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The Afghanistan Problem, and a Solution

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The United States government is facing a tough challenge in Afghanistan. Eight years of Bush-Cheney Afghan policy have not borne fruit, and the Taliban is charging ahead with gusto. American and NATO forces, on the other hand, have hewed towards a defensive line. August was the deadliest month of American causalities since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Despite the presence of over 100,000-member strong U.S and NATO forces, one wonders what is cooking up in that godforsaken country.

There is an increasingly prevalent public sentiment that Afghanistan is becoming another Vietnam for the U.S. Hamid Karzai has apparently won another election (albeit with charges of vote rigging), but does not enjoy much popular support; many call him the "mayor of Kabul" as his governance is limited to the capital city.

Warlords are ruling the roost in Afghanistan and a recent UN report suggests that drug dealers have been transformed into professional drug cartels. Both the Taliban as well as rogue elements in the Afghan government support drug dealers because they are a major source of income. The Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns, are also successful in fueling sentiments of anti-Americanism by exploiting the poor performance of Karzai's government. Pashtuns are 55% of Afghanistan's population but hardly enjoy a major political representation (apart from the fact that Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun). Afghan government is run by Tajiks and Uzbeks (part of Northern Alliance) who do not constitute more than 30% of Afghan population.

Americans initially depended on the support of Northern Alliance in invading Afghanistan. They treated Pashtuns as traitors and terrorists and launched massive operations against them. Although these military offensives were aimed against the Taliban, the Pashtun population got an impression of mass genocide. Pakistani intelligence agencies, which some believe were covertly supporting the Taliban, encouraged these emotions besides playing host to hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. The Pakistani military establishment thus deceived Americans by giving an impression that they are the front-line allies against the war on terror. (Even the recent Swat offensive was not a true success, as Taliban have started guerrilla attacks).

Pakistani support for the Taliban along with some strategic mistakes of the Bush administration has now resulted in the biggest quagmire since the Vietnam War. Cheney-inspired Afghan policy relied on the support of the Northern Alliance and a suppression of Pashtun elements; a policy that already showed signs of failure in 2005 when the American troops launched a massive offensive against the Taliban. They failed to engage Pashtuns in the Afghan political process and this estrangement helped Taliban in winning the sympathies of Afghanistan's majority population.

The Bush administration prodded Pakistan for its apparent double standards but failed to extract any positive commitment; Pakistanis did launch some half-hearted operations to root out Taliban but failed to capture the top leadership (there are reports of tipping-off by some rogue elements in the Pakistani military). The Taliban 'guests' have apparently started biting back at their hosts by launching a massive campaign of Islamic militancy in the North Western Province of Pakistan; they effectively control more than one-third of that province and the Pakistani military has failed to contain their onslaught.

The Obama administration has adopted a new Afghan policy that will address the Taliban issue through a surge in American troops (up to 21,000 in total). The policy has come under fire even before its implementation; the biggest objection came with the report submitted by General Stanley Mcchrystal, the top U.S commander in Afghanistan, which states that any additional troops are not needed; instead, recruitment and training of Afghan forces will be enough to tackle the Taliban (In a recent development, the Obama administration is planning to replace support units with 'trigger pullers'; this will keep the troop numbers constant but will increase their combat efficiency).

The only solution to the Afghanistan problem is a mass engagement with the Taliban leadership, excluding their very top leaders. Second- and third-tier Taliban leaders might be wooed if offered loads of money and increased participation in Afghan politics. They might also help in the capturing of top Al-Qaeda leadership if Americans are able to win their favor.

The Obama administration also needs to be tough with the Pakistanis. Some in Pakistani intelligence agencies may be supporting the Taliban still in the interest of getting more economic assistance; a dollar-hungry Pakistani establishment needs to stop its covert support for the Taliban and its obsession with India. Only then can they get some economic aid from the U.S. If both of these strategies are pursued, there is a possibility that the situation in Afghanistan improves. The only thing needed is a strong political will, and President Obama has no lack of that.