The news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of US special forces has been greeted in Washington with the hope that the president can accelerate the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan. The
administration expects that it will be easier to split the Taliban away from al-Qaida now that Bin Laden is dead. As one unnamed American official, who was recently quoted in the Washington Post, put it: “Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan, it changes everything.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
For nearly a decade, the United States has pursued an unfocused war in Afghanistan based on tactics with seemingly no thought about the wider strategy. The Bush administration wandered into South Asia ill-informed and unwilling to think about the big picture; the Obama White House has sadly failed to provide a comprehensive rethink of the problem, disappointing many diehard Obama supporters.
The talk from the military and administration officials has been about “winning hearts and minds” and “talking to the Taliban” and “reducing kinetic operations”. All of this is well and good, but these taglines and the tactics they refer to are about managing symptoms not fixing the problem. Bin Laden’s death does not rectify the strategic problem.
The decapitation of the al-Qaida leadership may result in the collapse of the organisation – I hope that is the case. But terrorist organisations do not always collapse following such incidents. In this case, the death of Bin Laden should be a step in the right direction, given that the real hammer blows to al-Qaida’s ideology have been dealt by the nascent democracy movements across the Middle East. While much uncertainty remains, most experts see these movements in Egypt, Syria and beyond as a rejection of al-Qaida’s call to violence and extreme interpretations of Islam. Again, I hope they are right.
More importantly, however, the problem of a weak Afghanistan is not caused by Bin Laden, al-Qaida or the Taliban. The Taliban provided order to an Afghanistan plagued by internecine violence following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and American involvement in 1992. Al-Qaida took advantage of the Taliban rule to use Afghanistan as a base for their global operations.
Afghanistan has always been a highly decentralised state, not easily governed by a central authority. This has not changed. This weakness has led other states to take advantage of Afghanistan. During the cold war, the country became the backdrop for a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union. But a third player was always in the mix: Pakistan. The US thought that it was using Pakistan to advance the US national interest against the USSR, but Pakistan was working for Islamabad’s interests, not American ones.
Pakistan wanted to settle their border dispute with Afghanistan to Pakistan’s advantage. Furthermore, Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as “strategic depth” to be used by the military in a conflict with India. In fact, the Pakistani military and intelligence services actively fomented radical Islamist groups in the last quarter of the 20th century to create a cadre of irregular fighters that could be used in an irregular war against India in Kashmir. Pakistan also backed the rise of the Taliban in the mid 1990s, since they viewed them as a friendly ally. Since the partition of British India in 1947, India and Pakistan have been at odds, and Pakistan still greatly fears India. Whether or not this is a rational view through western eyes is irrelevant. This is the root of the problem – and Bin Laden’s death changes none of it.
In the 2008 US election campaign, Barack Obama spoke about the need for a regional solution to the problem. In office, his administration has failed to pressure India and Pakistan to find common solutions to common problems. Right now, US goals for the region are directly opposed to Islamabad’s goals. The US wants a stable Afghanistan, free of radical Islam. This means India should be involved in Afghanistan. Indian involvement in Afghanistan, however, means that Pakistan would be “surrounded” by “hostile” governments. Elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence will never allow this.
Unless President Obama can work to increase trust, no amount of military tactics or civilian development can change the strategic reality. India does not want to be forced to deal with Islamabad, especially following the Mumbai attacks, but the status quo is simply not tenable. It is not tenable for the US, it is not tenable for India and it is not tenable for Pakistan. The Pakistani polity is imploding: the gap between the Pakistani public and their leaders is wide and deep, not to mention the divisions among the leadership in Islamabad.
It does not matter if the US remains committed to Afghanistan with 100,000 troops or if we withdraw tomorrow; the result – the eventual implosion of Pakistan and chaos across South Asia – will be the same, unless President Obama addresses the imbalance of power and the perception of fear and threat between India and Pakistan.
The real endgame in Afghanistan post Bin Laden’s death
Bin Laden’s death will change nothing for the US until the White House engages India and Pakistan in a regional solution.
Source: Michael Williams