America’s Moment of Truth in Afghanistan

America’s Moment of Truth in Afghanistan
american-army2It would appear that the United States has a choice between acknowledging defeat, pulling out, and suffering the inevitable political humiliation, or continuing to fight an unwinnable war and bleeding further. Is there a third option? Yes — a negotiated settlement, says Patrick Seale.

America’s agony in Afghanistan cannot continue indefinitely. A stop must be put to it, one way or another. The cost to the United States — 1,000 soldiers killed, thousands more wounded, $300bn spent — is already more than can rationally be justified.
If the United States and its NATO allies were winning the war there might be a case for continuing to pour in men and treasure in the hope of declaring a clear victory. But this is evidently not the situation. Instead, the U.S. is facing, if not defeat, then at best a draw. General Stanley McCrystal’s decision to defer for several months the planned attack on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is itself a clear sign of American exhaustion and strategic uncertainty.
So what is to be done?
The first task must surely be to clarify the issues. President Barack Obama has said that the United States is in Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qa’ida. But the Taliban are not Al-Qa’ida. The Taliban are a movement of tribal and Islamic resistance, largely recruited among the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group. The Pashtuns are well-known — indeed notorious — for their fierce independence, their detestation of foreign control, and their attachment to their religious faith and tribal traditions. It is true that the Taliban — or at least some Taliban — have in the past given some Al-Qa’ida fighters protection, but they should not be confused with them. Most experts believe Al-Qa’ida’s presence in Afghanistan is very small, and that its leaders have sought refuge in the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan.
Another source of great confusion is between the rival U.S. doctrines of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, which have been the subject of much heated debate in Washington. The first means finding and destroying ‘terrorists’, the second means winning over and protecting the local civilian population so as to wean it away from the ‘terrorists’. The United States does not appear to have made a clear choice between these doctrines but is applying a bit of both — with unsatisfactory results.
The missile attacks by pilotless drones are an example of counter-terrorism — but, as they also kill large numbers of innocent civilians, they arouse fierce anti-American sentiment. Counter-insurgency means providing the population with employment, education, medical services, justice and good government. These are admirable aims, but virtually impossible to achieve in a situation of war — especially when the insurgents, rather than the United States, seem to be winning.
If this is the unfortunate situation, it would appear that the United States has a choice between acknowledging defeat, pulling out, and suffering the inevitable political humiliation, or continuing to fight an unwinnable war and bleeding further, in fact, sinking deeper into the Afghan quagmire.
Is there a third option? Yes, there is, but it has not so far been seriously considered. It is to use America’s considerable resources and influence in the search for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban insurgents.
This will involve making a number of key decisions. The first is to give Pakistan a major role in any peace process and to recognize its need to be a dominant external influence in a post-war Afghanistan. Pakistan is haunted by the fear of being trapped between a hostile India and a pro-Indian Afghanistan. It maintains close (if clandestine? relations with some Taliban factions precisely because it knows that it will need them as allies once U.S. forces withdraw — as they eventually must. Pakistan is therefore an obvious conduit to the Taliban — a conduit which must be exploited.
A second key decision must be to involve other influential states in the vicinity of Afghanistan — notably Iran and Turkey, but also Russia and China — in the search for a settlement. But the United States cannot ask Tehran and Ankara for favours when — under Israeli pressure – it is tightening sanctions against the first and is allowing tensions to arise with the second.
A third decision must be to rally international and local support for another major loya jirga, or tribal council, rather like the one President Hamid Karzai recently convened, but with clearer objectives. These should be (a? to declare a nation-wide ceasefire; (b? to hear a pledge from the United States that all foreign troops will be withdrawn if the ceasefire holds for one year; (c? to hear another solemn pledge that, once the ceasefire is seen to hold, the United States and its allies will provide Afghanistan with a multi-billion dollar aid package over ten years, to be administered by the United Nations; (d? to set up an Afghan committee to draft a new constitution providing for a more decentralized country in which regions and minority ethnic groups will enjoy greater autonomy.
Afghanistan’s newly-discovered mineral wealth — its fabulous deposits of copper, gold, lithium, iron ore — should be the key to a settlement. This much abused and tormented country could be transformed within a generation. In conditions of peace and prosperity, the Al-Qa’ida problem will simply fade away.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press)

Source: Sunni News
First published in Middle East Online on 21/06/2010

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