Monday, 28 June 2010

McChrystal and the US Afghan war gone awry

General McChrystal's departure from the US Afghan war effort has thrown the spotlight on Afghanistan once more. Although never far from the news, the resignation of the top US commander raises question about long term US strategy in the region.
Something is definitely brewing. Afghan President Karzai recently fired his Interior Minister and the Head of Afghan Intelligence. Both individuals were considered anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban hard liners, unwilling to agree to even a hint of negotiations with Taliban leaders.
Simultaneously, Pakistan's military chief, General Kayani, and his head of intelligence have apparently travelled to Kabul for 'exclusive' discussions with Karzai several times in the last few weeks. In fact, Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera has even published a news report suggesting Karzai met with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a large anti-government insurgent group.  
While Kabul's rumour mill must be running on overdrive, some basic facts can be gleaned from these events.
Notwithstanding the much heralded US troop surge in Afghanistan, after almost nine years of propping up a Karzai regime, Karzai's confidence in the US appears to be receding quickly. He seems not just to be sending feelers but fighting for his political, and possibly physical, survival.
Pakistan, as the home of more Pashtuns than Afghanistan, has an integral stake in any Afghan peace process. The instability in Afghanistan is writ large on recent political events in Pakistan.
Additionally, after nine years of watching India make inroads into the Pakistani 'backyard,' the Pakistan military must be excited at the prospect of extracting itself from a two front 'assault' engineered by the Indian-Afghan politico-military axis.
The Americans can only be incensed at not being a part of the 'peace' process. Surely, the US must have expected to be in the driving seat for any Afghan peace formula? After all, it was the Americans who legitimized (cynics would say 'arranged') Karzai's re-election as President after controversial elections held less than a year ago.
Pakistan's decision to 'play its hand' in Afghanistan demonstrates that the Pakistani establishment also believes America's influence in its western neighbour is time barred. Not an outlandish notion given America's self-imposed time frame of August 2011 to begin a drawdown of its Afghan troop presence.
The Pakistanis are rightly worried that once Afghanistan is no longer a security obsession for the West, it will have to deal with the ensuing 'blowback.' The 1990s are a recent and fresh memory for all Pakistanis, especially within the security establishment.
Meanwhile, Karzai is probably more concerned about having his carcass hung on a Kabul telephone pole once his foreign patrons disappear. A similar fate befell Najibullah, Afghanistan's Soviet installed leader in 1996.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking at a security conference in 2008

McChrystal's interview with the Rolling Stone seems a master stroke from a highly skilled tactician and strategist. Surely, the interview cannot be an isolated case of 'poor judgement' by a general who understands the power of the media? On the contrary, the article has revived debate about the future of Afghanistan: a debate which, like the previous 30 years of the Afghan war, may ensue for another 30 years.
Historians will determine whether Afghanistan will be a beacon for freedom and democracy by 2011, the year the Americans start to leave. Seth Jones choice of title for his of America's Afghan war, In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan is just as likely to be random as McChrystal's revelations to Rolling Stone magazine.

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