Hindu Kush gets a godfather
Al Pacino in the film The Godfather Part II
The outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai used his national address in office before leaving the presidential palace to warn the new government headed by Ashraf Ghani that the ongoing violence in Afghanistan provided a convenient excuse for the US to maintain its bases in the country.
«My advice to the next government is to be very careful with America and the West», Karzai cautioned in his speech, saying that Afghanistan could be friendly with Western countries but only if the relationship was balanced.
Karzai insisted that his peace process with the Taliban had failed because «America did not want peace» and that the war was not among Afghans but «for the objectives of foreigners».
On a bitter note, he added, «War in Afghanistan is based on the aims of foreigners. The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners. But Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war».
Indeed, stung to the quick, the Empire struck back almost immediately. Apart from the signing of the US-Afghan security pact, the second major step taken by the Ghani government has been the reopening of the file on the infamous Kabul Bank fraud case, which the Americans had been pressing for.
Anyone who has been following Afghan politics closely over the years would know that the reopening of the Kabul Bank controversy is an unmistakable warning by Washington to Karzai and his associates – in fact, to the ancien regime as such: ‘Behave or else.’
Blackmail and threats of retribution are going to be the most lethal weapons in the hands of the US in steering the Afghan political transition along a sequestered avenue. The heart of the matter is that a huge section of the Afghan political class stands compromised through various doings during the past decade beyond the pale of law.
Never mind, Washington only might have led some of these souls up the garden path. The important thing is that Washington has an institutional memory of the DNA of the Afghan political class and it has had selective use of it in the past as well.
Thus, at times, Washington had implicitly threatened even powerful Afghan personalities who once collaborated with the US but lately showed signs of intransigence – deceased or alive still – that they could be hauled up for trial before international war crime tribunals. Ironically, Ghani’s first vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum himself faced the American music at one time for allegedly having committed human rights violations as a «warlord».
The rampant corruption and venality and the propensity of Afghan elites to salt away their ill-gotten wealth abroad – Dubai is a favorite destination – works well for the US in today’s circumstances, as they could be easily silenced if they dared to pose impediments to the working of the national unity government. What comes readily to mind is the famous line in movie legend by Marlon Brando, «I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse».
This is where detractors among foreign analysts who doubt the sustainability of the newly-installed national unity government in Kabul need to hold breath. They tend to overlook that the US is immensely experienced in the making and marring of politicians in the developing countries.
Indeed, in the Afghan context, the US has a counter-strategy to make the arrangement that it tenaciously put together in Kabul through months of effort, including at the personal intervention of President Barack Obama, to work. The US is not going to throw in the towel and helplessly watch the national unity government disintegrate, the serious contradictions within it notwithstanding.
Indeed, this is not to underestimate the contradictions, either, because the national unity government is not merely a co-habitation of two rival politicians but its future also is predicated on the cordial sharing of power (for which there is no historical precedent in Afghanistan) between two sets of diverse constituents comprising figures (many of whom also with sharply etched ethnic identities and who themselves may represent interest groups.)
In sum, many of the constituent groups are not monolithic and are in a state of incessant mutation depending on how interests coalesce or conflict at any given time – not only in Kabul but also at the local level. Suffice to say, the Americans have introduced in Kabul an incredibly complex power calculus and the challenge of making it work will be formidable.
However, on the other hand, there are signs that the US is taking the Afghan intelligence set-up firmly into its hands – with the British intelligence ably supporting. (Significantly, British Prime Minister David Cameron was the first foreign dignitary to visit Kabul after Ghani’s government took over.) It is improbable that any regional power such as India or Iran could hope to have the kind of working relationship they might have enjoyed with the Afghan security establishment during Karzai’s rule.
All in all, therefore, the main thrusts of Washington’s approach to the political transition in Kabul would suggest that Afghanistan is turning into a crucial hub of the US’ regional strategies – imposition of a national unity government involving figures who have worked very closely with America in the past; the signing of the security pacts providing for establishment of long term American military presence in bases over which Kabul cannot exercise any control whatsoever; the overtly-threatening posturing toward Karzai and his associates or other potential ‘trouble-makers’ in the Afghan political spectrum; and, the tightening of the grip over the Afghan intelligence.
Curiously, the security pact compels the Afghan government to surrender sovereignty over the country’s airspace and freely allows the US to bring in «technology» – shades of the missile defence system!
It is almost certain that the bases in Afghanistan provide the Pentagon and the US intelligence a good platform to undertake spying missions on neighboring countries. Again, it is inevitable that at some point the US and NATO may deploy components of the missile defence system in these military bases. Article 7 of the pact (Use of Agreed Facilities and Areas); Article 8 (Property Ownership); Article 8 (Positioning and Storage of Equipment and Materiel); Article 10 (Movement of Vehicles, Vessels, and Aircraft); Article 12 (Utilities and Communications); Article 15 (Entry and Exit); and, Article 16 (Importation and Exportation) – these articles virtually mean a surrender of Afghan sovereignty over a range of activities that the US may undertake from its military bases in Afghanistan in the neighboring countries.
So, what could be the American game plan? What emerges beyond doubt is that the US is consolidating in Afghanistan against the backdrop of its «pivot» strategy in Asia and at a time when the Central Asian region itself could be heading for a «transition». The Obama administration deliberately cultivated in the recent years an impression to the effect that the US forces are «withdrawing» from Afghanistan. Many regional powers, including India, began beseeching Washington with pleas not to do that. But the stunning reality is that the US is, on the contrary, becoming deeply embedded in the hugely strategic region of what has been known as «Inner Asia» – but with greater efficiency, cutting out unnecessary flak, reducing the financial burden of the war and avoiding combat role that imperils the lives of soldiers and would militate public opinion at home.
Of course, the US’ consolidation in Afghanistan still remains dependent on three or four key factors. A crucial factor here will be the outcome of the Taliban’s concerted strategy to demoralize, weaken and destroy the Afghan armed forces – and, in turn, the latter’s capacity to weather the storm.
A second factor will be the progress toward good governance in Afghanistan, which on the one hand means winning the trust and confidence of the people and eroding the Taliban’s support base within the country, while on the other hand, creating a favorable environment for the revving up of the Afghan economy, which today is all but one hundred percent dependent on foreign aid.
Thirdly, the big question remains: What are the prospects of a settlement with the Taliban? Equally, it is also necessary to ask: Is the US indeed interested in a settlement with Taliban – except on its own terms; and, paradoxically, would Taliban serve the US’ regional strategies as a geopolitical tool, as Karzai seemed to suggest.
Finally, regional politics has always been a major vector of the Afghan problem and currently, the international mileu has also become considerably volatile of late.
Each of these factors becomes a variable in itself with the potential to modulate the US strategies in the post-2014 scenario.