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Fantasising ‘Afghan Good Enough’

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 22, 2012

    In recent years, it has become a sort of a ritual to not expect much from international conferences and forums that are supposed to chart out roadmaps for post-2014 Afghanistan. Expectations are willy-nilly kept low and deliberations typically end with vague references to the need for a long-term commitment by way of sustained financial assistance and material support for Afghanistan. Nothing concrete may be said to have emerged from these periodic interactions among numerous stakeholders in terms of addressing post-transition uncertainties that threaten to undo the achievements made in Afghanistan over the last one decade. The joint statements and communiqués are more about facilitating and reinforcing the process of security transition whereby the US and NATO-led forces would end their combat mission and withdraw from Afghanistan by 2013-14. Frequent reference to NATO’s Lisbon Summit of November 2010 where a framework and a timeline for a phased security transition was endorsed is a case in point. Often, a façade of success, in terms of degrading the fighting capability of the al Qaeda and even the Taliban, and growing numerical strength of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), is presented as self-justification for pulling out forces from the Afghan theatre.

    The deliberate ignorance or constant oversight of the key causal factors to the rapidly changing ground situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which is often seen in the official outcomes of these international and regional gatherings, has continually complicated and added to the prevalent contradictions in approaches. It has led to a kind of policy paralysis in the Western alliance as it struggles to repeatedly redefine its Afghan mission commensurate to its reduced presence and engagement after 2014. The idea is to project objectives that are minimal, achievable and affordable in the long run since, as President Barack Obama once said, it is supposed to be a war of necessity. The idea is not to be seen either as losing a war which is no more considered as winnable or completely retreating and again abandoning Afghanistan.

    Despite the series of conferences and bilateral pacts between NATO member states and Afghanistan, the West’s endeavour to envision a long-term and a result-oriented strategy to deal with the ‘Af-Pak’ challenge amidst severe economic recession and drawdown in troop levels, has so far failed to evoke much confidence. Perhaps, time for a wait-and-watch approach may soon be up as Western forces draw down and prospects of a violent political transition in 2014-15 increases. The combined Haqqani-Taliban onslaught with support from within Pakistan, against Kabul and the residual Western presence would also intensify as larger areas fall under the former’s direct control. This would in turn further weaken the Afghan government’s position in the power matrix.

    The idea of ‘Afghan good enough’ that resonated in the run up to the NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20-21 has to be seen as part of the ongoing Western effort to deal with the challenges of a failing but supposedly “irreversible” security transition process and its wider consequences, by moderating and resetting the stated objectives of Western engagement post-2014. It was Anthony H. Cordesman of the Washington-based think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who had argued that ‘Afghan “good enough” is better than continued illusions.

    The notion of ‘Afghan good enough’ is a continuing manifestation of the West’s constant inability and limitation to deal with the rising Af-Pak challenge. In an article published on May 17, the New York Times reported how the phrase “has been making the rounds at the White House, State Department, the Pentagon and inside the many research organizations scattered around Washington.” The report also quoted the US president’s national security advisor, Thomas E. Donilon, as stating that, “the goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world.” The same has more or less been stated since the Obama administration first came out with its new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March 2009. The core goal of the US mission—to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in the region—was reaffirmed and reinforced in every subsequent review of the strategy thereafter. The objectives, be that of the US or the NATO, have always been narrowly focused and divided as well.

    Talking of ‘Afghan good enough’ at a time when the Haqqani-Taliban combine are sensing victory and Kabul is on the verge of a crucial political transition is rather ‘good enough’ to let Afghanistan slip into another round of civil war. The residual US and NATO presence after 2013-14 would simply be struggling to protect Kabul and key highways connecting to the key provincial capitals, reminiscent of the situation in the 1980s when the Soviet and Afghan government forces were grappling with a similar challenge. Whether or to what extent the ANSF would be able to maintain its internal cohesion is something one cannot still be confident of. The Afghan army still has a long way to go before it develops a professional core strong enough to help build and sustain the force with minimal external assistance even in the most trying times.

    The Missing Link: A ‘Pakistan good enough’

    Perhaps, what the advocates of ‘Afghan good enough’ conveniently forgot was the fact that the ‘safe havens’, which Donilon too alluded to, are inside Pakistan, where a range of foreign and domestic Islamist militant ideologies/groupings have since long enjoyed constant state patronage at multiple levels. Not long ago in September 2011, former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, had referred to the Haqqani group as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani intelligence service. More recently in June, during his visit to Afghanistan at the end of his Asian tour, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had clearly stated that, “We are reaching the limits of our patience, and for that reason it is extremely important that Pakistan take action to prevent this kind of safe haven.” Describing the situation as “intolerable”, he added, “We will take whatever steps necessary to protect our forces -- that’s a principle that we always stand by. To make that happen we have to have the cooperation of Pakistan to take steps to control the Haqqani threat on their side of the border.”

    This obviously raises some very pertinent questions: First, can one think of ‘Afghan good enough’ without ‘Pakistan good enough’? Where does Pakistan figure in ‘Afghan good enough’ if Pakistan’s centrality in the Western approach is taken into account? Second, what would ‘Pakistan good enough’ mean? A Pakistan that reopens the supply routes for Western forces closed since November 2011, but continues to support the Haqqani-Taliban combine; or a Pakistan that reopens the supply routes to fast forward the withdrawal of Western forces and at the same time facilitates a limited deal between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban; or a Pakistan that takes a long-term view, and in its own interest, fully cooperates with the Western alliance in stabilising Afghanistan by ceasing all support for extremist militants organisations active within its own borders. It does not require much elaboration to understand the path Pakistan has already taken as old patterns of the Afghan conflict re-emerge.

    Perhaps, the idea of ‘Afghan good enough’ is rather itself a manifestation of the West’s “continued illusions”. Not working towards a ‘Pakistan good enough’ would simply mean that ‘Afghan good enough’ is not ‘good enough’.