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Dispatches From the Edge

Four More Years: Central & South Asia

By Conn Hallinan

November 30, 2012

From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the
blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is
a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than
two millennia conquerors have been lured by the
mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth:
China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the
west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian
basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British,
and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind
little more than forgotten graveyards and the
detritus of war.

Americans and our NATO allies are next.

It is a cliche that Afghanistan is the graveyard of
empires, but a cliche doesn't mean something is not
true, just that it is repeated over and over again
until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy
that the US was "numb" to that particular platitude,
although we have company. In the past 175 years
England has invaded Afghanistan four times.

Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth-that
the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was
fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of
Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned
into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling
and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more
than a 100 years ago.

Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the
Afghan people. The country has staggered through
more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN
survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part
of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the
area's young children-one million under the age of
five-are acutely malnourished. "What's shocking is
that this is really high by global standards," Michael
Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to
Afghanistan, told the Guardian (UK). "This is the
kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and
some of the most deprived parts of the world, not
with an area that has received so much
international attention and assistance."

The area in question embraces Kandahar and
Helmand, the two provinces targeted by
Washington's 2009 troop surge. That the provinces
have widespread malnutrition and are still deeply
restive-both are among the most dangerous areas
in the country- is a commentary on the futility of
the entire endeavor.

The question is, what now? How the White House
answers that will go a long way toward determining
whether Afghanistan can begin to extricate itself
from its long, national nightmare, or once again
collapse into civil war that could destabilize the
entire region.

There are a couple of truths the White House will
need to absorb.

First, there can be no "residual" force left in the
country. Right now the Obama administration is
trying to negotiate a status force agreement that will
allow it to keep anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000
troops in the country to train the Afghan army and
pursue al-Qaeda. Such an agreement would exempt
US forces from local laws, and is a non-starter for
Afghans from the get go. The Taliban and their
allies-in particular the highly effective and quite
lethal group, the Haqqanis-will not allow it, and
insisting that US troops remain in the country will
guarantee the war continues.  If there is one truth in
Afghanistan, it is that the locals don't cotton to

Nor are the regional neighbors very enthusiastic
about having the American military in residence
next door. Since those neighbors-specifically Iran,
China, Pakistan and Russia-will be central to any
final settlement, one does not want to annoy them.
It doesn't take much effort to derail a peace process
in Afghanistan.

As for al-Qaeda, it doesn't exist in Afghanistan, and
it is even a specter of its former self in Pakistan. In
any case, the Taliban and its allies are focused on
local issues, not worldwide jihad, and pose no
threat to the US or NATO. Indeed, way back in 2007,
Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, pledged
that the organization would not interfere in the
affairs of any other country.

The White House can get the ball rolling by finally
closing down Guantanamo and releasing its Taliban
prisoners. Pakistan has already started its prisoner
release. Washington must also stop its aggressive
use of drones and Special Forces to pursue Taliban
leaders. These so-called "night raids" and drone
assassinations are not only provocative, but make
any final agreement more difficult to negotiate. The
US has already decapitated much of Taliban's mid-
level leadership, which, in turn, has atomized the
organization into scores of local power centers. In
fact, that decentralization may make reaching a final
agreement much more difficult, because no single
person or group of people will be empowered to
negotiate for local Taliban affiliates.

In the long run the war will most likely be resolved
the way most things end in Afghanistan: in a
compromise. For all their war-like reputation,
Afghans really excel in the art of the deal. The
Taliban will be part of the government, but all the
scare talk about Islamic extremists sweeping into
power is exaggerated. The Taliban are mostly based
in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, and they
will remain the biggest players in Helmand,
Kandahar and Paktika provinces. But Pashtuns
only make up a plurality in the country-about 42
percent-and will have to compromise with the
other major ethnic groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and
Hazaras. Even when the Taliban ruled the country it
never succeeded in conquering northern
Afghanistan, and it has less support today than it
did then.

One major danger comes from US support for local
militias that do nothing to control the Taliban, but
are quite successful at building up provincial
warlords and protecting the opium trade (harvests
increased 18 percent over a year ago). The Soviets
followed exactly the same path, one that eventually
led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.

