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According to a report in The Sunday Times on October 5, 2008, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, warned that the war against the Taliban cannot be won and that the public should be prepared, not for a “decisive military victory,” but for “a deal with the Taliban”. Shortly thereafter, on October 9, US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, hinted that the US would be prepared to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban, if the Afghan government chose to support them. Secret talks in trying to achieve a political reconciliation have already begun on the Saudi-British initiative, and according to reliable sources in Pakistan, initial dialogue was held in Saudi Arabia between 24 and 27 September.
What seems like the beginning of the US exit strategy from Afghanistan appears diametrically opposed to the rhetoric one hears from both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. McCain, inheritor of the Bush legacy and with his penchant for wars, is of course prepared to follow Osama Bin Laden “to the gates of hell”. Obama, reasonable as he appears on other matters, argues nevertheless that “McCain won’t even follow him to his cave in Afghanistan”.
Looking at all this from the outside in, makes one cringe at the hollowness of both messages. The reality is that Osama, if he is still alive, has not managed another attack on US soil. Isn’t that good enough?
What the war in Afghanistan has accomplished, on the other hand, is a destabilized nuclear Pakistan, where suicide bombings have become rampant, and a manifold increase in anti-Americanism throughout the region. Much like the invasion of Iraq, the fight in Afghanistan was also viewed as one where an occupying alien force was trying to subjugate the local population. Nobody in South Asia made the connection between 9/11 and the need to attack Afghanistan. For them, it became a war of independence, independence from the Americans, like independence from the Russians in the eighties, and the British before that. This is why Brigadier Carleton-Smith has finally realized that this war cannot be won. When the local population decided that the invading force was not welcome, the Taliban, despicable as they may be, became the rallying point for all those who valued sovereignty and national independence.
Obama made a mistake when he said that he would take unilateral action against Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence on terrorist safe havens, but instead of retracting the statement, as he did with the “bitter” comment about rural voters, he stuck to it and dug a further hole for himself. Since a question on Pakistan has become a staple in presidential debates, Obama reiterated his position even while he stressed that the US needs to take other allies on board in key foreign policy decisions.
In case Senator Obama missed it, US heavy-handedness through September with strikes and ground incursions in Pakistan not only irked the Pakistanis but also prompted an immediate distancing of other NATO allies from US policy. France condemned the violation of Pakistani sovereignty and other NATO members decided they would not participate in such military adventures, leaving the US to play the bad guy part on its own yet again.
What followed was the killing and maiming of several women and children, provoking a media blitzkrieg and public outrage on the Pakistan government’s continued support of the US war on terror. Are we allies or enemies, Pakistanis asked. As a result of the outcry, the Pakistani military, historically allied closely with the US, cautioned the US on a potential blockage of supply routes to Afghanistan, advocated by many within Pakistan, and fought alongside the tribes in the northern parts of Pakistan to deflect US drones and also shoot down a spy plane, which the US insists had crashed, but Pakistani reports say otherwise.
Pakistan is in a much worse predicament than the US. The war on terror has been far more costly to it than it has to the US. Pakistan has lost more soldiers than the US and its civilians have paid with their lives and infrastructure. The Marriott bombing in Islamabad last month, killing close to sixty civilians and completely destroying the hotel, was one in a series of suicide bombings that are becoming everyday occurrences for Pakistani civilians. Although the vast majority of Pakistanis recognize the severe terrorism problem and would be ecstatic to have the terrorists eliminated so they can live in peace again, they feel that the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan exacerbates and does not solve the problem. Any Pakistani government seen to be linked with the US therefore also becomes fair game for the terrorists and the price is paid by ordinary civilians who are being targeted by both the terrorists, and due to faulty intelligence procured by the CIA, the Americans as well.
According to a retired general of the Pakistani army, US intelligence on the location of the terrorists is often faulty due to the large sums of money the CIA is willing to offer. As a result, he said, in a talk show on Pakistani television, “informants” who have no knowledge fabricate information simply because the prize money is luring. He claims, the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, is used to operating in the area and can extract better information from the local population, but the level of trust between the Americans and the Pakistanis is too low for effective intelligence sharing.
The Americans are not convinced that the ISI is sincere in its efforts to eliminate the Taliban, as links still exist from the eighties, when the CIA and ISI worked much more closely in both training and arming Osama Bin Ladin and his cohorts in the jihad against the Soviets, and while the Americans made a clear break from the affiliation when they left South Asia abruptly after the Soviets returned home defeated from their decade long adventure in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan’s army and intelligence units had a more difficult time severing the link, and so even if accurate intelligence is produced by the Pakistanis on potential terrorists, it is often overlooked by the Americans in their war on terror.
In this scenario, where there are huge credibility deficits between “allies” without whose cooperation it would be logistically impossible to succeed in Afghanistan, where hearts and minds of the local population have been completely lost as a result of gross civilian casualties and complete erosion of infrastructure, employment and education facilities in certain areas, and where NATO countries are suggesting that calling it quits may be the best way forward, an exit strategy from Afghanistan is exactly what the doctor is ordering for the US.
There is no such thing as a “good war”. I would have thought that Obama, more than anyone else, would have realized this. But then “he can’t really run for President of the United States and not be for any war,” an American friend of mine insisted when I complained to him about Obama’s remarks. I only hope that is it. That it’s Barack Obama playing to the gallery; not Barack Obama losing the plot in South Asia!
AYESHA IJAZ KHAN is a London-based lawyer turned political commentator. She writes frequently for Pakistan’s widely read English daily, The News, and can be reached via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com