Sometimes a single episode in a long drawn-out war helps to focus the mind. The so-called Tet Offensive in January 1968 was one such crucial turning point in the Vietnam War. It was another seven years before the war in Vietnam ended, but the episode highlighted that even with 400,000 American troops, the US was staring at a quagmire.
The capture of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz a week ago similarly arrests the mind and compels it to survey the wasteland. Even after four days, despite the government claim that the city has been taken back, ground reports speak of street-to-street fighting and the Taliban fighters hiding in people’s houses. Do not be surprised if Kunduz changes hands every now and then in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, Taliban have opened more fronts in the northern region in the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan and Jauzjan in an obvious attempt to overstretch the government forces. And as more and more details emerge as to what really happened in Kunduz, the Taliban seem to be exploiting what can only be described as total disarray in the functioning of the government.
Indeed, in retrospect, an International Crisis Group report accurately predicted as far back as June that the highly strategic Kunduz had become a low hanging fruit for the Taliban. The shocking part is that the tensions within the national unity government in Kabul are casting shadows on the security front. The political infighting is apparently taking a heavy toll.
The Taliban routed a much larger government force in Kunduz. No one in authority seems to care. While the Taliban have appeared in the Amu Darya region, the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif Atta Mohammed Noor, the famous warlord, is in Dubai auctioning government property to the Sheikhs. Why not? Make hay while the sun shines, isn’t it?
All accounts suggest that the uneasy equations between the president Ashraf Ghani and the chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah have sharply deteriorated and the power calculus in Kabul, tenaciously put together by Washington, is unraveling. But then, Abdullah’s vaulting ambition is no secret and from day one he resented Ghani’s leadership. Abdullah should not regard the presidency as a game of musical chairs.
He should cooperate with Ghani and let the elected president complete his term and thereafter take another shot for a third time at securing a mandate. That is what is expected of a politician who feels responsible for the future of his country, which is tottering on the abyss of chaos, and not narrowly in terms of his career. If the Ghani government collapses, Afghanistan will fragment.
The US commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell is due to testify at the Congress in Washington next week. In all probability, he will use the Kunduz episode to make a good case for suspending President Barack Obama’s planned drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. (Ironically, this was precisely what the then US commander in Vietnam Gen. William Westmoreland also did in March 1968, two months after the ‘Tet offensive’ he asked for an additional 200,000 US troops on top of the 400,000 already deployed!)
But it is about time Obama introspected deeply. The US has spent more than $65 billion in this war as military aid to Afghanistan and the fall of Kunduz underscores that even a second tranche of similar proportions may not suffice to prepare the Afghan forces to stand on their own against the Taliban.
The problem really is of vast vacant spaces in governance and of corruption that has become cancerous, eating away the vitals of the state. The situation is virtually irredeemable. Make no mistake, but for the US Special Forces and the air cover, Afghan forces stand no chance of challenging the Taliban in Kunduz.
How long can this charade go on? To what end? Obama must think hard: Are the Taliban really posing any threat to the US’ ‘homeland security’? Are they dispatching suicide bombers to attack London Metro? Isn’t there some better way of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a revolving door for international terrorism? To be sure, the time has come to push through a political settlement with the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour is open to resumption of negotiations and is on record as agreeable to establishment of an ‘inclusive government’. Take him at his word. Mansour is amenable to Pakistani persuasion.
The forthcoming visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Washington will be Obama’s last big opportunity to put a peace process on track. Indeed, there are ‘spoilers’ within Afghanistan (and in the region surrounding Afghanistan) who may not like Pakistan’s central role in regional politics or the idea of a US-China-Pakistan joint endeavor in regional security but the chances are that the US can prevail upon them to act with restraint and give the peace talks a chance.
It must be obvious to a cerebral mind like Obama that there is something surreal about the US’ Afghan strategy, which still goes round and round agonizing over the size of American troop strength, when it is almost entirely beside the point today.
The plain truth is that if an outright Taliban takeover is to be prevented, the US troops in their tens of thousands may have to remain in Afghanistan forever. Read a stunning interview, here, with a seasoned Afghan hand presently at the Carnegie, Sarah Chayes, a familiar name of course, who is inclined to assess that Afghanistan is inexorably falling to the Taliban again.