By M. K. Bhadrakumar

The much-awaited and recently ended visit by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the U.S. has resulted in an expected decision by the President Obama to “maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of the year.”

What was Ghani’s visit about, what did it achieve, and what lies ahead for Afghanistan?

Ghani, who made a three-day visit to the U.S. last week, took almost six months after he took over as president to come to the U.S. Strangely, he has undertaken many foreign visits during this period – to China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – but kept the U.S. visit pending. His main compulsion was that he needed to convince the U.S. that the unprecedented national unity government in Afghanistan is for real, is functioning and could be a meaningful interlocutor for Washington.

Ghani, who addressed a joint session of Congress, may have succeeded only partly. He took along Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah with him to the U.S., which helped to display that their alliance, which was midwifed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally, has been holding.

Whether he succeeded in convincing Obama we do not know. Surely, Obama knows that Ghani is yet to complete his cabinet formation because consensus is lacking between the various factions and power brokers in Kabul.

Abdullah also largely kept his thoughts to himself while in the U.S., leaving the floor to Ghani, which was of course correct behavior, and Abdullah is a protocol-conscious statesman. But then, he is also a loquacious politician and it must have been hard on him to mutely watch the proceedings at the Oval Office, think tanks, media, US Congress and so on.

Interestingly, before undertaking the visit to the U.S., Abdullah held two below-the-radar consultations – in Moscow in February and in Delhi in mid-March. (Ghani is yet to visit Russia or India.)

Obama cannot be unaware of the political rumblings in Kabul, of restive elements representing disparate interests (including prominent figures who served under former president Hamid Karzai) voicing dissenting opinions over Ghani’s policies. Obama was circumspect about praising the Ghani government’s performance so far and instead urged him to complete the cabinet formation quickly. Suffice it to say, an editorial by the New York Times couldn’t have summed up better:

“Mr. Ghani has big visions. He told Congress he aims for the country to be self-sustaining, and weaned of international assistance that now is central to the economy, within this decade. He talked of Afghanistan’s being an Asian hub crossed by pipelines, rail lines and modern telecom and banking services. These are worthy goals, but they are still based mostly on hope,” the Times wrote.

Coolly pragmatic

The manner in which Obama justified the decision to freeze the troop withdrawal through 2015, needs to be noted carefully. It was not even remotely meant to be a political endorsement. Obama was detached, clinical, and coolly pragmatic:

We’re essentially moving the drawdown over to the right for several months, in part to compensate for the lengthy period it took for government formation (in Kabul); in part because we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back, so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because counterterrorist – or because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan … it made sense for us to provide a few extra months for us to be able to help on things like logistics, making sure that equipment is not just in place but it’s also used properly; that the training and advising and strategic input that’s been provided continues through this fighting season.

Before meeting Obama, Ghani had harped on a looming threat from the Islamic State to Afghanistan. Ghani wrote in an op-ed in Washington Post, “Afghanistan has become the eastern wall standing against the butchery of ISIL … Because Afghanistan must never again become a launching ground for terrorist attacks, we want to continue to work with the United States … A continued security partnership … will ensure that we will be an important ally in the decades to come.” But Obama wouldn’t be drawn into the topic.

On the other hand, Obama insisted that there is no policy change being contemplated. He reiterated his earlier decision of a “final consolidation (of U.S. troops numbering 1000) to a Kabul-based embassy presence by the end of 2016.” He pointed out that the “transition out of a combat role (for U.S. troops) has not changed.” He also stressed that the overriding consideration will be to reduce casualties – “It’s been over 90 days since two Americans were killed in Afghanistan.”

Obama was focused on what needs to be done: fulfilling the commitment to “train, advise and assist” Afghan security forces, including targeted counterterrosim operations and, secondly, to seek Congressional approval on funding to sustain 352,000 Afghan security personnel through 2017.

Obama added the caveat, “Reconciliation and a political settlement remain the surest way to achieve the full drawdown of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan in a way that safeguards international interests and peace in Afghanistan, as well as US national security interests.”

All in all, Obama will carry the can of worms till end-2017 and, thereafter, it would be up to the next president and the Republican-dominated Congress to carry it forward – or dump it.

