By M K Bhadrakumar
Having come to the region seven years ago on a UN-mandated "out-of-area" operation hunting down al-Qaeda, the Western alliance is suo motu broadening and deepening its "commitment" in the hope of taking up long-term residence in the Hindu Kush. But Kabul museum has many relics of history.
A beleaguered and politically battered Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, meekly put his signature as a junior partner on the document with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general. Regional capitals as far apart as Tehran, Moscow and Islamabad would have taken note.
Quite obviously, notwithstanding the phased transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014, the NATO forces hope to stay on in Afghanistan. The United States President Barack Obama said:
I'm pretty confident [what] we will still be doing after 2014 is maintaining a counterterrorism capability [in Afghanistan] until we have the confidence that al-Qaeda is no longer operative and is no longer a threat... And so it's going to be important for us to continue to have platforms to be able to execute those counterterrorism operations.
My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead, and it is a goal to make sure that we are still not engaged in combat operations of the sort that we're involved with now. Certainly our footprint will have been significantly reduced. But beyond that, it's hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary to keep the American people safe as of 2014. I'll make that determination when I get there."
Obama added to the strategic ambiguity by confirming that a long-term agreement between the US and Karazi's government would be signed. The Americans have put Ashraf Ghani (the former World Bank official whom they robustly projected as presidential candidate in last October's Afghan election) in charge of the "transition", effectively bypassing Karzai, and clearly hope to micro-manage it.
Obama publicly snubbed Karzai by insisting he will have to learn to live with US military strategies, including the controversial night raids about which Kabul frequently protests. Jettisoning his usual charm and persuasive ways and even discarding the courtesies of inter-state behaviour, Obama cut Karzai down to size:
"If we [US] are ponying up billions of dollars, if the expectation is that our troops are going to be there to help secure the countryside and ensure that President Karzai can continue to build and develop his country, then he's got to also pay attention to our concerns as well… he's got to understand that I've got a bunch of young men and women from small towns and big cities all across America who are in a foreign country being shot at and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and they need to protect themselves. And so if we're setting things up where they're just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that's not an acceptable answer either."
The best spin that can be given to the blunt-speaking is that Obama might have been grandstanding. (There were reports that General David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Afghanistan, might throw in the towel.) But Obama overlooked the proud culture of the Hindu Kush and severely wounded Karzai. As his words get played out in Afghanistan in the days and weeks ahead, Karzai's standing is going to plummet to zero. Karzai cannot easily recover from this rebuke - except, perhaps, through more audacious display of his "Afghan-ness".
One hell of a belief
The Declaration on an Enduring Partnership signed in Lisbon provides the framework for the NATO to fulfill not only its "long-term commitment" to Afghanistan's security, stability and integrity; it also recognises Afghanistan as "an important NATO partner" in "contributing to regional security".
In turn, the "commitment" given by the Afghan government that Kabul will act as "an enduring partner to NATO and provide NATO with the necessary assistance to carry out its partnership activities" also recognises the "importance and relevance of broader regionally owned cooperation, coordination and confidence building between Afghanistan and its regional partners."
The Declaration states that NATO and Afghanistan will "strengthen their consultation on issues of strategic concern" and develop "effective measures of cooperation". Thus, there will be "mechanisms for political and military dialogue" and for a "continuing NATO liaison in Afghanistan".
While the "common understanding" between the two parties will be that NATO won't seek to establish a "permanent military presence" and that it will not use its presence against other nations, future cooperation between the alliance and Kabul will be "drawing as appropriate upon NATO's menu of cooperation tools".
Most important, the two sides pledged to "initiate a discussion on a Status of Forces Agreement" within the next three years. While the Declaration is between NATO and Afghanistan, it provides for "opportunity" and "encouragement" to non-NATO countries engaged in the Afghan war (eg, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others) to "contribute to activities resulting from this declaration".
Three things must be noted. One, Rasmussen quintessentially acted as Washington's agent, which is natural as the US contributes 73% of the 28-member alliance's budget and calls the shots. Therefore, the US' imprimatur on the NATO-Afghan declaration is unmistakable. This is all about the open-ended strategic presence of the United States in Central Asia.
Obama wisely highlighted to the Western audience the 2014 timeline, which suggests the war is ending. He also addressed growing public opposition to the war. At the same time, he is moving on two parallel tracks by forging agreements for long-term military presence in Afghanistan as well as "aligning" the US allies in NATO with Washington's approach on the way forward.
However, it all presupposes, as Obama put it, "we're now achieving our objective of breaking the Taliban's momentum... I am confident that we can meet our objective." Whether he truly believes in his self-confidence we do not know, but it is doubtless one hell of a belief.
Second, Karzai doesn't have his heart in this enterprise, and his angst kept surfacing in different forms in the run-up to the Lisbon summit. Just a week ago, Karzai made a scathing attack on the US strategy. Evidently, Karzai has been arm-twisted. The fact that Ghani has been brought in to handle "transition" along with Obama's dressing down to Karzai are clear hints to the Afghan president not to push his luck. Whether he will accept this rebuke or heed the warning is a big question.
The Afghan bazaar will be keenly watching. A realignment of political forces on the country's chessboard becomes almost inevitable. Significantly, former president and Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani (who heads the High Council appointed by Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban) arrived in Tehran over the weekend for consultations.
The "Ustad" rarely travels abroad. While receiving Rabbani, the powerful speaker of the Iranian parliament [Majlis] Ali Larijani expressed Iran's support for the policy of national reconciliation attributed to Karzai, which, Larijani said, is also the will of the Afghan people. It has been announced that Tajik strongman Mohammed Fahim (First Vice-President of Afghanistan) will also visit Tehran "in a near future".
The NATO-Afghan declaration becomes a major hurdle for Karzai's reconciliation strategy. The declaration - and the two status-of-forces agreements on the anvil - should have happened within the ambit of a settlement. Clearly, the US is prepared to negotiate only from a position of strength. NATO's approach spelt out at Lisbon underscores the US grit to weaken the Taliban militarily before engaging them in talks.
Therefore, the period between now and July 2011 (when the drawdown of US forces begins) will be decisive. Of course, no matter what happens, Petraeus is a favourite of the Republicans, and a strategy associated with him gets bipartisan support in Washington.
But Karzai's preliminary work so far for eventual negotiations with the Taliban has virtually stalled and it is difficult to resuscitate it until at least the results of Petraeus' work on the battlefield get known by early summer. Meanwhile, Petraeus has brought in M1 Abrams tanks as his ultimate weapon.
But M1 Abrams can't distinguish between friend and foe, and the "collateral damage" will become Karzai's political burden and Taliban's mileage. Besides, what if Petraeus fails to dent the insurgency militarily? Obama might then as well give up the hope of negotiating from a position of strength. Which, of course, will render the NATO-Afghan declaration a museum piece.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan sounds skeptical about the 2014 timeline, et al. While Rasmussen and Karzai were putting their pens to paper in Lisbon, gunmen near Peshawar torched yet another NATO convoy ferrying supplies for Petraeus' troops.