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Ehsan Azari Stanizai Headshot

To Solve Afghanistan's Great Game Climb the Hills and Ask

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The people of the mountain tribes hold the key to ending the nine-year war.

A major international recent conference in Kabul underscored new workable plans for Afghanistan that would enable the Afghan government to take greater ownership of the war and and help facilitate a gradual withdrawal of Western forces from the country.

It will now be the task of the new commander of the US and NATO forces General David Petraeus in Afghanistan to lead Western forces and help the Afghans to achieve a lasting success in the most tortured nation.

General Petraeus showed a dazzling adroit political strategy in Iraq when he pulled back the tumultuous country from the brink of a collapse in 2007 and 2008. By placing a high premium on a new political path to victory, he turned the Iraqi Sunni population -- the backbone of the insurgency -- against al-Qaida and other anti-Western extremist militants.

Petraeus took his prescription for success from the Iraqi history and social dynamism. Perhaps the books by Lawrence of Arabia he kept on his bedside-table helped achieve the wonders. Early in the twentieth-century, Lawrence devised a successful policy of supporting the Arab tribesmen against the occupying Ottomans in exchange for independence. He was soon able to mobilise thousands of Arab tribesmen against the Ottomans.

Under a program called Iraqi Awakening Movement, he successfully mobilised 100,000 Sunni tribal combat forces. This prompted the Iraqi local forces to take over their own security and allow for a phased withdrawal of American forces from the country.

Although Afghanistan as a country is different from Iraq, the best course for this country will also be a vigorous political strategy. Besides, Lawrence of Arabia, Petaeus will need to read Kipling whose fiction and poetry was greatly focused on Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun tribes. Both writers emphasised that the Afghan affairs would always remain to be solved solely with the mountainous Afghan tribesmen.

Like Iraqi Sunnis, the Pashtun tribes make up the backbone of the insurgency and they are increasingly feeling politically isolated and under-represented in the Kabul government. According to the media reports, Pashtuns make up only 30 percent of the Afghan national army and power ministries such as, defence, interior, intelligence and foreign are dominated from bottom-up by non-Pashtun ethnic minorities.

Karzai and many of his cabinet members are Pashtuns, but the majority of Pashtuns in the south and east of the country see Karzai as a masquerade for the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who co-operated with the US-led forces in ousting the Taliban from power in 2001.

Even the former US Commander General MacChrystal signalled this when he was quoted in the Rolling Stone magazine, "the Pashtun area (of Afghanistan) is slipping out of the hands of ISAF and NATO, and everybody knows it".

However, the Taliban and even al-Qaida continue to manipulate this strong anger among the Pashtun population for their own political objectives. They more often than not identify themselves as the only military and political forces fighting for the Pashtun cause and reinstating their traditional status.

The ousted General MacChrystal was too complacent about this burning issue. He liked to appear by Karzi's side in public and ignored the corruption and rising kleptomania in his government. Since early June 2009, when he took command in Afghanistan, his military efforts that often remained without political components have also resulted in the stalemate.

The much-hyped Marjah Battle in February 2010 was his real test case in which his "government in a box" policy failed to put in place a viable governing body in this small district. The government in Marjah soon turned into a matter of day and night shift, instead. The Taliban overtakes the nightshift of the governing. The situation in Marjah and surrounding areas still remain grim and explosive.

Nearly a decade into the war in Afghanistan there is clear evidence that beating militarily an indigenous ultra-religious insurgency rooted deeply in a conservative society is futile. In addition, more than 75 percent of Afghanistan is covered by high mountains. This makes Afghanistan geographically a heaven for guerrilla warfare. The mountainous Afghan tribes always have fought and defeated every single foreign force. It is not accidental that Fredrick Engels said that war against foreign forces is a relief and an unalloyed excitement for the war some Pashtun tribes.

It is therefore crucial to play clever politics in Afghanistan now and General Petraeus is hopefully the man of the moment. Reaching out to the bearded Afghan tribesmen and negotiation with the possibly moderate sections of the insurgency could reshape the entire war-theatre in Afghanistan.

This will necessitate Pakistan ending an underhand way of dealing with Afghanistan, closing al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban centres within its soil and stopping its territory from being a launching pad against neighbouring Afghanistan and beyond. It seems unlikely that Pakistan would stop hedging its bets though.

The West has little time to bring the Great Game in Afghanistan back on track. If Petraeus drifts with the tide and continue wasting tax-money on building illusory projects and illegitimate Karzai's administration, the US and its NATO allies will be heading for a strategic failure in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's fate has never been decided in the streets of Kabul nor outside the country. The Afghan destiny has always been determined by the the tribes of the hills in Afghanistan. Kipling used the hill as a metaphor for a magic location where big things are going to happen in Afghanistan. When Mahbub Ali, a red-bearded Pashtun horse-dealer, a mentor to the eponymous, sends him in Kim to the hills to learn, he cries out: "Go up the hill and ask: Here begins the Great Game."

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with the Writing & Society Research Group, UWS.