Thursday, December 3, 2009

Misreading Afghanistan with tinted glasses


Public opposition to the mounting death toll in Afghanistan, the unsupportable cost of the war, and the corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has left US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown struggling to justify our presence there. Their military advisers insist that their counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan is working and that a military buildup, preferably 40,000 new troops, is needed to win the war -- a war that President Obama not long ago called a "war of necessity."

We disagree. Our policies are failing, and they are failing because they do not confront the hidden causes of the conflict. The crisis in Afghanistan is largely due to Pakistan's insecurity and its consequent support of the Afghan Taliban. Because of its fear of India, Pakistan is determined to dominate Afghanistan, and this is the problem we need to address.

We should never forget that the Soviets sent 50,000 troops into Afghanistan; they put an enormous amount of effort into training the Afghan army; and they failed, largely because of Pakistan's support of Afghan rebels whose battle against the Soviets was financed by our governments. The idea that our fate will be different is erroneous, because Afghans do not want foreigners in Afghanistan, no matter how "nice" they are.

Although every conflict is different, there are ominous similarities between the Russians in Afghanistan and our current escalation. The parallels between the US involvement in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan are also stark. Just as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, unable to admit that America's strategy was failing, agreed the answer must be more troops, US Commander General Stanley McChrystal has called for an increase in US troops to 68,000 and Afghan forces from 134,000 to 240,000 by year's end. But no matter how hard they try, more troops will merely turn more Afghans against us.

Barack Obama is not the first to misread Afghanistan. Successive administrations have failed to understand that the United States and NATO are bit players in what is fundamentally a war between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This conflict, over the Pashtun lands, has been ongoing since 1948, when Afghanistan voted against the creation of Pakistan in the United Nations and sent tribal fighters into the Pashtun border areas of Pakistan. It is the reason why Pakistan accepted American support of the Mujahedeen in the 1980s, and why later it supported Afghanistan's brutal Mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, and then the Taliban in their efforts to take over Afghanistan, since both promised to be friendly regimes to Pakistan.

Ignoring this history, the US and British governments have missed the fact that the key to routing out the Taliban and other extremist elements lies not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. There are 25 million people in Afghanistan, while there are 200 million in Pakistan, and Pakistan is currently in meltdown -- the product of its insecurity over its borders with India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan and hence its chronic militarism and support of terrorism in India and Afghanistan.

Until the international community creates conditions that make Pakistan feel secure about its borders with India and Afghanistan, the country will remain dominated by its military and most of its monies spent on weaponry instead of on health and education. Lack of education has kept generations of Pakistanis locked in poverty, and has created a fertile ground for Islamists. Any solution to Afghanistan is impossible without solving Pakistan's problems.

Both the United States and Great Britain have failed to confront the role that Pakistan's fear of India plays in its conflict with Afghanistan. Today, despite numerous statements to the contrary, Pakistan is determined to remove from Kabul what it sees as the pro-Indian Durani regime (the Pashtun faction from which both Hamid Karzai and the old Kabul royal family originate) and replace it with a friendlier non-Durani Pashtun leadership. Pakistan thinks that its best bet is the Afghan Taliban, whose inept leadership will mean that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to them.

A regional settlement is essential, and India needs to be at the table. We have spent years ignoring and then lamenting Pakistan's unwillingness to stop the Taliban on its side of the border, when the key all along has been a durable peace between Pakistan and India. To get both sides to agree, the United States needs to tell them that the "line of control" through the middle of Kashmir will become an enduring international border, guaranteed by international agreement.

A comprehensive agreement with Afghanistan, enforced by the international community, should follow. The "Durand Line," the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, needs to become a recognized international border. Pakistan accepts the line, but Afghanistan never has. An open border regime should be created, because the line cuts across communities and to head off the very real political objections in Kabul. The United States needs to stipulate that if either Pakistan or Afghanistan breaks this agreement, it will embargo them, cut all funding, and use any force necessary against terrorist threats. At the same time, the United States and NATO should agree to withdraw to base and downsize.

Despite our governments' claims to be successfully fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, committing more troops to fight more Afghans is not the answer. It is not too late for both President Obama and Prime Minister Brown to stand up and say that "Our predecessors got it all wrong. Sending more troops to Afghanistan will backfire on us." In fact, our future depends on it.

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi
is a foreign policy analyst and the former publisher of Lawrence Hill Books, specializing in domestic and international politics. Robert A. Churcher is a post-conflict specialist who worked for the British Government in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2008.

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