The Osama After-Effect

Will the US keep fighting in Afghanistan?

The Big Daddy question of the region. The US has always said its prime directive in the Afghan War was to neuter Al Qaeda. And this Osama First and Last Doctrine is strongest with the left wing of US President Barack Obama’s own party. They are already signalling for a retreat. The best argument for withdrawal for many Americans is less casualties than cost.

The Stay the Course School has a strong brief though: Al Qaeda is down, but not out; the Taliban are still there; and look what happened last time we walked out of Afghanistan. Probably the best case of all is that if the US lets militants take Kabul, their next stop will be Islamabad. “Al Qaeda focuses on Pakistan because it is the strategic prize in the Islamic world, home to what will be the fifth largest nuclear arsenal, and a country struggling against jihadism like no other,” says Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel, lead author of the first Obama AfPak Review Policy.

So far Washington seems to be shuffling towards a halfway house. Let’s get a portion of the Taliban into bed with Hamid Karzai. That will shore up his government, split the enemy. It may also satisfy the paranoia of the Pakistani military enough for them to be less of a terror haven than they are.

Which Taliban will Karzai share power with?

The main game in Afghanistan today is reconciliation. But whose Taliban get to be at the negotiating table?

Karzai spent all of last year trying to win over a whole bunch. But the ones he sent invites to, say Western and Indian diplomats, all RSVPed from Inter-Services Intelligence cells– or graves. Pakistan has anointed the Taliban’s Haqqani network as the Right Stuff. Karzai still prefers Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and his Hezb e Islami. The US has been anti-Haqqani so far. But after dispatching Bin Laden, they may not care so much. After all, points out a French defence ministry analyst, “rejection of Al Qaeda by the Taliban was, if not an objective, at least a precondition of the talks.”

Everyone may dilute their standards regarding Al Qaeda affiliation now that the Most Wanted is fish food. Most importantly, the US.

Will the Al Qaeda thought fade away? US move to quit Afghanistan depends on it

This is crucial to the US’s decision to go or stay in Afghanistan. If it concludes Al Qaeda’s ideas remain alive and kicking among various militant carbon copies, it may not flag in fighting. The Taliban were traditionally a purely local group. Lashkar e Tayyeba’s worldview extended to only Kashmir. There’s some evidence these groups have gone global. But there’s a catch: some believe a US withdrawal would help make the Taliban shed pan-Islamic dreams.

“The Taliban and Al Qaeda are not as tightly inter-meshed as argued by the media. The Taliban’s goals remain domestic, concentrating first on ousting the foreigners whom they view as an occupying force and second on what relationship — or even role — they should have with the government,” argues Christine Fair of Georgetown University. The Taliban have repeatedly said that they wouldn’t play host to Bin Laden as they did prior to 2001. In time, says Lisa Curtis, South Asian analyst of the Heritage Foundation, Bin Laden’s death “could diminish the importance of Al Qaeda for the Taliban and thus encourage the Taliban to renounce its ties to the organization.” So far, the only thing the Taliban have said is to swear revenge.

What is the role of India and China?

India has argued tooth and tongue against giving the Taliban a scandal in Kabul. As it doesn’t have troops on the ground, no one is really listening. Afghans like Indians but also see New Delhi as too weak and too far to help them.

Because it’s increasingly on the sidelines in Afghanistan, Indian enthusiasm for the US military effort in Afghanistan is waning. Bin Laden’s death has led New Delhi to conclude departure is inevitable.

China has entered the New Great Game on the basis of Pakistani pronouncements. So it is Kayani & Co which tells Karzai, “Dump the Yanks, the Chini can take their place.” It is they who tell Pakistanis that Beijing is the new Washington. What does the Middle Kingdom say? Nothing. Not a word. Could be Oriental subtlety. Or it could be Pakistan, as New Delhi believes, is bluffing.

How can Pakistan be made stable?

Barack Obama, in US journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book, tells his aides that the US goal must be to change Pakistan’s mindset. India wouldn’t disagree.

He once had a Pakistani approval rating in the forties, but when he was bumped off Bin Laden would have lost his deposit. It would be nice to think his rise, fall and the collateral damage Pakistan has suffered from the US’s pursuit of him would be a lesson for Islamabad. Namely, that backing militants to get one up on India hurts Pakistan the most.

There isn’t much evidence of a mind shift. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, president of Rawalpindi, said he was “Indo-centric” and doesn’t seem to have changed. He still sees Lashkar as his weapon of mass destruction and wants to colonise Afghanistan.

However, Operation Neptune Spear caught the Pakistani military with their pants down. It is likely either Kayani or the ISI chief, Shuja Pasha, will be sacrificed to the god of public opinion. Bin Laden’s departure will probably reinforce the present Rawalpindi worldview. It will be assumed the US will be more willing to accommodate buddies, the Haqqani network. They have grounds to kick out a lot of CIA operatives and demand less drone attacks– and still secure billions from the US.


Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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