Beginning of the endgame

Even super powers, come to realize, that there are limits to their power.

Last Updated: Jul 17, 2011, 10:47 AM IST

HK Dua

Even super powers, real or presumed, come to realize, sooner or later, that there are limits to their power and ability to shape events abroad.

Nowhere else this has proven true than in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Historical precedents apart, the Soviet Union, in recent times discovered to its cost that it could not sustain its influence, or armed intervention, in Afghanistan for long.

Now the mighty United States has discovered that the war in Afghanistan has shown up once again to its embarrassment that there are limits to its power in this part of the world. International implications apart, its Afghanistan venture has also begun to affect domestic politics.

After a decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, Washington has come to recognize that it cannot sustain a state of war against the Taliban. Mighty armies, equipped with most effective of weaponry, can also suffer from battle fatigue. And scenes of coffins wrapped in Stars-and-Stripes, are never welcome in US homes.

The US has been going through an economic recession during the last few years and the $ 2 billion a week it has been spending in Afghanistan cannot bring comfort to the people as well as the US administration.

Electoral compulsions have always influenced war-and-peace decisions in the US. President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has told him that it simply does not want him to continue fighting in a distant land. Both in his party and among the people Obama’s popularity graph has been soaring after the killing of Osama bin-Laden, and beginning a pull-out from Afghanistan will now serve Obama’s bid for a second term in the White House.

No one in the world is hence surprised about President Obama’s announcement that the US will begin pulling out troops from Afghanistan from next month. He will call back over 30,000 troops in a year’s time: and if all goes well, would like to complete the withdrawals by 2014.

While pulling out troops from Afghanistan will save the US a lot of money and help him with the next election, President Obama cannot afford to convey the impression that the US during his tenure is becoming an isolationist power, or is giving up on its strategic responsibilities in the world.

Hence, the spin in his address in June end announcing his plans, is on “drawing down” of the US troops not on a “withdrawal” of troops. What apparently is being sought to be conveyed is that the US would call back the troops in measured installments to be completed in 2014. He is trying to impress on the international community and the voters at home that the Supreme Commander of the mighty US Army is not running away from what has come to be known as Obama’s war. Apparently, he does not want pull-out from Afghanistan regarded as Obama’s Vietnam.

Nevertheless, guessing games are already on in many world capitals as to what happens in Afghanistan after 2014 when the US and Nato countries would have completed their withdrawals. Will there be vacuum in Afghanistan and who will fill the vacuum, is the vital issue.

In a weak country like Afghanistan, and strategically placed, filling the vacuum can be tempting for other nations in the neighbourhood --- immediate and otherwise. Geopolitics still matters a great deal even if the world order is said to have become fairly global.

Washington is perhaps aware of the danger of the Taliban again filling the vacuum in Afghanistan, wiping off whatever gains of the US-Nato made in the war waged against it during the last decade. The Taliban is certainly looking eagerly towards 2014.

Also, is Pakistan, which has been wanting to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan through the Taliban. Islamabad may be, or may not be, giving up its fascination for acquiring a “strategic depth” in Afghanistan; it would certainly like to see someone amenable to its advice take over in Kabul.

So are perhaps the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians who have always been wanting the US to reduce its presence in the entire region.

Geopolitical and strategic reasons apart, Afghanistan’s minerals, its closeness to the Arabian Sea and oil-rich Persian Gulf makes it vulnerable to an inter-play of conflicting ambitions.

President Obama and his advisers are perhaps aware of the post-2014 situation. That is why the US will decide not to withdraw totally from Afghanistan even in 2014; character of its presence in the country will change in a big way, instead.

Come to think of it, last week’s announcement means that only about 30,000-old troops are returning in a year’s time and Barack Obama will still have more troops there than he inherited from George W Bush Jr. He cannot afford to risk all the gains being frittered away.

Hopefully, Indications are that the US, while pulling out most of its troops, will establish military bases in Afghanistan. These will be more than just garrisons, meant to project the US military presence in the region and also to prevent Moscow, Beijing and Teheran from pulling Afghanistan into their area of influence.

Whether the five military bases will wield authority in the rest of the country remains to be seen. The Taliban groups are not going to relish the presence of American troops within the boundaries of military bases. After all President Obama has struck a blow against Osama bin-Laden; he is yet to gain a big success against the Taliban.

There are short-comings in American strategy dependent as it is based on launching an occasional drone attack out of the military bases at Taliban positions. It would be again a prolonged hide-and-seek extension of the war, an eventuality President Obama would not like.

May be that is why there are reports that Washington is already talking to the Taliban, although at lower levels directly or through the British. Didn’t Obama once say that there were “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban? He had not defined what makes a “good” Taliban. In diplomacy, loose definitions are convenient, to be suitably adjusted for exigencies.

(The author is a senior journalist and now a Member of Parliament.)