OVER A COFFEE: What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — I —Dr Haider Shah
The US has a much bigger home-grown enemy to deal with: the menacingly out of control national debt. It never rains but it pours. The unemployment rate is also alarmingly very high and, unlike previous recoveries when the unemployment rate would recede, this time it continues to remain high
A decade ago, the US-led NATO forces entered Afghanistan to flush out the Taliban government and hence dismantle the headquarters of a deadly international terrorist movement. Amid fluctuating fortunes, President Obama saw both high and low points in the bloodstained melodrama of Afghanistan in the recent past. On May 2 this year, a beaming President Obama disclosed to the whole world that two special teams of SEAL commandos had killed Osama bin Laden in a daredevil secret operation. Just three months later, a grim looking Obama was condoling the deaths of 30 SEAL commandos after their Chinook chopper was shot down by Taliban insurgents. Despite the symbolic importance of this incident, the salvo that gives rise to my hypothetical question, however, comes not from the militants but from the guns of credit rating agencies and stumbling stock markets. Adding insult to injury, the Chinook chopper incident came hard on the heels of the first ever downgrading of the US debt from AAA to AA+ with negative outlook by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) credit rating agency.
“War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military,” said Georges Clemenceau, a French statesman. Wars need long term spending commitment and a long war always leaves the warring nation exhausted no matter who wins the war. It was this realisation that made Obama reluctant to jump into the Afghan war without a clear strategic goal in sight. The Af-Pak strategy was therefore based on a brief engagement as Obama did not want to enter into a troubled marriage with Afghanistan with no exit option. In 2009, the 66-page fact finding McChrystal report on Afghanistan painted a very dismal picture of NATO forces’ gains in Afghanistan against a determined and well entrenched foe. The general had concluded with cautious optimism that, “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” Now on the eve of announced drawdown of US troops leading to complete withdrawal of NATO forces and handing over security to Afghan security forces, it is not certain whether success can still be guaranteed.
The US has a much bigger home-grown enemy to deal with: the menacingly out of control national debt. It never rains but it pours. The unemployment rate is also alarmingly very high and, unlike previous recoveries when the unemployment rate would recede, this time it continues to remain high. At the current 9.2 percent, it is one of the highest among developed economies and, not surprisingly, the growth rate is sluggish. Social welfare spending has risen enormously but the generous tax cuts by the Bush era resulted in a slide in tax revenue. To worsen the situation, Bush initiated two major wars that sucked huge amounts of US finances. All these factors combined to create a huge gap between the US’s revenues and spending, which, at the moment, stands at a staggering $ 14.34 trillion, which is the highest public debt since World War II. Given this scenario, rebuilding Afghanistan becomes a very low priority concern for the inward looking superpower. The other major NATO partners like the UK, France and Germany are also in the midst of economic hurricane themselves. Growth in the UK’s economy is negligible and managing the debt problem is the driving public policy goal of the coalition government. The Eurozone has been jolted by the near default economies of Greece and Portugal while other European Union (EU) members are also on red alert giving rise to serious concerns about the sustainability of euro currency all together. Given the severe financial distress that all major NATO countries are experiencing, it is not impossible that they rush through the exit strategy and leave Afghanistan at the mercy of local players. Put less diplomatically, our major question should be: what will happen if NATO troops fail in Afghanistan and just go away? Have we considered the consequences of that scenario upon Pakistan?
One main effect will be that visitors from Pakistan or Afghanistan will find it harder to enter the US and other NATO countries. The Obama administration had articulated the primary goal of military engagement in Afghanistan as ensuring homeland security from the operatives of the al Qaeda network located in the Af-Pak region. Once it withdraws completely without fulfilling the task, it will naturally seal its borders for visitors from the region ruled by al Qaeda. The worst hit will be students who wish to go to educational institutions in developed countries as they will find it harder to overcome the suspicion hurdle of the visa regimes of NATO countries. Already, the situation is not very cordial. It will only become worse.
At the national level, our own military schemers, who have long been waiting for such a golden moment, will be thrilled and the emboldened insurgents will receive more support from their benefactors and handlers. In 1989, Dr Najib’s government was able to withstand the onslaught of Afghan mujahideen on Jalalabad. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Najib regime also crumbled as vital military and financial support dried up. It is not hard to imagine that the same thing could happen to the Karzai government as, without military and financial support, long-term engagement with a deep rooted and determined insurgency will prove difficult for a cash starved Afghan government.
What happened when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government signed a peace treaty with insurgents in the Malakand division can be extrapolated to the possible future after insurgents occupy Kabul by force. FATA, Malakand and other adjoining areas in KP will become their hotbeds and a severe law and order problem will follow. Thanks to the late Saleem Shahzad’s work, we all know that there are al Qaeda cells in the security institutions. With an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan and our tribal belt established, we would see greater cooperation between them and insurgents as both would be imbued with a renewed religious zeal and a feeling of invincibility.
(To be continued)
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com