The killing of a NATO soldier by an Afghan 'rogue' security forces person on Sunday (Jan 8) is symptomatic of the many challenges that 2011 has bequeathed to the US and its ISAF allies – and by extension the international community.
When US President Obama first unveiled his withdrawal plans from Afghanistan, there was deep satisfaction in Pakistan. Some analysts and the generals at the Pak military GHQ in Rawalpindi had believed that Washington will pull out of the region, leaving them the sole responsibility of managing Afghanistan. However, subsequent Af-Pak policy nuances announced by President Obama have shattered this Pakistani delusion. Neither is the US pulling out its troops in a hurry, nor is it delegating the responsibility of maintaining peace to Pakistan - the primary source of disturbances in Afghanistan.
The US and its principal regional adversary – adherents of the Taliban ideology have achieved certain significant objectives in 2011 by way of the elimination of al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden and former Afghan President Rabbani respectively. Complex and contradictory reconciliation and reintegration initiatives remain stalled and the internal turmoil in Pakistan between the military and the civilian leadership has only muddied what passed for Pakistan’s Afghan policy.
Repeated attacks on western forces in Afghanistan were carried out by the North Waziristan based Haqqani network considered close to the ISI and a large number of US/ISAF casualties confirmed that they were being specifically targeted primarily with the intention of building up public pressure in the West for complete and faster withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The ISI was reportedly uncomfortable with the US or the Afghan government negotiating with Taliban either directly or through any other mediator. Thus Mullah Biradar, who was second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban hierarchy was neutralized and the Rabbani assassination in September 2011 is believed to have been hatched in Quetta by the ISI.
The CIA clearly knew the ugly truth, which resulted in Admiral Mullen’s famous statement that Pakistan was using “violent extremism as an instrument of state policy” and termed the ‘Haqqani network’ as a veritable arm of the ISI. As Pakistan refused to undertake operations against Haqqani network, which is deeply entrenched in North Waziristan under various pretexts, the American unease and dismay manifested itself in many ways. The Karzai government has also given vent to its unhappiness with Pakistan’s tacit support to certain Afghan Taliban groups.
According to various opinion polls, within the region, India continues to be the most popular country in Afghanistan. Consequently, President Karzai travelled to New Delhi in October last to sign Afghanistan’s first Strategic Partnership Agreement with a foreign country. This agreement allows India to train and equip the ANA, which is the key to stability in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it was trained initially in a piecemeal manner as a rag-tag militia with different units being trained in different countries. Although, the training improved subsequently, the western mind does not often understand the cultural sensitivities of the Orient. Secondly faced with Pakistani opposition, the ANA was never allowed to be equipped as a credible force. Heavy artillery and fixed wing aircraft, essential ingredients of any country’s armed force, were not provided to the ANA, even though they give the state a decisive psychological edge over non-state actors. Hopefully, with India training and equipping the ANA, these serious impediments will be redressed.
The ANA has been progressively taking over security responsibilities from NATO/ western forces in many cities and areas. Despite certain difficulties, the ANA has done a good job and have proved the Cassandras wrong. With better equipment and training, in the year ahead it will be able to defend Afghanistan against any internal or external aggression. The Afghan economy has been growing at 10 per cent for the last few years and more Afghans believe in the future of their country than in the past. This quiet determination in the face of many odds is heartening. The marked deterioration in US-Pak relations after the US attack on Pakistani troops on 26 Nov 11 has led to the closure of NATO supply routes through the territory of Pakistan. Pakistan’s refusal to participate in the 2011 Bonn Conference has further aggravated the schism. It is evident that the US will have to look for solutions to its Afghanistan predicament which are not so dependent on Pakistan.
The international community including India needs to understand the basic fact that today’s Taliban are quite different from their pre 9/11 version. They are much more closely aligned with the Al Qaeda and global Islamic movement and their aims and objectives. Despite rhetoric to the contrary these virulent ideologies and their zealots will not remain confined within the geographical frontiers of Afghanistan. How best to quarantine them will be the challenge in 2012
( Alok Bansal is a Senior Fellow at CLAWS. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)