It may be useful to encourage a battle for the soul of Pashtunization
When United States Secretary of State John Kerry came to New Delhi this past week, Afghanistan was obviously part of the conversation. By the end of 2014, the US and its allies are committed to bringing home the vast majority of combat troops in the troubled, precarious nation at the crossroads of South and Central Asia. Just what the future holds for Afghanistan and the entire region, if not the world, is anybody’s guess.
Indeed, the Americans themselves are unsure and give the impression of simply hoping for the best — or hoping all competing factors and stakeholders cancel out each other and just keep trouble and terrorism from America’s doorstep. The narrow goal of protecting the American heartland — and American citizens, assets and friends elsewhere on the planet — from jihadist attacks that may emanate from Afghanistan has long overtaken the expansive goals of nation-building that were announced in the first flush of the post-9/11 war.
The game optimism of State Department pundits is matched by the extreme pessimism of Indian strategic thinkers. To them, this is 1989 all over again. That year, following the Soviet defeat and withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan was abandoned by the Americans. A ravaged, broken country became easy pickings for Pakistani irredentists and the Taliban militia they promoted. By 1996, the Taliban had overrun Kabul and taken charge of much of the country.
Afghanistan is scheduled to hold presidential elections early next year. President Hamid Karzai is not eligible for another term and will probably hand over his job to a successor chosen by popular vote. While this will be a first in Afghan history, it also gives the new president only a few months to settle in before the Americans depart. Should the Taliban be brought into the political and electoral process as some sort of a last-goodbye attempt at “reconciliation” by the Americans, it will leave Kabul a messy and confused polity by the end of 2014.
A new president; a Taliban half in the tent and half outside, eyeing its opportunities; the Pakistani military intelligence network, awaiting an appropriate moment; the Chinese, big investors in Afghanistan, hoping to bribe all sections of Afghan politicians and use the services of their Pakistani friends to cut deals with even a potential Taliban regime so as to exploit the landlocked country’s mineral wealth: if this sounds much better than 10 September 2001, then by how much?
To be fair, American officials stress a residual force of 10,000 troops will remain. The US has built significant air assets in Afghanistan. The capacity to push in Special Forces for an Abbottabad-type raid — should a high-value target be identified — and the threat of drone attacks inside Pakistan are intact. Yet, there are downsides. The Afghan army, supposed to take the leadership role in managing national security after 2014, is anything but a cohesive unit. Desertion rates remain high and motivation remains low. In terms of weapons, it is under equipped but that is unlikely to be redressed soon. Whether America or even India, few want to pack the Afghan army with truly sophisticated munitions. There is no guarantee where these could end up in say four or five years and which private armies and warlords may use them and against whom.
The key question is how long will the residual western forces — and surely there will be pressure to withdraw them too at some point — and the non-Taliban Pashtun leader who is expected to succeed Karzai as of now manage to hold Kabul. Two decades ago, Mohammed Najibullah hung on for barely months after Moscow ceased to give him effective support. In contrast, Karzai — and the non-Taliban Pashtun political space — is somewhat better placed today. It is here that some tactical advantage may be possible.
In the 1990s, the Taliban was allowed to anoint itself as the uber Pashtun power, taking on ethnic minorities. Post-2014, it may be useful to encourage a battle for the soul of Pashtunisation. It will keep Pashtuns occupied with each other, on both sides of the Durand Line.