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ہفتہ، 24 مارچ، 2012

Did Sergeant Bales reset the endgame?


By M Saeed Khalid: 


The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan at Brussels, in charge of liaison with Nato Headquarters.
Email: saeed. saeedk@gmail.com
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Endgame scenarios for the latest western invasion of Afghanistan have kept chancelleries and opinion makers busy for over two years. The question that agitates the public is no longer if the US-led coalition will leave Afghanistan but is rather focused on the timelines and the circumstances of their departure. More ominously, what will Afghanistan look like after the endgame is played out? Statements from key players of the coalition indicate that by now the endgame is in fast forward mode.


The dateline of end 2014 for terminating the western forces’ combat role is being maintained but there are difficulties aplenty, not least being the realisation that the mission had effectively reached a dead end. While the military high commands can draw up campaign plans for another five years, the western public’s patience for the ten years old war is reaching its limits. The tragic murderous outing of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales near Kandahar has only made matters worse.


Bales is not a loony who cracked up and went on a shooting spree in a college campus or shopping mall. He had enlisted in the US army after the humiliation of 9/11 and was possibly imbued by a high degree of patriotism and honour. He did three tours of duty in the Iraq war and received wounds as well as medals for his performance. Sergeant Bales was reportedly sent to Afghanistan this year despite a promise that he won’t be assigned again on war duty. We may eventually learn about his motive in killing civilians including women and children asleep in their homes.

His defence meanwhile is planning to plead trauma and stress as attenuating circumstances. His lawyer, John Browne says that Bales has a spotty memory of what happened and prosecution does not have forensic evidence. The case could go on for two years. But Browne came up with the idea that his client should not be the only one on trial, the war too should be on trial. Whatever the outcome of his impending trial, the case is likely to have implications for the conduct of war in Afghanistan. Coming in the wake of Quran burning and the sickening treatment of dead Afghans by US soldiers, the reckless killing of so many poor villagers in cold blood has rocked that country to its core. This chain of events has further outraged the international opinion about the futility of a war which has gone on for too long but has now touched new levels of cruelty and apathy.

The anguish of the Afghan nation over US soldiers going berserk was manifested among others through President Karzai’s call to Nato troops to leave the rural areas and regroup in their bases. The coalition is unlikely to comply for practical reasons as well as to prove who is in-charge. But on reconsideration, the foreign forces must realise that what Karzai has desired is also envisaged in their endgame plans.

The US wants to lower its combat role and reduce forces but maintain a presence in or near key urban centres. Karzai needs that too to make certain that the Taliban or some warlords do not overrun the provincial seats of government. The point of contention is the American demands for a formal arrangement that would allow military bases and grant immunity to US personnel in Afghanistan just like the one imposed in the case of Sergeant Bales by flying him out, making light of the Afghan call to try Bales under Afghanistan’s laws.

An extended stay of the US forces in Afghanistan hinges on the two sides reaching an agreement on the modalities. Persistent discord over sofa (stationing of forces agreement) would have direct repercussions on the endgame. The most recent example is that of Iraq where the departure of the American forces was accelerated after the Iraqis said no to long term US bases on its territory. The issue of immunity came up in negotiations between Pakistan and the US/Nato for transit arrangements. Islamabad declined any such provisions despite persistent US demands.

Going back to Iran-US arrangements during the Shah’s time, Iran presumably accepted America’s demand that not only their military personnel but US civilians too would enjoy immunity from prosecution under Iranian laws and that became a key factor in galvanising opposition to the Shah.

Whether sergeant Bales “snapped” under stress on his fourth deployment in a war zone or there were additional factors behind his shooting spree, one of its consequences must be to cap coalition forces’ forward operations in Afghanistan. Another result could be Afghanistan’s definite refusal to countenance any immunity for US personnel making the question of allowing American bases redundant. Bales’ shots in Afghan homes may have dealt a blow to the US hopes of finding a legal framework for the long term stay of their forces. The obvious conclusion would be that the Americans can stay only as occupying forces but not at the “invitation” of Afghanistan.

Leslie Gelb, a veteran US defence expert is of the view that the incident involving Bales is unlikely to have any effect on the pace of withdrawal of the American troops in an election year but “come next year, whoever is president...the US and allies will quickly withdraw their forces leaving the Afghans to settle their affairs among themselves for good and ill – as is ever ordained in such wars.”

The US official position has since been explained by the top allied commander Gen John Allen in a testimony to Congress. He ruled out a change in the pace of withdrawal till the US presidential election, read the pace can accelerate soon after the election. Gen Allen also stressed that by the end of 2013, Afghan forces would have taken over primary responsibility for all operations across the country allowing Nato’s combat role to be finished by the end of 2014 as currently scheduled.

Allen’s statement has the merit of clarifying that 2014 will be the year of big transition in Afghanistan. Between end 2013 and end 2014, the US led forces will maintain a presence in the country. By then the Taliban may come back to their acceptance of talks with the Americans. By refusing to do so, Mullah Omar would provide the Americans an opportunity to extract concessions from the Kabul government to keep some forces in Afghanistan.
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