Thursday, June 9, 2011

US views Afghan war without blinkers

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday on the appointment of Ryan Crocker as the new ambassador to Afghanistan was a mere formality insofar as the ambassador-designate enjoys prestige on account of his successful stint in Baghdad and his professional credentials are not in doubt.

But Crocker's testimony still mattered: how would this veteran diplomat estimate the challenging assignment that lies ahead? Is he cocky about pulling it off, repeating his success in Iraq during a transitional period? I got the sense that Crocker was neither grim nor gung-ho, maybe NYT got it right that he gave the senators an 'unvarnished assessment' of the war.

I found it significant that he didn't fulminate against the Taliban but instead outlined the raison d'etre of the war exclusively in terms of preventing al-Qaeda from gaining an Afghan base for future operations and, secondly, ensuring America's homeland security. No tall claims about making Afghanistan a model country or guaranteeing South & Central Asia's stability and security.

Crocker was also modest about David Petraeus's surge. He spoke of surge having "stolen momentum from Taliban" rather than vanquishing or weakening the insurgents significantly. The surge made “significant progress but, "this progress is still fragile and reversible”.

Spot-on. This was what Barack Obama said. Again, he refrained from exuberantly asserting the Kabul government's capacity to handle the transition; on the contrary, he was guarded about the challenges ahead, which he said are "hard but not hopeless". Crocker was not expected to say anything about US' contacts with Taliban. Equally, he routinely expressed US' backing for an 'Afghan-led' peace process.

But let events speak for themselves. It needs to be noted, though, that Crocker spoke of the insurgents in the same breath - not as 'good, bad and the ugly'; he stressed a "durable, responsible settlement" as the desired outcome of peace process. Crocker was categorical that US isn't seeking military bases in Afghanistan and explained that the strategic partnership declaration under negotiation aims to 'normalise' USG's relationship with Kabul government and "provide a roadmap for our long-term political, economic and security cooperation".

Most significantly, he held out an assurance that the US is not seeking a "presence that would be a threat to any of Afghanistan's neighbors". Afghan NSA Dadfar Spanta is on a visit to Washington and, curiously enough, he is drumming up American support for an Afghan plea that US shouldn't leave Afghanistan in the lurch. Seems Spanta's wish will be granted. Crocker recalled during Q&A that US' exit soon after defeating the Red Army in 1989 had "disastrous consequences", and, "We cannot afford to do so again."

Obviously, US has drawn close to Karzai lately even as tensions in US-Pak ties got exacerbated. Spanta's demarche smacks of the new bonhomie, which, in turn, suits Karzai as well, as it gives him space to negotiate when he arrives in Islamabad Saturday on a historic visit to formally kickstart the run-up to the Afghan peace process.

No comments: