Saturday, 15 September 2012
by Ali Ahmed
MAINSTREAM, VOL L, NO 38, SEPTEMBER 8, 2012
It is fairly clear by now that a draw-down, not amounting to a withdrawal, of the US-NATO force ISAF from Afghanistan is underway. The exit is not to be a complete one since the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Obama and Karzai allows them to stay on till 2024. This is to keep the Kabul regime stable and the ‘Bonn process’ on course but also in connection with the strategic interests of the US in the region, namely, Iran, Central Asia, China and increasingly Pakistan. Also, precedence from the nineties suggests that a full exit is not an option. Since pulling out would reveal the superpower has lost the war, it certainly cannot be admitted in an election year. However, the cover of a rebalancing towards the Pacific against China is a useful starting point to help the superpower disengage.
Currently, what the US appears to be envisioning is continuing blood-letting. It hopes to outsource this to the ANSF. It will employ its special forces from the bases retained, provide air cover and keep up the drone attacks. The US staying on may not be useful since what it has not been able to achieve in a decade’s untram-meled military operations, it cannot be expected to do with a reduced military presence. Since the Taliban has managed to evade the intended effects of the ‘surge’, at worst the likelihood of a civil war exists and at best a manageable insurgency.
To this must be added prospects of spread of instability in Pakistan. Currently, the status quo is a hurting one for the US, not so for Taliban due to its sanctuary in Pakistan. To bring about a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, it may be necessary to expand the conflict into Pakistan, at the risk of destabilising it. The US’ current policy thrust to rush Pakistan into North Waziristan is to finally wrap up. The region shall be a likely witness once again to another Pakistani military operation, leaving that state vulnerable yet again to terror attacks on rebound.
Superficially, it would appear that a mutually hurting stalemate that signifies the ripeness of a conflict for conflict resolution is not at hand. After all, a superpower can marshal resources, while the Taliban has shown itself to be a resilient actor. However, a realistic reading would be that both belligerents need a helping hand to extricate. The allies of the US are pulling out. The indicators—such as drug abuse among troops, green on blue attacks, violence by war veterans on return to mainland America, isolated instances of soldiers running amok etc.—suggest that the US too is exhausted. As for the Taliban, at least two members of its top-line leadership have been eliminated this month. Therefore, there is scope for measures towards a politically negotiated ending to the conflict apace with the drawdown.
This is especially so if the primary referents are taken as the people, and not the states involved. The desirability from a people’s point of view is also not self-evident. Some would argue that saving Afghan women necessitates killing some more Taliban. In any case, it is not a factor that can be expected to detain security bureaucracies or the Taliban unduly.
It would be difficult to convince either side to come to terms with the adversary in the light of the war-time propaganda indulged in liberally by both sides. Likewise, states may envision an opportunity for proxy wars, such as India and Pakistan. India, for its part, is not unhappy to see Pakistan’s disruptionist energy diverted to its western border. Some other states, such as China and Iran, may not be altogether unhappy to see the US in a spot of a bother. It is also not self-evident that an energised peace process can help prevent the most likely outcome of continuing conflict.
While peace initiatives have been in evidence, these have been tentative not having had the weight of the US behind them till recently. The peace prong of the strategy has progressed piecemeal with separate initiatives in isolation of the other by the Europeans, Arab states and also the UN mission in location, UNAMA. The ‘Afghan owned and Afghan led’ formulation has failed to impress the Taliban. The aim of separating the ‘good Taliban’ from the ‘bad Taliban’ has also fallen short. It is only lately, when it was evident that the military surge had failed, that the peace process has been privileged as a significant line of operation.
It is well-nigh possible that, like an iceberg, there is more to the peace process than meets the eye. It is possible that the extent and details are under wraps to keep off spoilers. However, what is certain that it is not yet the primary line of operation. It therefore needs a fillip. The question is:
‘How?’ Conventional balance of power ‘solutions’ have had their play in the discourse. The foremost one of ‘military surge’ not having worked and the so-called ‘peace surge’ not having occurred at all; others only have the limited aim of keeping the Taliban off balance. They are conflict management answers. Such answers are more hopeful than useful. Conflict management north of the Durand Line not being inspiring, there is little to guarantee that a conflict south of it can be better managed. The inadequacy of traditional strategy over a whole decade means that sticking to it amounts to strategic vacuity.
