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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where’s This War Headed?

Ayaz Amir

The resort to arms, as any armchair strategist will tell you, can never be an end in itself. You go to war to achieve a political aim.

And if you don’t have that aim—if you are not clear what you are hoping to achieve—picking up arms is the height of folly. You can be the strongest military in the world—as the Wehrmacht was on the eve of the Second World War, or the US armed forces are now—but if there is no clarity in your mind about why you are going to war, or if your aims are open-ended and not rigorously thought through, in the face of a determined opponent your efforts are likely to be doomed.

America’s Vietnam venture was bereft of reason. It made no sense at the time, it makes less in hindsight. Against a weak foe this impiety would have succeeded. But the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were anything but weak. Eventually America had to drink deep from the cup of humiliation.

The invasion of Iraq was another exercise in folly. It had no aim beyond the display of arrogance. Meant to “shock and awe” the world, it has done incalculable harm to American prestige and power. Where the US strode the planet like a colossus after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Iraq has made it look like a wounded giant.

Afghanistan was a bit different. With the Taleban giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the invasion of Afghanistan, to much of the world, appeared as a legitimate response to the Sep 11 terrorist incidents on the US soil. But with the US occupation of Afghanistan in its eighth year (two longer than the Second World War), and doubts on the rise in Washington about US war aims, America’s Afghan enterprise makes less and less sense. Indeed, far from achieving anything, the US occupation is now the prime cause of Afghan turbulence. Indeed, unfolding in Afghanistan is a popular insurrection, people drawn to the Taleban not out of love for their primitive philosophy but out of hostility to the foreign occupier.

With more troops the Americans can probably hold Afghanistan’s cities, as the Soviet army did before them in the 1980s. But that is not the same as imposing their will on the entire country.

Gen McChrystal is calling for more troops to stem the tide of Taleban resurgence. But just as domestic support for the Vietnam war plummeted, the same is now happening in relation to Afghanistan. There is no shortage of armchair warriors in Washington urging Obama to go with the McChrystal recipe of 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan. But the president is right to take his time. This is a critical moment for him. He makes a wrong move and it is him, not the sofa gladiators, who will have to take the fall.

Cambodia was a sideshow in the Vietnam conflict. Pakistan is not Cambodia to Afghanistan’s Vietnam. It is the buttress which sustains America’s Afghan enterprise. Take away the Pakistan army from this equation, and America’s continuing presence in Afghanistan becomes untenable. Pakistan’s role is thus not that of a satellite. It is the central point of the Afghan constellation. It is a failure of Pakistani leadership that instead of being in the driving seat of strategy formulation Pakistan is made to look like a supplicant holding on to America’s coattails.

This is all the more strange when set against another phenomenon: whereas anti-war sentiment is on the rise in the US, over the last few months we have seen a burgeoning pro-war movement in Pakistan, expressed in the feeling that enough is enough and extremism must be countered head on.

A small body of critics apart—spearheaded by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan—all the signs suggest that there is popular backing for the army. After a long time (and may this never end) nation and army are marching to the same tune.

But where is the higher direction of this war? Who is laying down the political parameters of this conflict? We know that Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, is directing the military effort. There are no doubts on this score. But who is the political commander-in-chief, the Churchill—and I will have to be forgiven this analogy, but just to make things clear—to Kayani’s Montgomery?

As our army moves against the strongholds of the Taleban in South Waziristan, where is the higher direction of war? Where is the political leadership? Who will attend to the political aspects of this struggle?

The foremost political aspect relates to our relationship with the US. This is a relationship full of contradictions. The US is our ally---or rather we are doing the donkey’s work in this partnership---but its continued presence in Afghanistan is turning out to be our biggest headache. We are engaged in a grim struggle to defeat militancy and subversion. But the US presence in Afghanistan is the principal factor now keeping militancy alive.

Vietnam knew no peace until the Americans withdrew from there. Afghanistan will know no peace, and Pakistan will not be able to insulate itself from its effects, until the last American soldier gets out of Afghanistan.

Clearly, the Americans won’t get out of Afghanistan because we tell them. They will exit, when they finally do, out of their own calculations and compulsions. But the political direction of the war from our side demands that Pakistan not appear as a sentry man at America’s door, because that compromises our position and fighting the Taleban becomes all that much harder.

We should be seen as our own masters, acting in our own interests, not America’s. But for this fine balancing act to succeed it is essential that we keep some distance from the Americans and engage in a dialogue of equals with them.

What the US is now beginning to undergo in Afghanistan is a trauma. We may be a cash-strapped country with a perpetual begging bowl in our hands but America is stuck in a quagmire. Between a begging bowl and a quagmire there is not much to choose.

The objection to the Kerry-Lugar act is not that it compromises our sovereignty but that it makes us look like a lackey receiving his wages. Pakistan may have done foolish things in the past but the Swat and South Waziristan operation are tokens of a new beginning. Our soldiers’ sacrifices don’t go with a lackey image.

The Americans are telling us what to do, which is strange given that they are not doing too well in Afghanistan. They should be listening rather than giving sermons. Being their allies, and taking more hits than they are, it is now time for us to tell them that their occupation can’t last much longer. Sooner than they now think possible, it will have to be rolled back and other options examined. When they depart we will still be here. Bolstering Pakistan and its military should not be seen thus as a favour. From America’s point of view it should be a strategic necessity.

But such exchanges are possible only if the political direction of this conflict is in firm hands. This is where our weakness lies: where there should be leadership there is a yawning chasm. The military is on its own and that is never a good thing.

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