Afghanistan has witnessed two major events in the most recent weeks. One is the assumption of office by Ashraf Ghani as the next president of the country, succeeding Hamid Karzai. The second has been the signing of the two “back-to-back” security pacts between Afghanistan on the one hand and the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] on the other.
Both developments are of historical importance in their own ways. Ghani’s presidency signifies a rare peaceful transition of power in the ebb and flow of Afghan history.
As for the second, Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied before in its tumultuous history dating back to Alexander the Great – the last famous occupation followed the British invasion in the 19th century – but never before has that country had to agree to foreign military presence on its soil in such an open-ended fashion.
Equally, for the first time in its history, Afghanistan is taking help from a foreign military alliance. Indeed, the subplot here is also that the foreign military presence is not of a regional character, but is “extra-regional” drawn from countries from a faraway region which is tens of thousands miles away from South or Central Asia and have had no shared history or culture with Afghanistan.
Therefore, this is a poignant moment in Afghan history and what has happened in the recent weeks is undoubtedly of profound significance to the country’s future and to regional security. Right at the outset it can be safely noted that a major element of uncertainty arises simply out of the absence of any reliable estimation as to what exactly are the thoughts churning in the mind of the Afghan nation as regards these developments.
The public opinion surveys have been conducted largely by the Western agencies or under Western sponsorship and a question mark needs to be put on their credibility. At best, only conjectures can be made, which of course is inadequate anywhere, and more so, given the inscrutable nature of the Afghan personality, formed through centuries of historical experience, the culture and the traditions of the land.
How the Afghan people’s fierce sense of independence gets tempered in the period ahead will have a huge bearing on the future developments. The Taliban have forthwith rejected the authenticity of both Ghani’s presidency and the Afghan-US security pact as lacking authenticity and legitimacy.
A second aspect is that, paradoxically, neither of the two developments has quite come as a surprise. Any close observer of the runoff in the Afghan presidential election held in June would not seriously quarrel with an impression that formed almost from the outset as the votes began to be counted that one of the candidates, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, had all but begun speaking as the voice of the “opposition”.
Put differently, an impression inevitably gathered amidst the widely- acknowledged charges of correction, rigging and other practices in the conduct of the election, that Ghani’s election would be somehow a foregone conclusion, and what happened in the run-up to it was a mere shadow play.
Again, an impression was formed that the US was the master of ceremonies on the political theatre. Karzai is on record that Washington was closely involved all along, although it studiously conveyed a public posture of non-interference. Indeed, once the controversy surfaced regarding the transparency and fairness in the conduct of the election, Washington raised its head above the parapet and began assuming a heavy presence appeared overtly playing the role of the monitor-cum-arbiter.
In fact, President Barack Obama himself stepped into the ring not less than three or four times and the Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul twice. Kerry actually introduced the novel idea of a “national unity” government in Afghanistan, which today forms the very basis of the political transition.
Interestingly, Obama dealt directly with the two candidates involved in the runoff – Ghani and Abdullah – and he simply by passed Karzai. Obama did not once talk with Karzai during the entire period since the controversy erupted over the runoff in June.
In sum, the US has decided on its own, exclusively, where to peg the “bar of democracy” in Afghanistan. Not even its closest ally, Britain, the mother of all democracies, would appear to have played any significant role.
This holds serious implications for the future. What comes to mind is the famous Pottery Barn rule spelled out by the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "If you break it, you own it." Simply put, after having waded so deeply into the politicking leading to the formation of the national unity government in Kabul – having choreographed and piloted the idea, having, perhaps, imposed the idea on the reluctant Afghans – the ultimate responsibility – even obligation – rests now with the Obama administration to ensure that the political arrangement survives and brings about the political stability that Afghanistan needs.
Most certainly, the Obama administration faces a formidable challenge here. The only examples of national unity governments in contemporary world politics have been in Cambodia in 1993 and in Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2008, and they have not exactly been encouraging experiments.
Therefore, the really worrisome question is whether the Obama administration is willing to play the kind of role envisaged in Rumsfeld’s wise opinion? Does the Obama administration have the necessary attention span – with so many distractions from Ebola virus to the Islamic State – making pressing demands on its time, energy, and resources?
Clearly, the Ghani government cannot be left as “America’s latest orphan”, which by the way, was the rubric of a recent seminar held at at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation with some of the best-known American experts as participants.
Speaking at the NYU seminar, Barnett Rubin, who had served as senior advisor to the special representative for AfPak, the late Richard Holbrooke, ruefully noted, “The president’s [Obama’s] job description does not entail reforming and creating a new Afghanistan. The most important thing for stabilizing a country is to maintain a sufficient level of funding to support the unity of the national government [in Kabul], and to build a coalition of regional powers that would be supportive of Afghanistan.”
Rubin warned, “Missions to stabilize and missions to counter terrorism cannot coexist, and, in my experience, the [US] mission to counter terrorism will always win. Yet we cannot ignore how the absence of a certified government or external funding has led to weak institutions.” Indeed, where is all that money to “stabilize” Afghanistan going to come from?
Equally, it is an open secret that even if the US-Afghan pact had been delayed for a further period of time beyond 2014, the US would have found some way to avoid having to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year – that is to say, Obama (and NATO) never really had the so-called “zero option” in the consideration zone. In fact, the Obama administration has come under heavy criticism already within America for having exercised the “zero option” in Iraq.
On the other hand, a closer examination of the US-Afghan security pact would raise many questions regarding US interests. A widespread perception among the Afghan political class happens to be that the security pact would have as much, if not more, to do with US regional strategies as Afghanistan’s national security needs.
President Obama has pledged that the strength of the US forces would be pegged at 9800 soldiers through 2015, which will be halved next year and tapered off to a token presence by end-2016. The thing that lends credibility to Obama’s pledge is that end-2016 coincides with the end of his presidency. On the contrary, a detailed examination of the security pact raises serious doubts about the efficacy of Obama’s stated plans of troop withdrawal.
Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.