Special to ‘Tehelka’, 10 February 2010

The Emperor has no clothes. The United States has no strategy for Afghanistan—military or political. This message clearly emerges from the Istanbul and London conferences, as well as President Barack Obama’s recent pronouncements. Beyond sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, cutting a deal with sections of the Taliban, and then beginning a troops pullout in July 2011, Obama has outlined no coherent objectives or pathways to achieve them. His options are constrained by the fact that 59 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops, including 28 percent who want all US troops out. An overwhelming 92 percent of the US public believes the Afghanistan war has turned into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Eight years after invading Afghanistan as part of its Global War on Terror (GWoT), Washington is floundering and casting about for some face-saving formula. The US got into this war with confused objectives: primarily to hunt down al-Qaeda but, as many strategists claimed, also to bring democracy to Afghanistan, modernise a backward society and liberate Afghan women. All these claims stand belied. Democracy beyond periodic voting remains a distant dream in war-ravaged Afghanistan—witness the fraud in President Hamid Karzai’s election, and the clout of warlords especially in the South and East. The government’s writ runs in less than one-third of Afghanistan. Karzai had to drop a number of Cabinet nominees following legislature vetoes.

Afghanistan remains desperately poor and backward, with the world’s second-lowest Human Development Index rank. UNICEF has identified Afghanistan as one of the three worst places in the world for a child to be born. Some Afghan girls are going to school, but probably fewer than during the Soviet occupation. Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate continues to be the world’s second-highest.

The bitter truth is that the US and its 42 so-called partners in the International Security Assistance Force have failed to bring about a significant improvement in the lives of the people. Not only are they committing paltry sums to minimum needs, infrastructure and development programmes—in many cases, smaller than what they gave to the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation. They also route it through layers of sub-contractors and NGOs, so only a small fraction gets delivered.

So finally, Obama is back to admitting that the essential US goal is military: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies …”. This won’t be easily achieved. Afghanistan could well descend into chaos and breed more virulently anti-West al-Qaeda–style groupings. Obama says: “We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.”

However, one cannot argue that the Taliban is even remotely close to being weakened to a point where it cannot overthrow the government. The Afghan National Army (ANA)) remains a small, poorly armed force with low pay and morale. The ISAF troops are infinitely better-armed. But even 100,000 of them, backed by 104,000 mercenaries, have not found it easy to fight the unconventional war that the Taliban–al-Qaeda have drawn them into—despite a 25:1 numerical superiority. Most of the 100 members of the al-Qaeda believed to be in Afghanistan and the 300 estimated to be in Pakistan remain unscathed.

A mere surge in the number of ISAF troops is unlikely to yield results. In fact, it might strengthen popular opposition to the occupation. As the conservative Wall Street Journal put it: “When the US forces enter an area, the levels of violence generally increase, causing anger and dissatisfaction among the local population.” It quoted a pro-Karzai parliamentarian as saying that with Taliban attacks on new troops, “civilians will end up being killed”.

The new tactic that emerged at the London conference centres on inducing the “good Taliban” to defect to the ANA through bribes. These are defines as “those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens”. But it is hard to draw such clear lines in Afghanistan’s extremely fluid situation. Besides, most Afghan Taliban are unlikely to defect to the ANA when their forces are making gains even while ISAF drifts.

The plain truth is that the US got Afghanistan all wrong from Day One. The 9/11 attackers were not Afghan, nor were they trained there. The US, shell-shocked by the audacity of the attacks, rushed into the invasion. Instead of waging war, Washington should have treated al-Qaeda and its allies as criminals and tried them in the International Criminal Court. This would have domestically weakened them and spurred democratisation and genuine reconciliation. The US-led coalition failed to rebuild the Afghan people’s war-ravaged lives and create governance institutions. Instead, it promoted Karzai and various warlords. When misgovernance and corruption spiralled under him, the coalition dumped Karzai. But it continued ignoring the people’s needs.

The US is likely to leave Afghanistan in a horrible mess and create new insecurities and complications, not least in its relationship with Pakistan, which it regards as pivotal: “Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan” (Obama). But American and Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan diverge widely. The US wants an Afghanistan where jehadi extremists are greatly weakened and cannot threaten the West or aid their allies in Pakistan. Islamabad wants an Afghanistan where the Indian influence is weak and the Pashtun ethnic group gains in influence.

Pakistan feels threatened by the success of India’s civilian assistance programme, widely acknowledged as the best among all countries. Indian aid takes into account Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, including bad roads, for which Indian-made trucks are appropriate. India has built hospitals, schools and roads, including a highway to Iran which would enable sea access. India is training Afghan civil servants, diplomats, legislators, judges and policemen. This has earned India tremendous goodwill.

Islamabad has vocally protested at the opening of numerous consulates by India and fears these will be used to launch covert operations against Pakistan. Pakistan is also apprehensive that India will work with Iran and Russia to strengthen the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance to marginalise the Pashtuns.

India must do all it can to allay these fears by adopting a regional approach to Afghanistan to which Pakistan is critical. India must acknowledge Pakistan’s legitimate interest in Afghanistan’s stability and welfare of the Pashtuns. There is an overlap between Pashtun and Taliban identities. Many Pashtuns feel poorly represented under Karzai and sympathise with the Taliban—although they oppose mindless violence.

Islamabad must too recognise India’s stake in Afghanistan in containing extremism and promoting stability. India has had ties with Afghanistan since the Gandhara civilisation, based on culture, trade, languages, music and food.

India and Pakistan should acknowledge their respective and joint stakes in stabilising Afghanistan. This could best happen if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convenes a summit in New Delhi with Presidents Zardari and Karzai to discuss peace-building, trade and transit, joint action against jehadi extremism, people-to-people exchanges, and economic cooperation. There are two preconditions for the success of such an initiative. First, the India-Pakistan dialogue must be resumed quickly. India’s refusal to talk to Pakistan has proved counter-productive. Mature diplomacy must replace this approach.

Second, India must categorically rule out military involvement in Afghanistan—whether to train or arm the ANA or send troops in any capacity whatever. Whether it like it or not, India has to reckon with the possibility or even likelihood of infiltration of militants or terrorist attacks from Pakistani soil. The best way of handling such eventualities is to create a climate of trust and cooperation with Pakistan. Afghanistan will be pivotal to this effort.