Despite Barack Obama's assurance, there are a variety of reasons to still doubt whether the US will actually pull out of Afghanistan, as I mentioned in a previous article. However, since I am exhorting them to leave, perhaps I could attempt to offer an exit strategy. This is based on the following assumptions: 1 The US actually wants to pull out of Afghanistan and the opposition to doing so stems, apart from genuine security concerns in the region, from a moral desire to not leave the country in a state of chaos and to act genuinely in the best interests of the Afghan people.
2 At a rare press conference with foreign journalists after returning from Brussels, Pakistan's army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani asserted: "Pakistan does not want a Talibanised Afghanistan"; "Pakistan wants no different for Afghanistan than it does for itself, which is peace"; and Pakistan is not interested in influencing the political dispensation in Afghanistan, or words to that effect. I assume Gen Kayani meant what he said and the era of that inherently flawed concept of "Strategic Depth" - ie, a potential power base for Pakistan inside Afghanistan - is in the past.
3 The US is prepared to see a return of the Taliban so long as they, in the words of Richard Holbrooke, "denounce al Qa'eda". 4 And finally, there is recognition that Pakistan, particularly its army, still enjoys some good faith with the Afghan chapters of the Taliban, even though it no longer supports them. Based on those assumptions, I suggest that the US, through the UN, immediately seek to introduce forces from predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and even Pakistan. China should also be included despite the US's rivalry with it because the Chinese enjoy considerable good will among Afghans.
These forces should start to replace the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) as they begin to pull out. Afghan security forces trained by troops of these countries are more likely to enjoy the trust of the Afghan population, rather than those that are considered tainted because they were trained by US forces. In the interim, instead of a cosmetic effort to restore peace in some urban centres, the US should spend the remaining period of its stay in Afghanistan attempting to rebuild and reconstruct what has been destroyed, and exclusively dedicate itself to improving its image in the region. To this end, while reaching out to the population, Isaf forces should be seen assisting in the distribution of basic essentials to needy Afghan people. In many of the remote areas, even wells have become unusable because dead bodies have been thrown in them and there is no potable water for miles.
As I have stated in an earlier article, Hamid Karzai is unlikely to wean Taliban soldiers away from the main force, despite the fact that he was once a Taliban supporter. What is more, he is unlikely to survive in the post-US withdrawal scenario, since today he is protected exclusively by US bodyguards. He cannot trust Afghans, not even his own tribesmen. It is more than likely that he will be part of the excess baggage that accompanies US troops who are withdrawing from the country.
On the other hand, since the Pakistani army continues to enjoy the goodwill of Afghan Taliban - goodwill that the US does not have nor is likely to - in the foreseeable future, assuming that the Pakistani army chief's assertions were in good faith, the US should trust Gen Kayani to negotiate with the Taliban regarding the future of the country. In a report to Mr Obama, Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces, has categorically stated that the Indian presence in Afghanistan increases "regional instability". Indian involvement in Afghanistan should be discouraged and slowly decreased. I am fully aware that such a suggestion from a Pakistani national, a traditional rival of India, will be suspect. However, I make it nonetheless, in all sincerity and good faith in the interest of a better future for the Afghan people.
It is also my considered opinion that, in the post-US withdrawal scenario, India will retain its influence in northern Afghanistan, the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated region, but will soon extricate itself from the Pashtun-dominated areas of the country. Collectively, Afghans have never trusted Hindu-dominated India. It is an interesting historical fact that Afghans have lived with a large variety of religions - Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees, Christians and even Jews have lived in Afghanistan in peace and had freedom to worship - but there has never been a substantial population of Hindus in the country.
There are still supporters of another loya jirga, or grand council of elders, to decide the future of the Afghan. However, the problem is that there are no longer enough surviving traditional tribal elders in Afghanistan who can speak for their tribe as a whole. Consequently, a loose coalition, including some Taliban, is likely to emerge to lead the country after the US withdrawal. The forces of a coalition of Muslim countries and China, under the UN umbrella, would be able to bridge the gap left by the departure of the US for long enough, perhaps a couple of years, to pacify the people and reconstruct the country with US and international financing, and to help develop a more viable permanent political structure.
All this is only possible if the US carries out such an exit strategy, and very soon. Gen Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer