The way forward for Afghanistan

The international community should agree that Afghanistan is best restored as a “neutral” state free of foreign military presence. Source: Reuters

The international community should agree that Afghanistan is best restored as a “neutral” state free of foreign military presence. Source: Reuters

The accent should be on the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and independence with the international community playing a future role by assisting that country to get on to its feet.

Geopolitics has throughout been a template of the three-decade old war in Afghanistan. There were times of high tide and low tide. If the so-called ‘Afghan jihad’ of the 1980s was a high noon when Afghanistan became the epicentre of the Cold War, the geopolitical content ebbed during the Mujahideen era that followed but then, only to pick up a decade later with the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.

All the same, the US had a free hand through the past decade to conduct the war as it pleased. Regional powers such as Russia, China and Iran were, arguably, net beneficiaries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s war for keeping the terrorist forces at bay. Despite their robust countermoves against the US’s ‘containment strategy’ towards them, they sidestepped Afghanistan as a theatre of contestation although the US and NATO’s military presence in such a highly strategic country would have profound implications for the geopolitics of the region.   

Unsurprisingly, geopolitics took a back seat during the past decade. However, as a critical turning point approaches with the projected withdrawal of the troops belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO] and the United States from Afghanistan by end-2014, we see a dramatic surge of geopolitics. Suffice to say, there is a growing likelihood that the big-power rivalries being played out on global scale could become a destabilizing factor in the overall Afghan situation, which is delicately poised at present.

The core of the problem lies in the United States’ intention to establish long-term military bases in Afghanistan. This agenda was unfolding steadily over time, which is evident from the fact that the US has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate and refurbish select military bases to bring them on par with the standards and amenities provided for American troops stationed abroad. The US of course never acknowledged that such a project was unfolding, which added to the strategic ambiguity regarding its future intentions.

Therefore, what we have at the end of the day is a manifest keenness to end the US’ “combat role” but an agenda to occupy Afghanistan on a long-term basis. The US has taken a surreptitious course by pretending that the government in Kabul represents a sovereign state and the conclusion of a status of forces agreement is a purely bilateral matter between the two governments. This is a total fallacy, since Afghanistan is a highly fragmented country and no Afghan group – including the government in Kabul – can today claim to genuinely reflect the will of the Afghan people today. Ironically, Washington has been the most vociferous quarter to allege that the government headed by Hamid Karzai rests on a highly disputable mandate secured through a patently rigged election in 2009 (which was “won” solely through the last-minute acquiescence by the US government on the understanding that Karzai will relinquish power in 2014.)

The Taliban and many other sections of Afghan opinion oppose the establishment of the US military bases. The prevailing mood in the country is also “anti-American” and Afghan people always resisted foreign occupation. On the other hand, the prospect of the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan rings alarm bells in many regional capitals. Besides, the US’ clandestine efforts to have direct dealings with the Taliban to strike a secret “deal” also raises misgivings in the region, given Washington’s abysmal record of using the forces of political Islam as instruments of its regional strategies – be it in Libya, Egypt or Syria.

The prerequisite of a durable solution to the Afghan problem is two-fold. First the international community should agree that Afghanistan is best restored as a “neutral” state free of foreign military presence. Second, emanating from the above, a truly intra-Afghan peace process needs to be initiated under the auspices of the United Nations. In sum, the accent should be on the restoration of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence with the international community playing a future role by assisting that country to get on to its feet after the debilitating civil war, which, by the way, really began in 1974 with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah.

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