Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s report told us what we were afraid to hear. We are going to lose the war in Afghanistan! President Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, launched just in March, whose main goal was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, doesn’t seem to be going well. Growing insurgency and a totally ineffective and discredited government in Afghanistan pose lethal threats that can result in America’s total defeat unless something is done immediately.

I agree with Gen. McChrystal that more troops may be needed presently. However, before additional troops are sent to Afghanistan, there must be a clear operational strategy as well as a political surge. Military victory is not possible, and the path of extended military engagement is a recipe for disaster.

But simply abandoning the region is also not an option. This would be the same mistake the United States made in 1989 after helping to expel the Soviet army from Afghanistan.

The sooner Afghanistan is stabilized politically, the earlier the United States can disengage militarily. How does America do that?

Initiate a political dialogue with the various Pashtun leaders in Afghanistan and the Taliban but also enlist the help of their tribal cousins in Pakistan. Pakistan would welcome such a move and definitely would assist, as it is entirely in Pakistan’s interest to have peace in Afghanistan.

The political instability and ethnic imbalance brought about in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. essentially outsourced the country to the Northern Alliance - comprised of the minority groups of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - marginalized the Pashtuns and pushed them into the Taliban fold even though the Pashtuns were not ideological supporters of Taliban. Hamid Karzai, although a Pashtun, was never accepted by the Pashtuns as their legitimate representative, as he was an outsider and did nothing to stop the disenfranchisement of the Pashtuns. When his defense minister and later his running mate in the recent elections, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik warlord, raised 80,000 troops for the Afghan National Army, it had hardly any Pashtun representation. This created resentment and forced the Pashtuns to seek jobs with the Taliban and other local warlords.

All Taliban may be Pashtuns, but all Pashtuns are not Taliban. While the majority of Pashtuns are fighting alongside the Taliban against the U.S. and coalition forces, they are not ideologically aligned with, nor do they support the Taliban. For them, it is a matter of custom and tradition to fight against any outsider.

For starters, as part of the new political strategy, a U.N. peacekeeping mission comprising troops from Muslim countries such as Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia could be deployed in Afghanistan. This would create a sense of confidence among the Afghans and also preclude the need for more and more U.S. troops in the future. Simultaneously, the Afghan army must be strengthened and ethnically balanced by recruiting at least 50,000 Pashtuns from various tribes. Not only would this create jobs for these people, but it would go a long way in winning the hearts and minds of the Pashtuns as well.

A political solution is the only option. Talks with the Taliban can be facilitated indirectly through allies and friendly countries of the region and the Middle East. As Mr. Obama once said, “It is not about saving face.”

Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. Whatever decision is made by Mr. Obama, it will have far-reaching effects and long-term consequences, not only for Afghanistan and neighboring countries of the region, but for the entire world. While vital U.S. national security objectives must be achieved by eliminating all threats to America from Afghanistan and the region, the Afghan people must be allowed to establish their own political government with representation from all ethnic groups in a fair and representative manner. That would be the first step to removing the political vacuum of governance and leadership in Afghanistan that creates more space for the insurgents and al Qaeda.

Nation-building is best done by the people of that country. Friends can only assist and provide support.

Dr. Nasim Ashraf is the executive director of the Center for Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute, and former minister in the Musharraf administration in Pakistan.

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