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Afghanistan: is there a plan?

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 2 October 2008


The new President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, will do little to address US and NATO concerns at the flow of insurgents and weapons from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

The US transferred support from Bhutto to Zardari, but like his murdered wife, Zardari will be unable to meet US expectations. Zardari doesn’t have the strength of character and the domestic support to drive the US agenda. It is an agenda that is increasingly resented and resisted within Pakistan and its prosecution is fueling the ranks of Taliban recruits.

At the Nikah Ceremony, forming part of the arranged marriage of Benazir Bhutto to Asif Ali Zardari on December 18, 1987, a conversation with Zardari left me with the impression that he was rather lightweight with little interest in the matters seizing the mind and energy of his future wife. In taking my leave I said I looked forward to meeting him again and he said: “If you remember me.”

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For a person lacking self-confidence and any interest in politics it might be thought that Zardari has come a long way, but until the death of his wife he had done little to impress, other than feed the scorn and anger of Benazir’s opponents with allegations of his corruption.

It was his media profile, through his wife, that the Pakistan People’s Party sought in a country where illiteracy makes profile important and where the dynastic rule of the rich is accepted.

The mistake for the West is not to see the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a line on a colonial map. People on both sides of the line are related, they share a common language, culture, religion and economic hardship. They make a living from growing wheat, opium, herding goats and sheep, trading and smuggling.

It is a tough and harsh environment in which males over 15 learn to use a weapon. On the Pakistan side of the border the area comprises two of Pakistan’s four provinces: Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. The British did not entirely establish a presence and neither have the Punjabi’s who make up the bulk of Pakistan’s army and public service. Maintaining some semblance of control from Islamabad has exercised the collective mind and talent of the ISI from the time of partition.

US bombing of villages and homes in the western tribal area of NWFP, only serves to weaken the tenuous influence that Islamabad exercises over the region. The US has learnt none of the lessons of Vietnam. In a country that is short on technology, dominance of the skies and roads in Afghanistan, gives an impression of dominance. The US and NATO presence conveys a sense of being occupied. Couple this with arrogance, the misuse of force, resulting in the destruction of property and homes and the deaths of innocents, including children, and it translates over time into armed recruits fighting for the opposition.

The Russians found in Afghanistan that they were fighting a number of different warlords, all with a different agenda. And so it is now for the US and its allies. Increasingly, much of the opposition is focused on getting rid of the Western foreigners as much as it is around ideology and religion.

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The policy driving the war and the manner in which it is being prosecuted makes the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Terrorism is founded in belief, ideology and emotion. Does anyone in the western alliance seriously believe that they can blast, kill and maim their way to a victory in which no known terrorist is left standing in Afghanistan?

So who is talking to whom? What manner of diplomacy has been deployed? Are our diplomats in Pakistan talking to all and anyone who has a stake in the conflict? What are the expectations of those involved? Is there any common ground between the protagonists? Is there a possibility of negotiation?

President Ali Zardari offers the Americans as much hope in Pakistan as President Thieu did in Vietnam. US bombing within Pakistan will galvanise retaliatory action in the form of bombings and sniper attacks against Zardari and his supporters in government, as well as against US and allied diplomats in Pakistan. Such action could derive as much from radical activists as from interests connected to the ISI.

The economic crises impacting on America will likely determine the level of its future commitment to Afghanistan which is another reason to talk while it still has leverage. Should the US come to rely on foreign loans it might be expected that at some point lenders might seek conditionality with respect to foreign and trade policy. Arab lenders might seek to force the US out of Afghanistan.

Australia has no business in the conflict. It is a regional issue. Australia allowed itself to be sucked in on the basis of our alliance with the US, which increasingly promises little. The war in Afghanistan will not bring about an end of al-Qaida nor the Taliban: to do so by military means would take more troops than the US put into Vietnam and the absence of many other regional factors which play out against the US.

In these uncertain times Australia needs to get its “house” in order and prepare for unusual and unpredictable events that might unfold closer to home. Australia does not need its forces strung out around the world, particularly when the US has a reduced and reducing capacity to service our Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan contribution to the alliance.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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