Two points emerge: one is that the worst case scenario must be prevented; and two, that power-centric options are not the answer. The answers therefore are outside of the restricted confines of traditional strategic thinking—‘out of the box’. Such an idea will not come out of security bureaucracies; it can only emerge from elsewhere but would require to be taken forward by the state security establishment.
The ‘out-of-the-box’ idea here is the option of peacekeeping. The idea is in conversion of the enforcement operation underway there to a peacekeeping one. Peacekeeping presupposes a peace to keep. Currently there is no peace to keep. The stumbling block is the Taliban prefering to interface directly with the US and the US, for reasons of prestige, not allowing that. Both sides can be expected to project preparations for a post-drawdown Afghanistan as part of posturing and positioning. Such actions, being mistaken for or willfully misinterpreted as signs of ill-intent, prevent a peace process from taking off.
Peacekeeping, by enhancing the conditions of feasibility of the peace process, can midwife a peace process that can eventuate in peace. A precedent from the late eighties—of insertion of the UN Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan (UNGOMAP) to allow the Soviets to depart—exists. Only this time round the UN must play it differently.
Introducing peacekeepers into the scenario enables face-saving for both sides. The Taliban can claim it remains unvanquished. With security and space guaranteed, they would be more amenable to talks. The US, for its part, can have a neater exit. Since both gain something, there is common ground for arriving at consent for the mission.
The centre of gravity for such negotiations must shift away from the Kabul regime and the US Special Envoy towards the UN, supported by organisations in the region such as the SCO and SAARC. A suspension of operations agreement needs to be arrived at prior to troops getting into place. Peacemaking, with mediation by the UN, may be advanced alongside a comprehensive and inclusive peace agreement that is beyond the current ‘Kabul process’—the outcome of the London and Kabul conferences that were the political part of the ‘surge’ strategy of Obama’s presidency.
Peace monitors must deploy to oversee a ceasefire followed by a peacekeeping force on ceasefire. The UNAMA, that is currently a political mission in support of the state engaged in ineffective peacebuilding and protection of the civilians’ tasks, must graduate into an integrated peace operation. On the contrary, at the moment the UN’s thrust is towards a graduated disengagement and handing over to the Kabul regime. This is in line with the US’ aim of projecting an image of planned transition. This is a trifle premature.
If the talks prong of the strategy is to be energised, regional states must be ready to supplement, and if necessary substitute, the US. In particular, since who pays the piper calls the tune, funding may have to raised from within the region’s resources. This is where either the SAARC-SCO combine or the regional countries represented at the Istanbul conference of last year can assert themselves as regional arrangements taking on their share of the burden in accordance with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.
The peacekeeping options broadly are: under regional arrangement, a regional organisation-UN ‘hybrid’ peace mission and the usual UN mission. The talk of Muslim countries sending in troops has been around since Bonn I. The force configurations include: a SAARC force; a joint SCO-SAARC force; a UN force comprising Muslim countries; a force sent by the regional states represented at the Istanbul conference; or a UN force from uninvolved countries.
What are the implications of this for India and China, the leading states of the SAARC and SCO respectively? As rising powers, they get a stage to showcase their power by turning round a situation in their backyard. They also create an opportunity for cooperation, which can over time avert the seeming inevitability of a clash between the two Asian giants. They can together save Pakistan from itself. What are implications for India? India’s self-interest is in seeing no spill-over from AfPak in Kashmir or on its social fabric in terms of majority-minority relations. Its reviving relationship with Pakistan can be taken to a new level. Its power aspirations can be better served. Its UN permanent seat campaign can be strengthened. The idea is in keeping with its strategy of restraint.
What are the prospects of this idea? To say that an idea requires political vision and will is to kill it at birth. However, little can stop an idea whose time has come.
Ali Ahmad, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.