US's last chance in Afghanistan: reconciliation with the Pashtuns


The west's campaign in Afghanistan is simply out of date. If there is any hope in a positive outcome, then a paradigm shift from conflict to dialogue is required.

Ehsan Azari Stanizai
22 October 2012

The end of the US troops surge, the increasing insider attacks on western forces and the ongoing downward spiral of insecurity across Afghanistan have pushed this war-torn country into a military-political deadlock. The western exit strategy - to end combat by the end of 2014 and leaving the Kabul regime to take hold of Afghan national security and fight with the Taliban alone - is merely a dysfunctional façade.

US soldiers

US Soldiers lost in Afghanistan. Source: Flickr. Some Rights Reserved






Considering two simple factors brings us to a conundrum lying at the heart of the western Afghan strategy: lack of a conceptual understanding of Afghanistan and its history, and the denial of the immense problems brought about by a long-reviled foreign military presence in the country. The recent Afghan history, especially the Soviet experience, teaches us that an army created by foreign forces and led by a client regime that has never been able to defend itself is a formula for self-imposed disaster. 

The invasion of Afghanistan, by America and its allies, more than a decade ago has not been able to destroy al-Qaida and its affiliated terrorist organisations. It simply pushed them to relocate and spread their safe havens from Afghanistan into Pakistan. So their flag are flying now across Pakistan. Even worse, the Pakistani military continues harbouring and hiding the most lethal ideologically driven anti-western religious extremists within its territory as a response to what they always term, 'Pakistani national interest compulsion'. 

Following western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the first thing the Pakistani army will surely be tempted to do is to send religious terrorists back to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s aversion to stopping the Haqqani network (in early September, the Haqqani Network was formally designated as an international terrorist group) from using Pakistani territory in order to attack Afghan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan have tested such a notion.

Meanwhile, the western plan of training Afghan forces and increasing their number, is a short-term solution, or, to put it more precisely, a useless waste of time and money. If there is one thing that the Afghans are good at it is certainly fighting.  They don’t need to be taught how to fight; they instead need to be taught the will to fight. During the last years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the military situation had reached the same point. Russian troops and local Afghan combatants were fighting under circumstances in which they did not trust their own shadows. The local police and armed forces attacks on the Soviet forces had been systematic and the regime in Kabul was facing a nightmare of mass desertion in all its military garrisons.    

During my six-month  stay in Afghanistan in 2009, I spoke with many officers from the Afghan national army and police. The vast majority of these people speak with me on condition of anonymity and they make clear to me that when they are sent to the battlefield, the first thing they think about is how to get out.

In post 2014, Afghanistan and the west will be largely dependent on the infinitesimal weaker warlords of the old Northern Alliance. The US unequivocal support for the warlords of the Afghan ethnic minorities consistently isolated the Pashtun majority. The Pashtuns believe that the western campaign in Afghanistan meant the dispossession of the Pashtun people to the hilt. This policy is also responsible for the strength of the Taliban, and the rage of their insurgency.

Hence, the current western policy—an emphasis on force, rolling back the Taliban, stabilizing and strengthening Karzai, creating a false hope about Pakistan that it would become a real ally—is simply out of date. Everything the US can obtain from Pakistan would be nothing substantial but with the cost of a king’s ransom. Ironically, the Pakistani military is not honest with the Taliban either. They continue to receive both support plus the kiss of death from the Pakistani army since the emergence of the religious movement in the mid-1990s. Certainly, the Taliban are totally under the spell and control of the Pakistani army and its intelligence agency. “The Taliban sitting in the Qatar office had no clear agenda for peace negotiations. They couldn’t move an inch without permission from Pakistan,” a former Taliban minister told the Daily Beast on 3 October 2012.

The Pakistani army has successfully trapped the Pashtun Taliban within a fake and utopian Islamic ideology in order to deny them the right of nationalism. Pakistan’s kinetic activities in Afghanistan have only one objective—to have a weak anti-western theocratic regime in Kabul that could remain forever unable to raise the old Pashtunistan cause and to became a source of milking the United States.

On the regional geopolitical chessboard, Pakistan is no more on the side of the west. In recent years, a growing convergence in Pakistan-Russia-China geostrategic interests and goals is an absolute reality. The Russian media echoes old feelings of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, a dream that both Tsarist and Communist Russia failed to materialise. In an article titled, 'Pakistan can make Russia the queen of Asia', Pravda wrote on 28 August 2012 that “Russia will receive access to the Indian Ocean through the Arabian Sea and the ports of Gwardar or Karachi and then to the Strait of Hormuz…Russia will remove the Mideastern (sic) loop, which cannot be tightened today just because of Iran.”

In the same way, Pakistan has already begun playing the role of a conduit for China to implement its slow expansion in the region. China is building a naval base in Baluchistan’s deep-waters port, Gwader overlooking the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. “The Chinese will be arriving in Gwadar and bonding Pakistan in an even tighter geopolitical economic embrace,” wrote Pakistani newspaper The Nation on September 25. 

This is the way Pakistan is betraying the United States, a country whose generous military and civilian assistance was the lifeline for the existence and survival of Pakistan as a country since its creation in 1947. Under mounting pressure from the United States, the ex-Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, declared a unilateral ceasefire and stopped attacking West Pakistan on 27 March 1971. Consequently, Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State made clear to the late Richard Nixon, “Congratulations, Mr President, you saved West Pakistan.”

Amidst such gloomy prognoses, there is still one chance left for a lasting peace in Afghanistan, if the west has the will for a decisive paradigm shift in its Afghan strategy. A genuine reconciliation with the Pashtuns is possible with a face-to-face talk with the Taliban. The age-old tribal code of the Afghans, known to the western anthropologists as nanawaty and Pashtunwali, has changed blood enemies into friends for centuries. A genuine reconciliation between the Pashtuns and the west is possible if both sides are genuinely keen and honest. There is an old saying that, “With friendship, a Pashtun would gladly go with you to hell, but you can’t take him to paradise by force”. The US can also enjoy such a fruitful and lasting friendship with the Pashtuns and by extension with all Afghans.

The Taliban for its part has to decisively break up with al-Qaida and respect international laws and human rights.  With genuine help from the US, the only remaining superpower, the Taliban can deal with their mutual problem with Pakistan.  In addition to Qatar's negotiations, it is of paramount importance that the US and Kabul name one province the 'Province of Peace' where both warring sides declare a ceasefire and begin confidence-building measures. A fraction of what the US is currently spending on building the Afghan National Army and Police would be enough to facilitate this historic peace arrangement in Afghanistan.  

Afghans have no natural enmity with western civilization. They are traditionally pro-western despite this eleven-year conflict. They see Russia as a traditional enemy and it is impossible for the Taliban to get into an alliance with communist China either. Therefore a genuine peace arrangement between the west and the Pashtun could build an iron wall in Afghanistan for western geopolitical strategy in the region as well as a prosperous future for the tortured Afghan nation.  

Afghan neighbours Pakistan, Iran and Russia will do everything to jeopardise such a historical peace process between the two warring sides.  By avoiding this opportunity, we would see Afghanistan slide into a civil war and the collapse of the US-backed regime in Kabul. The sad truth is that western failure in Afghanistan will not end in this country.  The ripple effects are going to be felt throughout the region for many decades to come. America has to decide between George Bush’s “Enduring Freedom” and Pashtun nanawaty.


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