In short, the US needs to get out, and as quickly as
possible. Its NATO allies have already boarded that
train-the French are leaving a year early, the Dutch
are gone, and the Brits are bunkered down-and
prolonging the war is more likely to end in a debacle
than any outcome favored by Washington. It is not
our country, we don't get to determine its history.
That is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam,
but apparently did not.

The future of Afghanistan is linked to Pakistan,
where current US policy is in shambles. A recent
poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered
Washington an enemy. Many attribute those figures
to the deeply unpopular American drone war that
has killed scores of civilians. The drones have
definitely made a bad situation worse, but the
dispute goes deeper than missile-toting Predators
and Reapers.  Pakistan is legitimately worried about
its traditional opponent in the region, India, and
Islamabad views Afghanistan as part of its "strategic
depth"-a place to which to retreat in case of an
attack by the much stronger Indian Army. Given
that Pakistan has lost four wars with its southern
neighbor, paranoia about the outcome of a fifth is

Instead of showing sensitivity to this concern,
Washington has encouraged India to invest in
Afghanistan, which it has done to the tune of over
$2 billion. India even has paramilitary forces
deployed in southern Afghanistan. Further, the
Obama administration has taken Kashmir off the
table, in spite of the fact that, in the run-up to the
2008 elections, Obama promised to seek a solution
to the long-running conflict. Dropping Kashmir was
a quid pro quo for a growing alliance between New
Delhi and Washington aimed at containing an up
and coming China.

But Kashmir is far too dangerous to play the role of
a regional pawn. India and Pakistan came very close
to a nuclear war over the area in the 1999 Kargil
incident, and both countries are currently
accelerating their nuclear weapons programs.
Pakistani and Indian military leaders have been
distressingly casual about the possibility of a
nuclear war between the two countries. Rather than
actively discouraging a nuclear arms race,
Washington has made it easier for New Delhi to
obtain fuel for its nuclear weapons programs, in
spite of the fact that India refuses-along with
Pakistan-to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty. As with agreeing to mute concerns over
Kashmir, the US's waver of the NNPT is part of
Washington's campaign to woo India into an
alliance against China. A nuclear exchange between
the two South Asian countries would not only be a
regional catastrophe, but would have a worldwide

Independent of the dangers Kashmir poses for the
region and the world, its people should have the
right to determine their own future, be it joining
Pakistan, India, or choosing the path of
independence. A UN sponsored referendum would
seem the obvious way to let Kashmir's people take
control of their won destiny.

For starters, however, the US should demand that
New Delhi accept a 2004 Indian government
commission's recommendation to repeal the Armed
Forces Special Powers Act, which Human Rights
Watch calls "a tool of state abuse, oppression and
discrimination." The Special Powers Act was first
created to control Catholics in Northern Ireland and
then applied across Britain's colonial empire. It is
used today by Israel in the Occupied Territories and
India in Kashmir. It allows for arrests without
warrants, indefinite detainments, torture, and
routine extra-judicial killings.

Washington's fixation with lining up allies against
China has also seen the US cut corners on human
rights issues in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Indonesia.
But recreating a version of the old Cold War alliance
system in the region is hardly in the interests of
Central and South Asians-or Americans, for that
matter. India and Pakistan do not need more
planes, bombs and tanks. They need modernized
transport systems, enhanced educational
opportunities, and improved public health. The
same can be said for Americans.

There was a time when countries in Central and
South Asia were responsible for much of world's
wealth and productive capacity. In 1750, India
produced 24.5 percent of the world's manufactured
goods. England, in contrast, produced 1.9 percent.
By 1850, the world had turned upside down, as
colonialism turned-or to use the anthropologist
Clifford Geertz's term, "de-evolved"-India from a
dynamic world leader to an economic satrap of
London. The region is emerging from its long,
colonial nightmare, and it does not need-indeed,
cannot afford-to be drawn into alliances designed
half a world away. It is time to bring the 21st
century's version of "the Great Game" to an end.

Conn Hallinan can be read at
dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com, and


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