When the wise heads of the world sat down for a meeting beside the Thames in London on Jan. 28, to decide the future of the war on terror in Afghanistan, most probably U.S. President Barack Obama was more eager to know the outcome than al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden or his cronies, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Obama is trapped in a vicious circle. He inherited the tormenting legacy of former President George W. Bush’s war on terror, which he cannot get rid of due to appeals to patriotism. To make things more complicated, he has now to deal with the growing anti-war current that is taking shape in his own country as well as in other parts of the globe.
His NATO allies are still limping along with him, albeit reluctantly, as they are reeling under economic pressures and public opinion. Obama too is feeling the heat of the lack of finances. At the same his not-so-reliable ally, Pakistan, has to be continually fed in the form of dollars, technology and assurances that India’s role in South Asia will be kept under control.
Obama needs a so-called exit strategy, and a robust one that will grant him an untainted image. He needs an exit policy that will neither mar Nobel Obama nor downgrade Patriot Obama. At least the whole burden of failing to capture bin Laden cannot squarely fall on his shoulders.
Obama has only one-and-a-half years more to come up with a magical solution, or at least invent the path to that solution. One reason for this time constraint is that his first year as president was full of rhetoric, big – read empty – promises, learning lessons of the Afghan terrain and surely the Nobel euphoria. Hence, for him time just evaporated.
But by the middle of 2011, the re-election cycle for the next presidency will begin. So he has to show results. If this is not possible in normal mode, he must engineer them.
In this venture, Karzai is the United States’ favorite stooge – externally suave, internally pliable and with a façade of majority public support due to his vote share in the last two presidential elections. In the recently concluded London conference, he came up with the not-so-novel idea of bribing the middle and low-level cadres of the Taliban militia. He also proposed convening a “loya jirga,” or grand council, in order to resolve the eight-year-old war through discussion and persuasion.
On the face of it, the plan appears fine. It has been implemented to a successful degree in Saudi Arabia. Indian policymakers also regularly use it in Kashmir. And where finance is one of the driving forces of the insurgency, using money to wean away the peripheral Taliban cadres is a welcome idea. But even if the program turns out to be a success, one needs to look at the various possibilities of its aftermath.
Can the loyalty of Taliban members really be bought? Would ideology not play a role? Would Karzai’s lack of credibility not stand in the way of wooing the Taliban? How will the Taliban be re-integrated into Afghan society? Many of them might be injected into the Afghan National Army. If that happens, it could prepare the ground for more hardcore Taliban to usurp authority once the U.S.-NATO forces depart.
In these circumstances, Obama is desperately seeking a solution to this Afghan tangle. The United States was in Vietnam for 15 years; its occupation of Afghanistan is just short of a decade, and the country has grown restless. The human casualties and the economic downturn have started to take a heavy toll on the U.S. psyche. Furthermore, the historical follies of the Soviets and the British are repeatedly cautioning them.
On one hand, Washington is not very keen to hold onto the land of poppies, but on the other hand, it feels it would be demeaning to leave. The United States faces a similar problem in Iraq.
Analysts may denounce the proposed “bribe and run” policy, or hate the good Taliban, bad Taliban distinction, but at the end of the day, it is the United States’ war on terror. It was never a proper global war on terror. And the country has to consider its profits and losses.
With or without the United States, Karzai or no Karzai, 2011 or 2016 – it really does not matter because the Taliban exists and will continue to exist in Afghanistan. The members of the Taliban seem to be the actual winners, at least in terms of currency. It really pays to be a Taliban.