Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ruminations on the emerging situation in South Asia.

I am wondering if we are giving the Afghan military forces enough credit.  A few days ago, April 15, it was the Afghan military alone who fought off the attack in Kabul.  There was criticism of their response but it was in fact a totally Afghan response and they did pretty well, given that the attack was a total surprise and broadly executed.

Now we hear that the Afghans have intercepted a shipping of 10 metric tons of explosives into Afghanistan from Pakistan and apprehended five men who had been preparing to use the explosives inside Kabul.  At least in this case someone seems to have done a good job.

The reality for everyone in the region is that the Americans are dialing down their presence in Afghanistan.  Whether that means actually withdrawing all support from the country is in fact doubtful, but there is no doubt that, at least in appearance, the American involvement in the war is supposed to soon be over.  What that means for the various players in the region is that they have to face up to what that emerging situation will mean to them, and for the Afghan military it means they will have to step up or be overwhelmed.  In that sense they have no choice but to step up.  In fact, most Afghans, we know, have little interest in bringing the Taliban back.  So the reality as it unfolds may force all sides to come to terms with what they have to do.  It appears that the ISI in Pakistan has made no effort to dial back their involvement with the Taliban:  three of the five men who were caught were "Pakistani Taliban".  So, if the Afghans want to keep from being overwhelmed by ISI-supported Taliban they -- not only the military but the country in general who have to support them -- will have to make up their minds to counter that threat.  Afghans of all sorts, even those who like the Taliban, have no use for the Pakistanis.

For the Afghans who have no desire to see the Taliban come back or the Pakistani ISI run the country -- I assume that means almost no one inside Kabul, few north of the Hindu Kush, and only a small number in the south -- they will have to fight or flee.  That a local force fought off the Taliban successfully on the 15th, and in the instance reported today have stepped up to the task inside Kabul, is a good sign.  After all, the Afghans know their own -- the language, the nuances of sentiment, the devices of intrigue (an old game in the country) -- and if they actually make up their minds they will not put up with Pakistani domination.  For many Afghans, especially the ones in charge now (the army is mostly Tajik and Hazara), the Taliban are as much invaders as the Pakistanis, and if the Pakistanis are deemed the real force behind the Taliban the people will resent their presence and make it hard for them to govern; only by the exercise of cruel violence will they be able to govern.  In the long run a despised government will have trouble holding on without earned the opprobrium of their own people as well as the rest of the world.   Will this process be elegant?  No, but it is a familiar process in Central Asian history.  We will all grieve to see the Afghanistan people suffer this process, those of us to have come to love them and admire them, but it looks like it will take place no matter what.

Despite all our presumptions about the ineptness of the Afghans to manage their affairs without us, they have done it for centuries.  It won't be pretty but it is fair that the respective forces in the region will come to an accommodation.  

If we are out of the picture will it be worse?  Probably for a while, yes.  But it is hard to see how, despite all attempts, the Pakistanis will be able to control Afghanistan any more than the Soviets or Americans could.  Indeed, the Pakistanis, who desperately need an accommodation with Afghanistan should know better than to try to control the country.  They should be eager to settle with an accommodation with a Kabul regime that as always will distrust them but be willing to work with them.  Nothing more.

So maybe the future for Afghanistan without American support could be -- well, tolerable -- after all.  This is not to say that there will be no civil war:  That may be inevitable.  The critical element will be the resolve of the Afghan military to deal with the Taliban and the Pakistanis, both of whom they know well.

The great tragedy could be the women of the country.  What will happen to them?  That will depend on the way the Afghans shape  their legal structure.  So far, it seems to have remained little changed despite the other changes in the society.  That system they, and they only, will have to change.  Lets hope and pray for something better.

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