Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Rewriting the rulebook

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 5th Dec 2006

European teams rewrote the rules of hockey, favouring power over skill, to triumph on the new Astroturf hockey landscapes. Now, in Afghanistan’s grim struggle, Pakistan is making new rules that load the dice heavily against those same NATO countries. The 26-member alliance that won a forty-year cold war against the Soviet Union without firing a shot, signalled last week that it does not have the will, the resources, or the political unity to fight beyond a point in Afghanistan. NATO’s structural weaknesses contrast with Islamabad’s skill in shaping the conflict to guarantee eventual Pakistani victory.

At a NATO summit meeting held in the Latvian capital of Riga last week, the alliance could agree only on sending 1,000 additional troops from Poland to reinforce its 23,000 embattled soldiers in insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan. Only four alliance members --- USA, UK, Canada and Holland --- have sent troops to the south; countries like Germany and France still impose caveats on NATO that confine their soldiers to low-tension areas, except in dire emergency. It’s a paralysis of will that’s been dubbed “Riga mortis”.

Through a summer and autumn of pitched battles in the southern provinces of Helmand, Oruzgan and Kandahar, NATO’s Canadian, British and Dutch troops inflicted heavy losses on the Taliban. Few hearts and minds had been won, but battles had, and Afghan respect.

Then, in early autumn, came an electrifying rule change from Pakistan: Islamabad signed a peace accord with the tribal elders in troubled North Waziristan, ending five years of army operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the Durand Line (the Pakistan-Afghanistan border). The logic, they explained to the US, was to snuff out fundamentalist leadership and influence in tribal areas, and replace it with the traditional leadership of “greybeards” or tribal elders. Islamabad argued that routing development funds through secular, moderate tribal elders would re-empower them at the expense of jehadist mullahs.

In addition to pulling its own troops out of a bloody NWFP campaign, Islamabad made it clear that it wants a corresponding NATO and US troop pullout from Southern Afghanistan. This would leave the Taliban largely in control of the south, and well positioned for a drive to Kabul. Pakistan’s governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Lt Gen Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, who was the Corps commander in NWFP before he was promoted to governor, publicly declares that the US and NATO have already failed in Afghanistan, with their presence fuelling militancy rather than curbing it. “Either it is a lack of understanding or it is a lack of courage to admit their failures,” he says.

This is not the ranting of a maverick general; Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri has endorsed the new rules. On the eve of the Riga summit, several NATO diplomats reported that Mr Kasuri had advised them in private briefings not to send more troops to Afghanistan, as the Taliban had already won. Kasuri also reportedly urged NATO to negotiate with the Taliban and replace Karzai’s government with a coalition that includes the Taliban. While Islamabad denied these reports, the Afghan parliament strongly condemned Kasuri’s alleged interference. Bringing the Taliban camel into the tent arouses little enthusiasm in Kabul; this is a camel with guns.

Having learned in Iraq that dialogue with insurgent groups is as important as fighting them (jaw-jaw instead of war-war, as Churchill put it) the US has cautiously endorsed Pakistan’s Waziristan peace. But with NATO fighting an enemy that operates from Waziristan havens, this is a perceptual rift within the alliance. The US and its European allies have never seen eye-to-eye on Afghanistan. In the wake of 9/11 the alliance had invoked its collective defence clause, by which an attack on one member is an attack on all. But a belligerent America chose to go it alone, and now finds only reluctant support.

With only lukewarm support forthcoming from “old Europe”, Riga saw a renewed US initiative for expanding NATO to include members more responsive to American blandishments. President Bush announced that Croatia, Albania and Macedonia would enter NATO by 2008, and that Georgia might come on board at a later date. The US, the UK and Holland, eager for reinforcements in Afghanistan, dropped objections against Serbia and Bosnia’s early membership on grounds of war crimes.

Orphaned by the end of the Cold War, NATO has tried to relocate its raison d’etre in the Afghanistan operation. A new document, still under negotiation, tasks NATO not just with the defence of national borders, but also with tackling global threats like terrorism, the spread of WMDs, and the emergence of failed states.

New rules all around, for a new playing field.

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