The big question is: Will this satisfy Pakistan? An element of strategic ambiguity has crept into the Pakistani stance. Indeed, Ghani is the best interlocutor that Pakistan could hope to have in Kabul. He has been quite receptive to the Pakistani demand that the Afghan intelligence broke its nexus with the Pakistani Taliban (which would enable the Pakistani military to effectively control the internal security situation) and, secondly, that Kabul severely delimited India’s presence and role in Afghanistan.

Sad words

No doubt, Ghani has gone the extra league to mend Afghan-Pakistan ties. But all he can say until now is, as he put it rather sardonically at the Brookings Institution, “I’m cautiously optimistic that we have begun a process of fundamental transformation (of Afghan-Pakistan relations) … Without sanctuary, a long-term rebellion is impossible. When sanctuaries end, peace breaks out. That’s what happened in Central America and Latin America, that’s what has happened in Africa… I’m hopeful that we will have sufficient wisdom not to sink but to swim together.”

These are sad words for a proud Afghan and a head of state to say and they betray Ghani’s sense of unease and growing wariness that Pakistan on its part is yet to make good its promises to him, namely, to bring the Taliban to the peace talks and get things moving in the business of reaching a settlement.

The fact of the matter is that while there have been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by the top Pakistani generals – with the army chief, ISI boss, et al rushing to Kabul and to Washington and so on – and claiming that Pakistan has had a change of mind regarding international terrorism, they are yet to act on the ground to meet the Afghan expectations.

Pakistan’s priority at the moment seems to lie in extracting the maximum cooperation from Ghani and to crush the security threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban as quickly as possible. The Afghan peace talks will remain a second priority until this task is successfully accomplished.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is making a few cosmetic moves now and then in the direction of facilitating tentative contacts between Ghani’s people and the Taliban – just enough to keep the pot boiling and to ensure Ghani remains engaged. But how long can this charade continue without Ghani getting impatient? He is already looking rather foolish and naïve in the Afghan bazaar.

Besides, Pakistan has lately revived the age-old myth that the Taliban led by Mullah Omar is an independent entity beyond its control. A further twist has also been added most recently that there is a schism brewing within the Taliban leadership – between the politicians and the field commanders – as to the wisdom or need to negotiate with Ghani’s government at all.

Smoke and mirrors

Now, when the Taliban leaders are caught up in an internal debate on the ABC of any peace talks with the established government in Kabul, how can Pakistan force march them to the negotiating table? Sounds logical, isn’t it?

It seems smoke and mirrors all over again. In the Pakistani calculus, the priority lies in extracting the most out of Ghani while the present power-sharing arrangement in Kabul lasts. Pakistan never quite trusted Abdullah. Pakistan knows that Ghani’s drive for reforms and good governance – revival of the economy, crackdown on corruption, eradication of drugs and narcotics, elimination of warlordism, etc – is a long haul and popular disenchantment is setting in.

Furthermore, Obama is keeping his cards close to his chest and Pakistan is unsure whether the Taliban would be accommodated in the manner in which it would want to be in the medium and long term, the most influential arbiter in the Hindu Kush. The idea of ‘strategic depth’ continues to influence the Pakistani thinking. This is where the US intentions – especially the likelihood of long term U.S. military presence – bother the Pakistani generals.

Why should Pakistan commit itself – and the Taliban – to genuine peace talks unless there is clarity about the way things are going? This may seem like a chicken-and-egg situation but nothing can be done about it when there is a real danger that the current dispensation in Kabul could collapse under the combined weight of economic, political or military stress.

As the spring arrives and the ‘fighting season’ begins, Taliban can be expected to make a strong bid to damage the credibility of the Afghan Army and test its capacities. The continued U.S. troop presence gives an alibi to continue with the fighting and Pakistan will plead helpless and try to pass the buck.

Obama anticipates such a turn of events. The challenge facing the U.S. will be to ensure that on the one hand, the Afghan army doesn’t pack up, while on the other hand, to keep the casualties low for the American troops. It is a difficult challenge, because despite the disengagement from a direct combat role, there’s going to be “specialized areas” where the U.S. forces may have to step in and that would bring then into the Taliban’s crosshairs.

Obama tried to be optimistic by claiming that the Afghan security forces are better equipped than the Taliban or the Haqqani Network. But then, he would surely know that in fighting an insurgency, which happens to enjoy some degree of genuine popular support, there are so many other variables at work beyond the quality of the equipment.

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