely to be made.
Perhaps the biggest parallel between the Soviet and the US-led occupations of Afghanistan is the eventual dismal failure. The Soviet intervention, intended to prop up an unsustainable regime, was a monumental error — and influential individuals in Moscow began to realise this within a couple of years, but undoing the misdeed took far longer than anticipated.
The US would have been better off pursuing police action rather than military invasion in the wake of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. The Al Qaeda threat deserved to be taken seriously, but it was neither existential nor apocalyptic.
The tiny fraction of documents released from the cache captured at Bin Laden's hideout near Abbottabad hardly conveys the impression of a once-formidable organisation in its death throes.
There's cause for mild amusement rather than alarm in discussions over PR efforts, and perhaps the same could be said about Bin Laden’s determination to put Joe Biden in the White House by assassinating "the head of infidelity" — a description of Obama with which loonies on the fringes of the American right would surely concur — as a means of sparking a crisis in the US.
Deal or no deal, what lies ahead in Afghanistan remains hard to predict in the face of innumerable uncertainties and imponderables.
In the quest for symptoms, however, one could do worse than focus for a moment on the US$80m the US spent on building a compound in Mazar-i-Sharif, "envisioned", according to American press reports, as the nation's "diplomatic hub in northern Afghanistan". The plan has now been abandoned because the location was deemed "too dangerous".