Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peacemaking in poppy lands

In less than three weeks from now – on April 3 and April 4 – 26 leaders from 26 NATO countries will clink glasses in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany. Over glasses of pinot noir and pilsner, the NATO buddies will celebrate their 60th anniversary summit. It has also been 26 years since the embarrassing disintegration of the Soviet Union. Hence the two-day celebrations! The clink of burgundy glasses notwithstanding, NATO is caught up in quick sands in Afghanistan. In a recent well-argued policy paper F. Stephen Larrabee, Distinguished Chair in European Security, Rand Corporation, goes on to deduce that NATO's very reputation is at stake in Afghanistan.

NATO seems to be losing it in the craggy hills and poppy meadows of Afghanistan. Since the invasion of this beautifully desolate country in 2001, NATO has lost close to 600 personnel. Taliban, rejuvenated and resurgent, backed by stealth elements in Pakistan’s notoriously naughty Inter-services Intelligence [without whom the cold war might still have been on] is back in business. The hugely influential American think-tank Brookings Institution [which everyone at Washington reveres] accurately sums it up: The south [of Afghanistan] is in worse shape. For the last two years, British, Canadian and Dutch troops have been fighting desperately to stabilize Kandahar, Helmand and Urzugan provinces against a determined Taliban based across the border in Pakistan.

Mullah Omar’s recent statements point to the audacity and confidence of Taliban. The one-eyed boss of Taliban [good plus bad] says that NATO forces will leave defeated shortly, like the Soviets in 1989. Omar has gone to the extent of offering NATO safe passage out of the country. All independent reports coming out of Afghanistan indicate that Taliban is encroaching steadily into the provinces around Kabul. In any case President Karzai’s writ is limited to the capital only. He faces elections in August and has begun to make tough noises. He has lost his mentor’s [US] blessing, which is openly calling him a useful idiot. When news reports in American and British newspapers start calling a foreign puppet government corrupt, it should consider its days numbered.

Amidst this escalation Obama, caught up neck deep in the recession ravel, is planning a charm offensive in Afghanistan. He is poised to increase troop levels pretty soon, perhaps by as many as 30,000. Tariq Ali, the brilliant British intellectual perhaps rightly points out that Obama advisors on Afghanistan are not on the button. One reason why NATO won’t succeed in the country is because they are by and large seen as complete aliens, talking an imperial language. They don't know anything about Afghanistan. Neither the language, nor the culture. Importantly the shelf life of any foreign army in Afghanistan has historically been limited.

Holbrooke is the special envoy in the region. Now the guy did help resolve Bosnia after the Balkan war. Since his arrival, there has been a sudden change in the American lexicon. The term ‘enemy combatant’ [made infamous by that Texan brute] has been dropped now. Suddenly there is good and bad Taliban. How does one determine who’s good and who’s bad Taliban, I asked the Afghanistan Ambassador to India, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen today. ‘Those who owe their allegiance to the constitution of Afghanistan and agree on a participatory democracy constitute the good Taliban’, Mr Ambassador replied. We can’t afford to lunch with that dreaded Omar, he chuckled to make it easier for me to place the bad Taliban. Simple. [Journalists are so dumb!]

Afghans have always been warriors. They have been weird in equal measures. Today, nearly 30 years after he was killed in a communist coup, Afghanistan’s president Mohammad Daud – who overthrew his cousin King Zahir Shah in 1973 and became the country's first president -- was reburied in Kabul. Since 1700 30 men have ruled Afghanistan [Karzai being the 30th]. Of these, only four served out their terms and died a natural death. Others were dethroned, assassinated, imprisoned, deposed and killed, deposed and exiled, deposed and hanged, beaten to death and so forth.

The country continues to baffle.