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Last Tango in Kabul

Has the end game for the US Afghan Project begun on the dusty mountain fastness of Afghanistan? The answer to above question might lie in the recent peace overtures of US towards feral Afghan Taliban who were once touted as the living embodiment of terrorism and for whose defeat the US had launched one of the longest and costliest wars in its recent history. The war in Afghanistan that has caused a loss of 2732 military and 1720 civilian contractors’ lives besides incurring a financial cost of $1.047 trillion is the longest war that the US has got involved in an overseas campaign. Are the recent US peace blandishments a mere dressing up for a better future in her quest for a perpetual role in the Afghan affairs or a genuine intent of departure? The question could be best answered by answering the mother of all questions. Is the United States willing to genuinely depart or continue with her strategy of a “Managed Chaos” in Afghanistan?
Pakistani peace planners must seek an answer to the last question first. Does the US genuinely desire to sing this long war’s swan song in Afghanistan? What kind of residual presence would be there after the departure? A war that has cost $1 trillion is the most unpopular war with the US taxpayers since the same amount could have been ploughed into the crumbling US medical care and public infrastructure projects beefing up the economy at a time when the biggest threat to US world dominance emanates from the rival global economies. Why is then a kind of one step forward and two steps back policy palpable in case of US Afghan Project? Much perhaps needs to be understood about the duality of US grand strategy and politics. Like all empires and US being no exception there is a grand strategy based on strategic objectives and national(empire) interests aimed at global dominance. The institutions and agents responsible for grand strategy that include permanent Washington establishment comprising intelligence community, foreign relations bureaucracy, Pentagon, and finance strategists view Afghanistan differently than a President who came to White House riding on the promises of an economic revolution for the plebeian community groaning under the weight of taxes and joblessness.
President Trump’s first instincts and promises were for a pullout from Afghanistan. Upon assumption of the office he however was dissuaded from unilateral military withdrawal from Afghanistan in the interests of long term US interests like containment of China and Russia from a strategic base conferring advantages of intelligence gathering, space denial, and regional monitoring. Some strategic Cassandras have also predicted a perpetual US presence in Afghanistan aimed at resource extraction and strategic stonewalling of China, Russia, and Iran. Of all three purported US objectives the US has failed to achieve even one so far. Resource extraction is an impossibility till the security situation improves and the containment of China and Russia is but a distant dream till the time the US does not possess the economic muscle to elbow the two rivals out of the regional strategic alignments with the countries like Pakistan being economically incentivized to forge regional economic linkages. What the US needs to understand is the fact that the era of military led economic dominance is passé. US in her quest for regional and global dominance has failed to observe the basic ground rule of smart power for an effective leadership role in the world. Smart power is a combination of soft and hard power whereas the hyper power being displayed is the unpopular mutant of crass hard power.
What the US is not realising that China has started embracing the smart power world view in all its present and future politico-economic interactions with the rest of the world. The US Weltanschauung, still caught up in the Cold War detritus, is an anachronism in this age of global engagement and economic cooperation. The US policy makers would do well to borrow a leaf from the international relations work book of Professor Stephen Walt who had recommended an “Offshore Balancing” strategy for USA. According to that strategy the United States should forsake all physical deployments and interventions in global areas of interest and concentrate on forging ties with nations of strategic interest leveraging its economic ties and rapid force deployment capabilities.
The advice proffered by the perceptive professor was in fact an exhortation to make the most of the US smart power. What was chosen in response was a relic of Cold War rivalry, a realpolitik grounded concept of regional surrogacy instead of cooperation focused “Offshore Balancing”.
The United States chose to create regional surrogates like India, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan to keep a watch over the US interests in different regions of the world. India was chosen for South Asia due to her size and ability to contain China. In a contrary scenario the US could have forged economic ties through trade and technology support with entire South Asia creating a community of common interests allied to US interests. Such a community of interests of economically interlinked and trade interdependent countries would have acted as a solid monolithic support base for the USA, despite being wooed by regionally proximate powers like China and Russia. The Indo-US strategic alliance contrarily drove a wedge between the estranged neighbours in subcontinent besides pushing an insecure Pakistan pell-mell into Chinese basket. India instead of delivering on its promises of controlling Pakistan and containing China ended up destabilizing Pakistan and accelerating a Chinese move in the region. Now a failed US policy of world dominance through physical interventions and regional surrogates has started backfiring evidenced by a mess in Afghanistan, and unrest in Pakistan.
It is in the backdrop of the above bigger picture that the present US peace initiatives in Afghanistan need to be assessed. While the US has correctly assessed the futility of her over militarized Afghan strategy in pursuit of her strategic objectives she has still not give up on the second part of her grand strategy i.e use of regional gendarmes to bully and contain other nations perceived as threats to US designs of global dominance. How much effusive should Pakistan get in her attempts to level the queered pitch in Afghanistan for USA is the moot question that flows logically out of above discussion. What should Pakistan do in an environment under which as per US “regional surrogacy policy” India continues to target Pakistan through a covert war by fomenting insurgencies and promoting terrorism? Ironically India is doing all this under the benign watch of USA from its Afghanistan based consulates that instead of consular work are busy launching militants across the porous Pak-Afghan border.
The US would do well to understand the futility of the self-defeating mirage of the strategic relationship with India and embrace a true “Offshore Balancing” strategy promoting a community of interests based on economic and cultural ties between India and Pakistan. Unless this element of the strategic policy matrix vis-à-vis India and Pakistan is fixed the US attempts for Pakistani facilitation in Afghan peace talks would remain stymied due to Pakistani fixation with Indo-Afghan threats. Pakistan must clearly indicate to the US that while she would not compromise on her CPEC based strategic interests she would go a step further in facilitating a peace deal in Afghanistan in the interests of regional peace and harmony. Only the United States needs to understand that she would not be able to promote peace in Afghanistan by encouraging India to destabilize Pakistan. The United States has a great peace opportunity provided she embraces the regional peace based “Offshore Balancing” strategy instead of regional dominance through surrogates. The last act in the Afghan peace drama might turn into a deadly Tango unless India, Pakistan, and United States decide to base Afghan peace process on a genuine peace foundation between the two estranged sub continental neighbours.



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