The bias of those trained to think rigorously about public affairs is the presumption that policy-makers are logical in thought and action. Their policies are taken to be rational -- making logical connections between means and ends, being explicit in setting objectives, and being reasonably consistent in execution. But critical analysis is impossible unless there is a semblance of logic -- however primitive, odd or changeable it may be. That is why we are stymied and frustrated in trying to make sense of what has been happening recently in Afghanistan -- the world's biggest, open-air puzzle palace. Let's consider the following:
- A beleaguered Ahmed Karzai, rattled by the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani (his main man for enticing the Taliban into some sort of deal), blames it and myriad other troubles on Pakistan. He slams the Pakistani military for being both facilitator and instigator of attacks that have heightened his political isolation and exposed his weakness. Still, the next day he declares that only Pakistan can bring about the long advertised reconciliation with the Taliban(s). Then, on day 3, he flies to Delhi to sign a pact whose terms are sure to infuriate Islamabad. For there are articles of an alliance that accord the Indians a prominent place in Afghan affairs, including an accord on the Indian army's training of Afghan military and police units. That has been the prime task of the United States and ISAF in anticipation of the much touted transfer of security responsibility to the locals. This move in particular will aggravate relations between a security anxious Pakistan while raising tensions between the Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Hazeri and Uzbeks who hold a dominant position in the military and security services that dates back to the 2001 American invasion. Intensified rivalry among ethnic groups makes a settlement with the largely Pashtun Taliban more difficult while raising the specter of civil war when and if the Americans leave. So, where is the logic in this?
We wrack our brains in a futile effort to find some thread of rationality, some scheme no matter how contrived or diabolically clever, that makes sense of these turbulent currents. The only explanation is that there exists no coherent strategy, no policy logic, working itself out. This is not unreasonable. After all, American involvement in Afghanistan has tacked to all points of the compass aimlessly for a decade. In the last couple of years, the course changes have been sudden. Its hallmark is contradiction. Surge but with a time limit. Crush the Taliban with massive force while winning friends and influencing people who will join in nation/state building. Trudge on with the mission even though no one from the Oval Office on down can define 'success' other than in the flippant phrase "we'll know it when we see it." Washington has gone from communicating in sound bites to thinking in sound bites. The absence of a logical strategy does not mean, however, that individual players do not have their own special interests and objectives.
For Barack Obama, the overriding -- and perhaps sole -- consideration is to avoid any eventuality that jeopardizes his reelection. So ride the Osama bin Laden killing for all that it is worth; puff up a new evil genius in Haqqani; scapegoat the Pakistanis; chastise Karzai for his corruption and ineptitude; talk much about bringing the Taliban in from the cold while committing yourself to an indefinite presence that precludes any deal. In short, a classic shell game whose currency is votes, reputation and career. The other American participants are equally parochial. David Petraeus is fixed on burnishing his (unearned) reputation as strategic genius cum miracle worker. Like Obama, the stress is placed on avoiding the manifestly bad rather than achieving something tangibly positive. Everything is squeezed into two categories: the spinnable and the unspinnable. His CIA, and Panetta's Pentagon, want to keep the show going as justification for bloated organizational empires keep afloat by the fear of terrorism in all its many vague manifestations. Panetta himself seems so totally absorbed by what is for him a compelling mission that all else fades into insignificance -- wasted resources, wasted lives, potentially lethal side effects from declaring an enemy anybody who does not do our bidding, the further erosion in our precarious position in the Islamic world and globally. In his case, there may be as well an aggravating factor given the deep personal animus that he feels toward Generals Pasha, Kayani and the Pakistani leadership overall.
As for Karzai, he is a desperate man bereft of a domestic support base, increasingly suspect in the eyes of the Pashtuns and Northern alliance partners alike, and alienated from the Pakistanis. He is living politically by improvisation. That means he pivots from one danger to another, seeking a helping hand first here and then there, and unable to reconcile shifting time frames. The fundamental truth is that he is a creature of the Americans as never before. Despite his expedient, scripted denunciations of American excess, he knows full well that were he not propped up by Washington he'd be yesterday's man tomorrow. As Brigadier (ret.) Shaukat Qadir has written: "Karzai occupies the throne of Kabul, courtesy the US, and knows it. So, when the US kicks him around, he might yelp and snarl, but will always heel."
Karzai's distrust of Pakistan and the Taliban leadership goes even deeper. Qadir points out that he joined the Taliban in 1995 only to break from them a year later disaffected by his own thwarted ambitions as much as by their actions. His father and brother took refuge in Quetta as bitter enemies of the Taliban. That may be the reason why his father was killed -- perhaps at ISI instigation. Instinctively, he has no love for either and. by default, prefers India. However, he is fully conscious that "for meaningful negotiation with Taliban, he has to go through Pakistan. and that Afghanistan, a land-locked country, is critically dependent on either Pakistan or Iran for an outlet." Such cross pressures quite understandably generate disjointed actions rather than calibrated, concerted policies. The same holds for Washington.
It follows that we see constant, animated motion rather than goal-directed behavior; that statements, declarations and communiqués gush forth; but there is scant evidence of intelligent design. Logic? If there is any, it is narrow, tactical, short term and without strategic bearings of any sort.
*These accusations are groundless. Indeed, they are years out of date in their understanding of ISI - Afghan dynamics. Here is Qadir again: "the days of the Taliban carrying out operations planned by, or under instructions of, the ISI are over. Maintaining links may be mutually beneficial for all sides, but both Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar would send the ISI packing .... if they attempted to even suggest what their networks should do. Today's Afghan Taliban could instruct the ISI on covert operations; they need no "handling".