Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
For all the talk of seeking a political settlement of the Afghan war with the involvement of the Taliban, it has not been clear even broadly what a final deal will look like. Will the Taliban, who control or exercise influence over large parts of the country, take charge in Kabul ? Will the United States simply and fully withdraw all its forces from the country? What happens to President Hamid Karzai who has been actively seeking reconciliation with the hardline Islamists ? What about the regional powers, not just Pakistan which obviously will play a central role because of its ties to the Taliban, but also Iran and India, both with rising stakes there along with the Russians and the Chinese to a lesser extent ?
Selig Harrison, director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy, explores some of these questions in a must-read piece in Foreign Policy headlined “How to leave Afghanistan without Losing.”
As the title suggests, America’s exit strategy should be based on the premise that while the Talban will have to be accommodated in any settlement, they must be contained. Disengagement from Afghanistan does not mean surrender to the Taliban, Harrison argues, even though the austere Islamist group has virtually fought a coalition led by the world’s most powerful military to a stalemate. And the key to the containment strategy rests with Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Six of the seven regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan share the U.S. goal of preventing the return of a Taliban dictatorship in Kabul. These include such unlikely countries as Iran, Russia, China, and India besides the central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all worried that the extreme version of Islam espoused by the Taliban can only have negative consequences for their own countries, the author argues.
The United States cannot win a fight for hearts and minds if it outsources critical missions to unaccountable contractors, U.S. President Barack Obama said during a speech he made as a senator back in 2007. It hasn’t changed much in Afghanistan since then as a U.S. Congressional investigation into a $2.16 billion supply chain that provides soldiers everything from muffins to mine-resistant vehicles shows.
Security for the supply chain running through remote and hostile terrain has been outsourced to contractors, “an arrangement that has fuelled a vast protection racket run by a shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others,” according to John F.Tierney, chairman of the
subcommittee on National Security And Foreign Affairs.
For a leader who has come to own the Afghan war, U.S. President Barack Obama’s first trip to Kabul and the military headquarters in Bagram since he took office 15 months ago was remarkable for its secrecy and surprise.
He flew in late on Sunday night, the blinds lowered on Air Force One all the way from Washington, and left while it was still dark.
(A protester outside the White House in Washington dressed as a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Photo by Kevin Lamarque)
The United States is considering a proposal to hold foreign terrorism suspects at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reported this week, a new Guantanamo Bay just as it is trying to close down the original facility in Cuba.
In July this year, a U.S. Air Force F-15E supersonic fighter crashed into a dark mountainside in eastern Afghanistan killing both crew members. While there have been several helicopter accidents, crashes by supersonic jets are a rare occurrence especially in a country where the enemy doesn’t have the weapons to threaten them.
So what went wrong ? Time magazine published the results of an Air Force investigation last week and it suggests that the “stresses of combat , accumulating slowly and insidiously, can overcome the world’s best pilots even when everything aboard a a $50 million fighter jet works perfectly.”
Back in 2002 during a reporting assignment in Afghanistan, a U.S. helicopter pilot told me that it was important to send a message early on that “we own the skies, night or day”. So at any given point of time if you were at the Bagram air base, north of Kabul, you could see aircraft, mostly choppers taking off, landing or simply idling in the skies above in what became the region’s busiest airfield.
Seven years on, the U.S. military is holding on to the skies ever more tightly as the ground below slips away to a Taliban insurgency at its fiercest level. And because they fly more and because the terrain and weather are difficult, the chances of things going wrong increase, as happened earlier this week when 14 Americans, including 11 soldiers, were killed in two separate chopper crashes.