All talk of US leaving Afghanistan premature

BY SAEED NAQVI

The Indo-Afghanistan strategic partnership is also an important backup for the region because of uncertainties on account of the run upto the US Presidential elections in November 2012. During the campaign Barack Obama faces the impossible task of explaining American policy on Afghanistan. After 1,500 lives lost and $500 billion spent, what will the President’s men put out in the public domain as achievements of the Untied States in Af-Pak?

Obviously a theme projecting some sort of success has to be gradually given shape. Towards this end a meeting in Oslo, Norway, has prepared for the important Foreign Ministers summit on Afghanistan to be held in Istanbul under Turkish auspices in early November.

The script from Istanbul will help shape the agenda for the important conference in Bonn in December.

This conference is, in some measure, at Hamid Karzai’s initiative. At the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, Karzai asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to host a follow up conference ten year after the 2001 Bonn conference. Merkel has given a signal for a conference of a 1,000 delegates from 90 countries.

The contact group for this conference, consisting of Special Representatives for Afghanistan from 50 countries, met in March in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In other words, the energetic Turkish-Saudi duet on Afghanistan are exactly the ones playing an aggressive role in the Arab theatre.

By design or accident, Turkey’s quarrel with Israel enlarges the country’s constituency in the Arab street.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erodgan has the endorsement of the Saudis to co-ordinate moves with the Muslim Brotherhood to pressure Assad, either to vacate or to accommodate the “Brothers” in a new Syrian dispensation.

At the other end of the Muslim world, Saudis are also hand-in-glove with Islamabad in regional and GCC enterprises. For example the Kingdom of Bahrain leans on Saudi military support which, in turn, uses its influence in Pakistan to hire mercenary soldiers for several GCC countries particularly Bahrain.

Turki al Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and Intelligence Minister, has in a recent article in the New York Times, said if the US does not support the Palestinian bid for statehood, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the US will be seen to be toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims. In which case Saudis may part company with the US in pursuance of their own policy in Afghanistan too.

What is the implication of this threat? It is a pithy statement considering that the Saudis in large measure financed and accorded logistical support to the “Mujahideen”, a project which later morphed into Al Qaeda and Taliban. Not just the Haqqani network but the entire militant project in the Af-Pak region is not exempt from Saudi influence. The Saudis will work hard for damage control in the current Pak-US spat too.

Equally, Saudis and Pakistanis have their ears close to the ground on secret negotiations on a “long term” security arrangement between Washington and Kabul. An agreement would imply American military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline by when 1,30,000 US troops are supposed to leave. Saudis are comfortable with this arrangement because it fits into their anti Iran strategy but their allies, Pakistanis are unhappy with anything that limits their influence in a future Afghanistan.

Numbers of US troops departing are quite as unpredictable as the shifting deadlines for the date of their departure. First, Americans were to leave by 2011. Then the Obama team changed the deadline to 2012 when the “American departure from Afghanistan” could be laced into a script being prepared for the Presidential campaign.

Meanwhile at the UN sponsored Kabul conference in July, 2010, Hamid Karzai declared himself President until 2014.

Is it anybody’s case that Karzai will have captured the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by 2014? What happens to him after that date? Also will an Afghan army capable of guaranteeing the nation’s security be in place when the US troops clamber onto departing aircraft? Everyone knows the US will never vacate bases in Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Shindand, Mazar-é-Sharif and so on.

Some sort of script will be firmed up in May 2012 when President Obama has invited NATO allies and sundry others for an Afghan summit in Chicago, barely six months before his bid for a second term.

How the Afghan script will change after the US elections will depend on whether Obama wins or loses. Until then all talk of US troop departure is grossly premature.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

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