Moving towards a ‘Grand Bargain’

Increasingly frustrated by the “downward spiral” that the US intelligence community sees in Afghanistan, the Pentagon appears to be moving in support of engaging leaders of the resurgent Taliban who are prepared to disassociate themselves from Al Qaeda.

While the seeds for that strategy are being planted now, the next US president — be it the current front-runner, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, or his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain — will likely be advised by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the new chief of the US Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, to support such an effort as the most effective way to stabilise Afghanistan where the “global war on terror” first began seven years ago.

They will also likely ask the new president to support a much broader regional diplomatic initiative designed to reassure Pakistan about its security concerns, especially vis-à-vis its long-time Indian nemesis whose influence in Afghanistan has grown substantially since a US-orchestrated campaign ousted the Taliban in late 2001.

As the predominantly Pashtun insurgency has penetrated deeply into southern and eastern Pakistan and even into Kabul itself over the past two years, regional experts here and overseas have largely concluded that the Taliban and its allies cannot be defeated, so long as Islamabad provides them with safe haven and other aid in the tribal areas across the border.

What precise quos will have to be exchanged for the necessary quids was spelled out in considerable detail in an article entitled “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan” published this week in the influential ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal by Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid and New York University Prof. Barnett Rubin, both frequent visitors to Washington whose views about the region are highly regarded here.

Rashid was named earlier this week by the ‘Washington Post’ as one of a number of key experts recently consulted by Petraeus and members of his new “Joint Strategic Assessment Team” that is being tasked to develop a new campaign plan for Afghanistan that is supposed to be completed in about 100 days, or shortly after the new president moves into White House.

According to the ‘Post’, Petraeus has ordered the Team to focused on two major themes — “government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war.” Those are precisely the strategies Rashid and Rubin highlighted in their article as critical to “Grand Bargain”.

According to New York Times, the draft of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) — a consensus document of all 16 US intelligence agencies — found that the security situation in Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral”. It cited rampant corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai; the exploding drug trade that now accounts for half of the country’s economy; and increasingly sophisticated attacks by the Taliban that has so far taken the lives of more US and NATO troops in 2008 than in any previous year as the main causes.

Meanwhile, the British commander in Afghanistan, Mark Carleton-Smith, said he did not believe that the war in Afghanistan could be won. — IPS