Tuesday 17 November 2009

Bad idea

" ... in a move designed to address public fears that allied troops could become bogged down in Afghanistan for years to come," reports The Daily Telegraph (and others), Gordon Brown has announced that he plans to hold a summit for the Nato allies to discuss a timetable for withdrawal starting in 2010.

He is to offer London as a venue in January and wants the conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished. "It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and set a timetable for transfer starting in 2010," he has said.

The idea of a conference is good. But Brown is inviting the wrong people. The key "players" in the conflict – apart from Afghanistan – are Iran, Pakistan, India and China, plus the northern "stans". If there is a solution to this problem, it is only going to be brokered by talking to the governments of these countries, addressing the regional issues, of which the conflict in Afghanistan is but one small part.

Within this group, however, the central players are Pakistan and India, the latter playing a very dark role, alongside Afghanistan in the conflict.

There are several elements here. Firstly, since before even partition, Indian politicians have supported Afghanistan's ambition for a united Pashtun homeland, but only in order to unbalance Pakistan.

Secondly, for the same reasons, India is offering extremely generous aid to the Afghanistan government, in the hope of building an alliance between the two nations, effectively to enable a second front to be opened in the event of another Indo-Pakistan war, crushing Pakistan in a pincer movement.

This is by no means an untoward proposition. Right from the very earliest days of Pakistan's existence, there have been tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Afghan government actually deploying several divisions of its troops to the border in March 1949.

Less than two years after the US invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban, the transitional Afghan government, under Hamid Karzai was launching raids into Pakistani-held territory along the border, with exchanges of fire being reported between rival troops, the Afghans claiming that they were trying to reclaim what they described as territory taken by Pakistani forces.

Even with the wreckage of a country around him, and barely able to move out of Kabul, Karzai nevertheless made it his priority to renew the dispute over the Durand line, claiming that, not having been formally ratified by the Afghan government in 1893, the treaty ceased to have any effect in 1993 – its hundredth anniversary.

The Afghan government was then asking the US to mediate in resolving the border dispute, something which the State Department was reluctant to do, claiming it did not have the expertise or the desire to intervene. "We are not there to re-write the history," a senior US official said.

Further clashes erupted in March 2004, but these were tribal conflicts between the Taniwali, a Hazara tribe displaced from the Swat Valley, pitted against the Madakhayl, Wazir, Zeli Shakh, and Badarkhayl tribes residing in northern Waziristan.

In April 2007, however, the situation got really serious when Pakistani troops started erecting fencing along the Durand line. Afghan troops were despatched to tear it down. They were fired on by Pakistani troops, whence the clash escalated, with the Afghan National Army deploying hundreds of troops and heavy artillery, the fighting leaving 13 soldiers killed and 51 wounded.

Just over a year later, in June 2008, there was another clash after Pakistani tribesmen and soldiers reportedly tried to stop security forces from Afghanistan from setting up a mountaintop post in a disputed border region. This time, at least 10 Pakistani troops died after a US air strike was called in by Afghan forces, after the Pakistanis were mistaken for insurgents.

With this level of tension on the border – which has by no means diminished – the ultimate irony is that coalition plans to strengthen and enlarge the Afghan Army could well backfire. Instead of being used to fight the Taliban, they could well end up being ranged along the border, their guns aimed at Pakistani troops.

In some senses, the Afghan government sees little difference between the Taliban and the Pakistani government, the one being heavily funded by the other, specifically intended to destabilise the Karzai government, which is thought to be far too close to India. Then, it is also claimed that the Indians are financing South Waziristan tribesmen, in order to promote terrorist attacks in Pakistan proper, its objective being to destabilise the Pakistani government.

Indian money is also said to be sponsoring the Balochi separatists, ostensibly in an attempt to destabilise the Pakistan government. But some have adopted the Taliban franchise and are currently fighting US forces in south Helmand, in an attempt to destabilise the Karzai government, which the Indians are supporting.

Then, of course, there is still the unresolved issue of Kashmir, with the Indian government troubled as much by its own Hindu extremists as is the Pakistani government its extremist Islamic groups.

Such is the tension that, with the bulk of the Indian Army ranged on the Pakistani border, most of the Pakistani strength is positioned to oppose it, leaving only one of its Corps available to deal with the frontier area (see map).

To thus pretend that the problem in Afghanistan can be solved by the Afghan government alone, or even that there is an AF-PAK solution, is the height of folly. A coalition conference, of the type announced by Brown, therefore, will achieve nothing. The Western powers, including President Obama, leading the US, and Britain, have to bite the bullet, and open up talks with the regional players, otherwise there is absolutely no chance of a resolution.