Afghanistan: The return of the warlords

So President Obama retains the White House and the power but the Party General Secretary Hu Jintao leaves his throne in March 2013. Nevertheless, the rest of the world is going to see continuity of foreign policy by the two strongest nations as they grapple for global control. The US elections, despite all the excitement here, were not about us.

They were about America and only America. This continuity, including the usual nuances, also means continuity in problems at home and abroad.

Iran and Syria, in fact the entire West Asia, loom large on the American screen and somehow, Afghanistan has to be taken off the list as another unhappy American story that is best forgotten. It can only be taken off the to-do- list if it can be described as a victory because even a stalemate for a superpower is tantamount to defeat.

The US had in fact minimised its chances of success the moment it began to concentrate on Iraq in 2002 without settling issues in Afghanistan. Thus at the best of times till Iraq was over, the US and NATO forces remained inadequate. The Taliban made a comeback and the liberators came to be seen as occupiers. It was also a mistake to force a form of governance on a conservative peasant society that had little understanding of democratic practices and that too with inadequate resources and time. This is particularly relevant when we remember that it took beheadings of monarchs, revolutions, civil wars and more than a hundred years to introduce democracies in the West in the backdrop of other earlier reformations, religious and secular. There has been no such thing in Afghanistan which has remained a tribal society with its own rules and practices of governance. Yet Barak Obama must leave a legacy of success in Afghanistan and midway through his second term, in 2014, this must happen. But there are several roadblocks along the way.

Nothing describes the limitations of military power in the present context than the reality that the US can no longer go it alone in Afghanistan. It could in the past intercede on its own but today extrication needs the cooperation of not only Pakistan but Iran, India, China and Russia. Pakistan has played a largely negative role in Afghanistan and has therefore acquired a larger than life profile as the chief spoiler.

There are seemingly insurmountable problems within Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Forces may have expanded to be about 3,50,000 strong but they remain poor in training, equipment and morale. While the Army has been able to show some resilience, the Police are reputed to be corrupt and loyalties are suspect. The economy, dependent on external infusions of funds, is in a mess and there is just not enough money available to run the country.

The political, constitutional and executive institutions required to run the country are weak. Elections to the Presidency will coincide with the departure of the US and ISAF forces. This is adequate ground for continued instability. The Taliban may be ascendant in parts of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan but in a situation where Kabul is weak, ethnicity and regionalism will rule and a return to warlords and regional satraps is a distinct possibility.

The US, because of its own reservations about Iran has tried to ignore Iran's interest in ensuring that the next regime in Afghanistan is not Talibanised under the influence of Sunni Wahhabism. Apart from wanting to reassert itself in the near abroad, Putin's Russia remains worried about the flow of heroin from Afghanistan into Russia and of Wahhabi influences in Central Asia spreading through the Taliban. China waits in the wings as it sees greater opportunities in Afghanistan in a post 2014 phase as a resource base and as a means to access Iran through Afghanistan, make room for itself in Afghanistan and step into a vacuum in Iran where the US is not even present.

China and Pakistan could cooperate in Afghanistan but at some point Pakistan must decide whether its negative role and patronising attitude towards Afghanistan will actually win it any friends in that country. Pakistan needs to change its tactics instead of perpetually battling to keep India out.

India’s role in Afghanistan is set to increase in the time ahead as it would need to step in with infrastructure assistance and military and police training.  

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