Afghanistan: The Endgame

President Obama has spoken. The Presidential Strategic Review is finally over and President has agreed to send troops, thousands of them, to Afghanistan. In the classic politico-speak, he said he is sending them now to bring everyone back earlier. In short, he wanted to appeal to everyone, particularly those in the middle. But, by doing that, he demonstrated, yet again, why the compulsions of democratic governance are hindrances, not help, in solving problems like Afghanistan.

The President finally agreed that a surge will work in Afghanistan. More troops and we will make Taliban bleed in their eyeballs, as a British general said it. Get in big now and come out early, the President has said. All clear, popular analogies. Just that most of those metaphors do not work and simply not true in the context of Afghanistan.

Taliban isn't a person. It is a political movement, with some extreme ideologies. But, like Naxalites in India or Maoists in Nepal, it is hard to say who Taliban is. They are not the usual terrorists or German soldiers that you can kill easily in a Hollywood movie. This is a movement deeply entrenched within a people. The battle in Afghanistan is almost the battle between the nation-state as we know it and an alternative sense of identity based on religion. It is difficult to kill or capture Taliban, though one may end up killing a few card-carrying members.

There are two kinds of battle being fought in Afghanistan. One is for territory. This is the way we understand battles, this is where our metaphors work. This worked perfectly in the initial campaign in Afghanistan, when the Americans helped the Northern troops push the Taliban out from Kabul. The other battle, however, is for people. This is the battle Taliban is waging, silently, under the radar. It is for those people who may not be able to hold a bazooka and fire at the troops, but who will silently lend their home for an wounded fighter, deliver a message in Pushtu, and let a few guns be hidden under the cart-load.

American strategy so far was successful in the first kind of battle. But military does not understand the second kind. Yes, they did succeed in Iraq somewhat, but they fought a different battle there. People in Iraq was far more secular than those in Afghanistan, and hence, the battle was less about ideas than about the booty. American strategists understand that kind of battle. They can copy a strategy or two from the old Colonial manual of governance and divide a people rather easily. That strategy is unlikely to work in Afghanistan.

The other challenge of Afghanistan, which baffled all the occupiers through its history, is its terrain. Mountains provide many strategic angles to fight for, and armed by mountains, a small sleepy village can suddenly become a strategic stronghold. Yes, Satellite surveillance and air power sure helps, but those methods are effective in the battle for territory but counter-productive in the battle for people.

America can not even win the battle for territory because the territory is not defined here. Taliban isn't fighting a traditional nation-state war and they are not after territory. They can move back and forth into Pakistan [and possibly into some parts of Iran] and come back in. They know America is not indefatigable. Drag it for another few years and Americans will leave, but it is their country and they can wait for ever. Besides, they know that Americans are too proud to look beyond the Military solutions and they will continue to fight the wrong war, wrongly.

The 'permanent' solution in Afghanistan does not lie in propping Hamid Karzai and his cronies safely in Kabul, with a ring of protection provided by international contractors. This is what Barack Obama is hoping for. It lies in creating a stable state of Afghanistan, by making all parties, Uzbeks, Kazakis, Pushtuns and other tribes, on table, backed by Pakistan, India, Iran and China [and possibly Russia]. It would have involved setting aside past differences, and also geopolitical interests that shaped all strategic considerations for many centuries. This will, in short, involve shifting the paradigm from nation-state based territory thinking to people and ideas based strategic thinking. Which, as President Obama's speech indicates, we are not yet ready to do.

But, this looks like the shape of the future, more than anything else. With a sort of nuclear balance is setting in, a shift towards regionalism is inevitable. Twenty years into a post-cold war era, it is time that we shade the old ideas and try shift into a new world. It is time we let Prince Metternich sleep and start defining the world in terms of cooperation and freedom for all people.


I could not read the comment as my browser did not have the character set installed and I don't seem to know the language. But, presumably, the comment's author is not talking to me. He is talking to those who would still read my blog and know his/her language.

This is what I had to say then. If we agree, I am honoured - our agreement, lost in translation, still holds. However, if we disagree, let us have at least one common agreement - let everyone have their say.

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