Now, it seems that the US will stay in Afghanistan with all of the accompanying entanglements in Pakistan, not just to the end of 2014 as frequently announced by the Obama administration, but maybe well beyond that date.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan on Oct. 21-23 indicated just how wrong everything in the 10-year war has gone. Clinton threatened to invade Pakistan with ground forces if Pakistan did not step up its attacks against the Hakkani Taliban resistance network. And, if the US sent troops into Pakistan, President Hamid Karzi threatened Afghanistan would come to the military aid of Pakistan! What more could go wrong?
According to well-respected analysts, US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy testified in mid-March in congressional testimony that the US intended to carry out “counter-terrorism operations” from US and Afghan “joint bases” well beyond 2014. This was confirmed on Aug. 19 when it was reported that the US and the Hamid Karzai government had signed a “strategic partnership” agreement allowing the US to keep 25,000 troops, including Special Operation Forces, as well as US fighter planes and helicopter gunships, in Afghanistan until at least 2024.
The US and Karzai agreement meant that the peace negotiations of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), headed by Berhanuddin Rabbani, himself a former president of Afghanistan, with the Taliban were not conducted in good faith.
According to Gareth Porter, who interviewed Taliban negotiators who participated in the HPC talks, since there was no discussion of the Taliban negotiators’ demands that the US must state a precise date for the withdrawal of US combat forces, there was little chance that the negotiations would be successful. There were also three other significant demands by the Taliban. First, that the US ceases its night raids, which from 2009 to late 2011 were reaching 19 to 20 per night. This would mean that since 2009 to the end of 2011 night raids were reaching around 7,000 per year. Second, the Taliban demanded that the US cease drone attacks. As of May 2011, the CIA had conducted an estimated 200 drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan resulting in the death of an estimated 2,000 people; most of them non-Taliban casualties. For their part, the US and Afghanistan demanded that the Taliban sever all ties with al-Qaida and any of its affiliates or operatives.
Once the Taliban leadership became aware in early August of the outlines of the “strategic partnership” pact between the US and Karzai government allowing for the maintaining of US bases in Afghanistan until 2024, they saw no reason to continued negotiations with the HPC, and on Sept. 20 they assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani. According to analysts following the HCP negotiations closely, the major reason for the Rabbani’s assassination was Washington’s demand that the Karzai government allow the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan until 2024.
The Taliban’s assassination of Rabbani also meant that Washington would now apply more pressure on Pakistan “to do more” to attack and attempt to destroy Afghanistan Taliban forces ensconced in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) situated along Pakistan’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan. Washington in particular wanted Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), reputed by Washington to be in control of Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban, to attack the Haqqani network -- a coalition of Taliban resistance forces in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, who stage attacks against American, NATO and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan.
In the wake of the collapse of the HPC talks in August, Rabbani’s assassination in September and the consequences of the signing of the “strategic partnership” between Washington and Kabul, it is understandable that Pakistan would resist being further marginalized in the emerging geopolitical map of Southwest Asia and for several reasons. One, Pakistan is angered by the increasingly strong relations between Afghanistan and India symbolized by the signing of a security and trade pact between Afghanistan and India on Sept. 6. The pact was nurtured and approved by Washington. In the course of the 10-year war in Afghanistan, the US has moved to favor India’s greater involvement in Central Asia as an impediment to further expansion by China and Russia in the Central Asian region. The major concern of Washington is to limit as much as possible the further consolidation of Chinese and Russian presence in Central and Southwest Asia. The US thinks it imperative that it dominate militarily these two regions for the next 25-30 years in order to control the sea lanes and land routes for the movement of oil and gas across these regions. In order to achieve this goal, Washington thinks India is the best ally rather than a besieged, ethnically divided, religiously challenged and economically weak Pakistan.
But this policy comes at the political expense of Pakistan. It limits Pakistan’s abilities to establish and maintain a strong geopolitical presence in Central and Southwest Asia.
In late September, David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, interviewed Admiral Mike Mullen just before he retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the status of US relations with Pakistan. Ignatius asked Mullen if Pakistan “blew it.” Mullen remained somewhat non-committal on that score but acknowledged that Pakistan’s problems were embedded in the economic, political and cultural fabric of the country. They are on “a declining glide slope” said the admiral. But what the admiral did not say is that the US gave Pakistan a mighty shove down that slope.
*Professor Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst and an instructor of Middle East politics and history, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.