A surge in troop numbers to deliver democracy, governance and security to Afghanistan? Or, as US Vice-President Joe Biden insists, a targeted elimination of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban on both sides of the now defunct Durand Line? This is the dilemma Washington is grappling with.
Neither course under consideration in Washington is likely to lead to a resolution of the Af-Pak problem. The dice is so loaded that whichever is adopted, only one side will be victorious. Neither is ready to accept defeat, unless the US-Nato combine imposes a peace of the grave.
The Iraq experience is of limited value. The US occupation created an organically new situation. For the first time, the world became aware of the new reality that 65 per cent of Iraq’s population were Shias. Indeed, when Dick Cheney made a speech, coinciding with the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003, he thanked “religious leaders” for their help. These were Shia leaders in Najaf. Little wonder then that it was the Americans who renamed ‘Saddam City’, ‘Sadr City’, after a family of famous Shia clerics.
It is these Shias, dispossessed by Baathists for decades, who are now in power in Baghdad, with the Kurdish north and a restive Sunni centre playing supporting roles. In any case, the eventual Iraqi outcome is far from clear.
Where are the “dispossessed” in Afghanistan that the US-led coalition is trying to restore to power? Pashtuns, the overwhelming majority in Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan were always in power, albeit fragmented into sub-tribes. They took the lead in ousting the Soviets and formed the Taliban encouraged by the US (with Indian acquiescence) to overrun Afghanistan in 1995. “We shall then control the Taliban,” an official in the Clinton administration had told me. The Taliban maltreatment of women made headlines in the US. The policy was abandoned.
Since 9/11 it is the Taliban who are taking stick on both sides of the Af-Pak border. Apparently, as a sop to Pashtun sentiment, Hamid Karzai has been in power since 2001, confirmed by the Loya Jirga in 2004.
As soon as President Pervez Musharraf made a U-turn to lead the US’s war on terror in December 2001, there has been an adversarial equation between Kabul and Islamabad, both eager to take the war into the other’s territory. In fact, Islamabad would like the election results not to be tilted in favour of Karzai. This, roughly, was the stand of Peter Galbraith, who has abruptly left his job as the UN’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul. He was keen that the election fraud be exposed, a move which could end up showing Karzai the door.
Since Iran’s presidential election was rubbished in the West, one would have expected Iran to point fingers at Kabul’s fraudulent election. Ironically, Iran would be quite content with Karzai. An alternative could lead to turbulence Tehran can ill-afford in its neighbourhood. And now that the US and Iran are talking in Geneva, Iran’s wishes cannot be totally ignored. New Delhi would like fair elections but, like Iran, is not averse to a pro-Karzai verdict.
Meanwhile, an Organisation for Islamic Conference special envoy has been unexpectedly appointed for Kashmir, while the Chinese are giving visas to J&K citizens on slips of paper.
It could well be building up to the only possible course: some sort of a regional conference on Af-Pak and the region. India would then have to take a call. The alternative is an unacceptable proposition — allowing Pashtun nationalism to hold sway on both sides of the Af-Pak border, leading to an autonomous entity.
Saeed Naqvi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal