US needs an exit strategy in Afghanistan

Obama administration is currently pondering difficult options in Afghanistan to deal with resurgent Taliban. Commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, US Army General Stanley McChrystal has requested the administration to send over 40,000 more US troop to Afghanistan to crush a mounting Taliban insurgency. President Obama is set to announce his decision within a couple of weeks.

Well, one would be naïve to think that addition of 40,000 more US troops will shift the momentum of war in favour of Nato or Isaf especially when 100,500 strong international army, equipped with most lethal and state of the art weapons, is already on the run.

Let us look at some ground realities in Afghanistan. There are currently 65,000 US troops in the country serving alongside 40,000 soldiers from 41 other countries under Nato led International Security assistance Force (ISAF). So far international coalition has lost more than 1520 lives. This year is the deadliest year for foreign forces in Afghanistan with 477 caualities so far in 11 months according to iCasualties website (www.icasualties.org).

Now we have to look at the objectives of Afghanistan war. The war was launched after September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. US blamed Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network for the attack that killed around 3,000 civilians. Afghanistan was attacked as Taliban ruler Mullah Omar refused to handover Al-Qaeda leaders saying that they are the guest of Islamic emirate.

Afghans were told that by US and allies that they are not the target of the so called “war against terror”. In fact the invaders said they were liberating Afghans from Al-Qaeda and extremists and promised a better future for them. But during Afghan invasion and afterwards US air force used B-52 Bombers and cluster bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians. Not a week passes by without the news of civilians killed in Nato or Isaf operations against Taliban.

This mounting ‘collateral’ damage’ is a major contributor in increasing sympathies for Taliban among Afghan population. On the other hand there is no development in Afghanistan eight years after invasion. Ordinary Afghans find no relief under the US backed-government of Hamid Karzai. Warlords, who were eliminated by Taliban are now again becoming powerful in different areas of Afghanistan establishing their own states within the state.

In these circumstances, Taliban are stronger now then ever in Afghanistan during last eight years. For ordinary Afghans, they are not a rebel organisation but a symbol of resistance against foreign invaders. Afghans are very particular about their culture and their Islamic identity. They also hate invaders and had never accepted colonial rule. The failure of British Empire to conquer Afghanistan during Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-42 and 1878-80 should serve as an eye-opener for the hawkish elements of Obama administration who think they can stay in Afghanistan as long as they wish.

So what is the way forward? First the United states and allies should not forget that the purpose of their Afghan operation was to eliminate al-Qaeda to prevent any future attacks in United States and Europe. If this was the objective of the Afghan war, then it has been achieved partially. Although Osama bin Laden and some of his aides are still at large, but as an organisation al-Qaeda has been almost eliminated from Afghanistan. During last eight years, dozens of Al-Qaeda leaders have been arrested from Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are now facing prosecution. According to recent reports, many of the al-Qaeda leaders have fled to Africa and Middle East so there is only one force that is involved in Afghan resistance and that is Taliban.

Most of Taliban are actually illiterate young Pushtoons who are unable to plan a sophisticated attack like 9/11. It is also obvious that Taliban were not directly involved these attacks. My conviction is that if they are left alone Taliban would never launch attack inside Europe or United States like al-Qaeda did.

So there is a window of opportunity for United States and west to initiate talks with Taliban for an honorable exit. There could be meaningful dialogue with the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries regarding the future of Afghanistan. If an exit strategy is given by US and allies, I am sure that Taliban would be ready for the reconciliation with other Afghan elements. They could also guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used to plan and launch attack against any other country.

This is not to propose that Afghanistan should be handed over to Taliban again but since they are an important stakeholder in Afghanistan, they must be involved in a broader power-sharing deal with other Afghan elements. Initially a unity government could be launched for a transition period to hold free and fair election within a specified period. Nato and ISAF forces could be replaced with forces from Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) member countries. The peace keepers from OIC would be acceptable for Afghan people for that transitional period and they can eventually train Afghan army and police.

With zero interference from regional and international powers Afghans would be able to solve their problems, learning from their own mistakes. This would result in regional stability and a prosperous central and south Asia.

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