Jaipur, Jan 19: There is uncertainty about Afghanistan after the scheduled withdrawal of US troops but the region is not the same as it was in 1989 when the Soviet military pulled out and the presence of responsible regional powers like India and China might help to ensure stability in the embattled nation, say experts.
“No one, including me, knows what will happen, but we can outline parameters to make an assessment. (Coalition) combat troops will leave, the Afghan army will take over security aided by US and foreign advisors – a few thousands, the government will keep the cities and main roads secure, the US and Afghanistan governments will try to resume the peace process – now stalled – with the Taliban,” said Barnett Rubin, who has served as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Af-Pak, and was involved in trying to begin negotiations with the Taliban.
“What will be the balance of power? Who will collapse? All this remains to be seen,” he said at a session “Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan After the US Withdrawal” on the third day Sunday of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014.
“It can be argued the changes in Afghanistan are both irreversible… and unsustainable,” he quipped.
Rubin, however, contended that the view that must be taken should be free from dichotomies about what will happen.
“It’s not the same Afghanistan any longer, it’s not the same Pakistan, it’s not even the same region,” he said.
He noted that regional powers like India and China were taking responsibilities, including of security, and the latter is telling Pakistan that it doesn’t want a Taliban government in Kabul.
“That will not accomplish all that is wanted but will certainly check Pakistan’s behaviour,” he said.
“It is not like 1989 (when the Soviet troops withdrew),” he stressed.
Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent of the New York Times and author of a book about the US operation for targeted killings of terrorists, said it was disheartening to see there was more concern in Jaipur about the situation in Afghanistan than in Washington D.C., where there is a “degree of fatigue” over what has been the US’ longest war.
“There are meetings, talks but it (Afghanistan) is not the highest priority of the Obama government. There are doubts about (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai. It’s not a rush to the exit yet, but it is certainly a quick walk,” he said.
Mazzetti said there was a marked difference of opinion between the primary US stakeholders – the military, the CIA, the State Department and the White House – about what would happen and what should be done.
He also said he believed that China and India – and Pakistan as well – would continue to play a key role.
Intervening here, Rubin said there was convergence on Beijing and Washington’s views on the situation in areas west of China.
“The Chinese attitude is that Pakistan is not a very reliable ally in south Asia… it is seeing cooperation with the US in Afghanistan,” he said.
Journalist Ben Anderson, who has accompanied coalition forces in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, said the role of Afghan security forces was not seen positively by the people in the south Pakhtun belt, and he could from his personal experience say their activities made the Taliban “look like the good guys”.
He foresaw a civil war at least in south Afghanistan to remove the “government proxies”.
The speakers also dwelt on the ethnic issue, which created a vicious struggle for power and patronage in a poor country.
They also agreed Pakistan has to be brought in for a meaningful settlement.
The problem is, the experts said, is the divergence in approaches – the US wants the matter to be solved between Afghans, the Karzai government want to hold peace talks with the Taliban, and the Taliban wants the peace process only after the US leaves.
“Everyone wants peace… only their concept of peace is the other side surrendering,” said Rubin.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)