Monday, May 21, 2012

Daily Times Editorial May 22, 2012

NATO summit conference The NATO summit conference kicked off in Chicago on Sunday, with 50 leaders in attendance, including President Asif Ali Zardari. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in remarks on the eve of the summit that the US/NATO forces were determined to ensure a successful transition to Afghan forces handling that country’s security by 2014. However, to allay the apprehensions of many regarding the compounding of the original mistake of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by a premature withdrawal, Mr Rasmussen emphasised that they would stay the course even after 2014. This is crucial to ensure that there is no return to power of the Taliban who hosted al Qaeda and therefore were indirectly culpable for 9/11, made worse by their refusal to cooperate in delivering Osama bin Laden to account. The western alliance remains committed, albeit only in principle so far, to bankrolling the Afghan security forces to the tune of $ 1 billion a year over 10 years after 2014. This is over and above US funding, whose size is still to be determined. More commitments, NATO hopes, would help it reach its target of $ 1.3 billion a year. Of course this still does not meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s demand for $ 4.1 billion a year, a figure unlikely to be met. Rasmussen’s denial of any rush for the exits in Afghanistan was not echoed by France, whose newly elected President Francois Hollande announced that French forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by end-2012, a year earlier than planned by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The Afghan Taliban pounced on that announcement, telling NATO to follow France’s leader and “get out”. They also attempted to drive a wedge between the US and the European countries in NATO by a call to the latter to “avoid working for the political interests” of the US and heed the call of their own people by immediately removing all their troops from Afghanistan. The tone in which the Afghan Taliban’s message has been delivered suggests that the proposed negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to arrive at a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict may well be dead in the water. The war, which President Barack Obama described early in his tenure as a ‘war of necessity’ (as opposed to Iraq, which he withdrew from as quickly as possible), has by its protracted nature and uncertain outcome, not only changed Obama’s appreciation of the ground situation but also authored a comprehensive review of Afghan policy that led to the decision to set a withdrawal timetable, thereby cutting out the military’s arguments for a continuing and reinforced strategy of defeating the Taliban on the battlefield. Economic difficulties at home and opposition to such military adventures abroad have meanwhile persuaded many thousands of protestors to turn out in Chicago, and in smaller numbers in a number of European cities, against continuation of the Afghan war. The protests so far are peaceful, but anger is seething just below the surface. Perhaps in anticipation of this anger boiling over, Obama decided to shift the G-8 meeting to his Camp David retreat, thereby depriving the organisers of the opportunity of bringing the protests against the G-8 on economic issues together with the protests against NATO for greater effect. Within a year of taking office, President Obama had changed his mind and overruled his Generals on the proper course in Afghanistan. He had come to the conclusion, after a thorough review, that the military’s claims of success should be taken with a pinch of salt, goals in Afghanistan cut back to what is minimally possible, and that his predecessor Bush’s lofty aim of ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan was unattainable. The next logical step therefore was to define what was minimally acceptable as desirable goals and how to achieve those. Gone, therefore, are the idealistic notions of changing Afghanistan from a poor, backward, divided country into a modern state with its concomitant institutions of representation and governance. Instead, Afghans have been left once again to ‘stew in their own juice’ of ethnic, tribal and other divisions and conflicts, with Washington limiting its goals to ensuring that no Osama bin Laden would ever again be able to use Afghan soil for planning events like 9/11. While this may answer the minimal requirements of US security, it neither resolves the internal conundrum of Afghanistan nor addresses the elephant in the room: the Pakistani military establishment’s support for Afghan Taliban proxies waging war against the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan from safe havens on Pakistani soil. It is hardly necessary to add that the Pakistani civilian government is following in the footsteps of the military in this regard. Hence we can understand Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune holding out for an apology, cessation of drone attacks, reimbursement of Coalition Support Funds owed to Pakistan (President Zardari was also expected to raise this issue in Chicago), and intelligence sharing by the US with our suspect intelligence agencies. The implication being that if NATO wants its supply routes reopened, it must play ball on these demands. Since the reopening issue still seems to present some difficulties, perhaps depriving President Asif Zardari of the opportunity to win brownie points from the world by announcing the reopening at the Chicago summit, uncertainty has crept into the statements of both US/NATO spokespeople on the one hand, and their Pakistani counterparts on the other. One sticking point is what the US/NATO consider the exorbitant demand from Pakistan to raise the fee per truck transiting Pakistan from the present $ 250 to $ 5,000. The US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, in his usual pugnacious style, has rejected that out of hand. The uncertainty surrounding the reopening during or even after the Chicago summit has prompted the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, to play down any talk of disappointment if the supply routes are not reopened during the summit. He thinks a deal will eventually be struck, if not in days, perhaps weeks. General Allen would rather the deal was right, not just fast. Considering the alternative northern route through Russia and Central Asia is costing the US/NATO two and a half times more per container, with the rider that only non-lethal goods are allowed to transit (implying lethal goods have had to be airlifted), the US/NATO military’s concern is not only getting goods into Afghanistan but also getting heavy weaponry and equipment out during the phased withdrawal. At the time of writing these lines, meetings between President Asif Zardari and President Obama and between the Pakistani president and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen were still awaited. At a minimum, some face-saving formula to get the allies off the hook of embarrassment and impasse on which they have impaled themselves may emerge. Pakistan’s interest, served to some extent by the decision to participate in the Chicago summit in a reversal over the last six months of boycotting international conferences in Istanbul and Bonn, is to remain engaged with the US, NATO and the world community to stave off the possibility of being left high and dry without relevance in the Afghan endgame. Of course, whatever finally emerges from Chicago, the president can expect a ‘hot’ reception on his return if the plans of the Defence of Pakistan Council to stage a long march against the reopening on May 27 materialise.

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