The growing Afghan fatigue is clearly discernible among the NATO powers. There is a palpable fear that the NATO forces can't beat the Afghan Taliban. The question is no longer how to win in Afghanistan. It is how to avoid a defeat and an embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan.
2. The search for a face-saving formula is already on so that the NATO forces can contemplate an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. The objective is no longer a modern dewahabised Afghanistan. It is an Afghanistan, which will not once again become the launching pad of Al Qaeda for its attacks on Western targets.
3. The various proposals and ideas being aired at the London conference on Afghanistan, which started on January 28,2010, and in its margins reflect a Western willingness to legitimize sections of the Taliban and give them a role in the governance of Afghanistan provided their return will not mean the return of Al Qaeda and they are prepared to share power with President Hamid Karzai and his associates.
4. The West is prepared to contemplate co-existing with an Afghanistan half modern-half Talibanised. Mr.George Bush and Mr.Tony Blair projected the "war" in Afghanistan not only as a "war" against the Taliban and Al Qaeda as terrorist organisations, but also against the medieval ideologies they represented. After the London terrorist attack of July,2005, Mr.Blair stressed the importance of winning the war ideologically too----not merely on the ground.
5. If the West is now prepared to make a deal with the Afghan Taliban as an organisation or at least with elements in it which are prepared to make peace with the NATO forces, how about its wahabised ideology? Is it prepared to accept the ideology of the Taliban and face the prospect of its coming in the way of the post-9/11 goal of the modernisation of Afghanistan? If the Taliban ideology is OK in Afghanistan if it gives up violence, how can one say that it will not be OK in Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world?
6.If the West is prepared to legitimise the Taliban or sections of it in Afghanistan, how can it refuse to legitimise the Pakistani Taliban and give it a role in the administration of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan? If it is prepared to legitimise its ideology and objectives in the FATA, how can it refuse to do so in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)? If it is prepared to legitimise the Afghan and the Pakistani Talibans, which are essentially a Pashtun phenomenon, how can it refuse to legitimise the Punjabi Taliban consisting of organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ)?
7. If the West legitimises the Pashtun and the Punjabi Talibans, will it not weaken the moderate elements in Pakistan and give a fresh momentum towards the Islamic radicalisation of the Af-Pak region? The trend towards the Talibanisation of the Pakistani Pashtun belt gathered force when Pervez Musharraf bought peace with the Islamic fundamentalist organisations and helped them to win power in the elections of 2002 and rule the NWFP for five years. The Afghan Taliban staged its spectacular come-back during this period helped by the fundamentalist parties ruling the NWFP and having a share of the power in Balochistan. The trouble in the Swat Valley of the NWFP started during this period.
8. The 2002-2007 experience in the NWFP showed how short-sighted ideas to buy peace in the short-term produce long-term damages. The US deal with the Afghan Taliban post-1964 in the hope of using it for facilitating the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Taliban-controlled territory by Unocal, the US oil company, enabled the Taliban to strengthen its position in the Kandahar and Herat areas. The Taliban under Mulla Mohammad Omar captured power in Kabul in September 1996, and became a thorn in the Western flesh. Musharraf bought temporary peace with the Mehsuds of South Waziristan in 2005-06 when his Army faced difficulties in countering them. The peace was short-lived. The result: the emergence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after the commando raid in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad after July,2007.
9. What the Taliban wants is not re-integration into the Afghan mainstream. It wants its re-conquest of power in Kabul so that it can resume its original mission of setting an Islamic Caliphate in Afghanistan. If the Taliban succeeds in establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Afghanistan, will an Islamic Caliphate in the rest of the Islamic world under the leadership of Al Qaeda be far behind?
10. There are so many questions which would require detailed analysis before the question of the re-integration of even sections of the Taliban into the Afghan mainstream can be considered. Instead of analyzing these questions and working out a comprehensive strategy, attempts are being made to work out another half-cooked strategy, which will be counter-productive. The two Af-Pak strategies worked out by the advisers of Mr.Barack Obama during his first year in office proved to be non-starters. The bleeding stalemate between the NATO forces and the Afghan Taliban continues. The international community cannot afford another half-cooked strategy, which may end up returning power to the Afghan Taliban on a platter.
11. Any feasible Afghan strategy should start with the question: how to neutralize the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in the Quetta area of Pakistan?The US is reluctant to act against those sanctuaries. In the absence of action against sanctuaries, it is not able to make headway in its counter-insurgency operations in Afghan territory. Instead of finding some other way of putting an end to those sanctuaries, it has started toying with the idea of winning over sections of the Taliban, who may not be as radicalized as the Taliban leadership. This is not going to work.
12. Either you have a modern, democratic Government in Kabul or you have a Talibanised one. You cannot have a hybrid--- with a mix of the modern and the medieval. ( 29-1-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )