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Afghanistan: stop prevaricating

Twenty years experience in Central Asia informs Carlo Ungaro's view that the allies should radically devolve power in Afghanistan and reconsider its international border with Pakistan
Carlo Ungaro
2 June 2010

The events in Afghanistan  obviously are a cause for concern, amply expressed in the international media. But a question could be raised as to whether most commentators actually address this understandable concern accurately, and are not, instead, conditioned by the information handed out by ISAF and other Western  or NATO sources.

The  daring and successful  attacks against NATO forces in  Kabul cannot really be due  to  a state of “panic” among the Taleban, as we are sometimes asked to believe. On the contrary,  they appear  part of a well conceived plan which has  multiple aims: to inflict damage – both physical and moral – to the foreign troops, to create a sense of panic and insecurity in the civilian population and also to build on the  resistance of public opinion in  America and Europe to the continuation of a costly war effort that shows absolutely no sign of reaching  a solution.

The lack of consistency shown by the allies in the definition of war aims is one of the most disconcerting aspects  of the Afghan operation, and, of course, the explanations become less convincing as they increase in variety and number. This is particularly true now, when talk of the need for a political or negotiated solution seems at variance with the   announcement of an imminent all-out attack on Kandahar, a city of not only strategic but of great historic and symbolic value too. The Kandahar operation  is likely to have as uncertain an outcome as the recent massive military strike, touted at first as a triumph and  then seldom  spoken about. It was clearly meant to wrest the village of Marjah in the Helmand Valley from Taleban control.

This apparent contradiction has been met with the argument that it is best to negotiate from a position of strength. They respond that it is in the best military tradition to couple informal exploratory talks with  attempts to bolster one's position, on the ground that the negotiations themselves should never start from zero.

All this would be more convincing if, at the same time, we were not confronted with a visible campaign either  physically to eliminate or to capture those Taleban leaders,  both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who would actually have to be the principal interlocutors  in any serious attempt at negotiation. These operations are invariably announced  in triumphant tones as another favourable development for the West in its struggle against terrorism.

In fact, a thorough analysis of the statements issued by military or civilian leaders in Afghanistan, and, even more so, by political leaders in the  Countries  with troops on the ground indicates that no overall political vision  seems to exist. In its place there appears  the sincere hope that “negotiations” can take place  successfully while ignoring the necessary geo-political adjustments which could  bring about a more credible and lasting solution.

The indications are that the time has come to put aside the tired, repetitious platitudes currently  handed out by military and civilian leaders in Afghanistan and Washington,  at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and, from time to time, in the most involved capitals. A radical rethink is urgently required now. 

This process, which would never have been simple,  gets more complex as time goes by. It would involve abandoning the current purely localised viewpoint and attempting to  analyze the entire problem  on a more global  scale, taking into account, among other things, the future status of Afghan-Pakistani relations and possible  radical constitutional changes in Afghanistan itself. This would mean reconsidering the traditional  international border between the two countries – which has been a source of conflict since British imperial times,  I refer also to the infamous “Durand Line” - and attempting to visualise Afghanistan as a less centralised state with more autonomy given to its traditional Provinces.

The international  actors need to make a serious attempt to change the situation. Procrastination will not bring a satisfactory solution any closer, but will only result in additional deaths, among the military and, principally, among the civilians who will die either through “accidental” actions by NATO or by being deliberately targeted by the insurgents.

There is, however, an additional consideration  which should stimulate the search for an end to the conflict: as the recent – and ongoing – events in Kyrghizstan show, the entire region of ex-Soviet Central Asia is possibly heading for a period of violent unrest due both to the struggle for power which will follow the disappearance of the current “nomenclatura” and to the emergence of strong currents of Islamic fundamentalism, now held in check by those extremely authoritarian regimes.

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