Leon Panetta, the over-his-head US secretary of defense, is in Afghanistan today after a day on which the greatest number of civilians were killed so far in 2012. But Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, isn’t there. He’s in Beijing, meeting with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an all-Asian bloc led by China and Russia. The SCO, not surprisingly, is expressing a greater interest in building ties with Afghanistan as the United States begins its long, drawn-out drawdown to 2014. And Panetta, it seems, is trying to interest India, a rival to China, which is taking a greater interest in Afghanistan too. It’s the Afghan endgame.
First, the civilian dead.
Karzai is charging that a NATO airstrike killed eighteen Afghan civilians, including woman and children, as part of a US-led ground operation in Logar province. Reported the AP : “Villagers displayed 18 bodies at the provincial capital on Wednesday, including five women, seven children and six men.…
“This is unacceptable. It cannot be tolerated,” President Hamid Karzai said in a statement condemning the strike in Logar. He criticized NATO for not being able to provide an explanation for the vans piled with bodies of women and children that villagers displayed to reporters.
What’s especially sad about the slaughter in Logar is that it occurred immediately following a suicide bomb attack blamed on the Taliban in which three suicide bombers killed twenty-two innocent civilians at a marketplace in Kandahar. Taken together, the two incidents represent the worst day of violence in Afghanistan so far this year, providing further evidence—if any was needed—that that idea that the United States is making things better in that war-battered nation is a sick joke.
The Times reports :
President Hamid Karzai condemned the strike in the strongest terms and decided the episode was serious enough to cut short his trip to China where he was participating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit meeting. “NATO cannot justify any airstrike which causes harms to the lives and property of civilians,” Mr. Karzai said in a statement released by his office.
Like many such airstrikes that result in civilian casualties, the Logar attack involved units of US Special Operations Forces on the ground.
Panetta, whose trip to Afghanistan wasn’t previously announced, is busily complaining  about nearby Pakistan’s role in providing support to the Taliban and its allies. But China, Pakistan’s ally, appears ready to step up its involvement in Afghanistan, and the SCO meeting in Beijing invited Karzai to attend as an official observer. The members of the SCO, which has also asked Iran to participate as an observer, include China, Russia, and four Central Asian states, all of which have an intense interest in Afghanistan. As the AP reports :
Central Asian states meeting in Beijing this week say they want a role in stabilizing Afghanistan after most U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2014, with China’s economic juggernaut leading the charge.… Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters Wednesday that the development of Afghanistan was “closely linked to security and stability” in the region, and that Afghanistan becoming an observer member of the SCO will speed up security and economic cooperation.
The United States ought to welcome the SCO role in Afghanistan. Indeed, China and Russia will be reluctant to get too involved too fast in Afghanistan until the civil war begins to resolve itself, but at the very least China and work with Pakistan to facilitate Taliban participation in peace talks. Neither China nor Russia, which both have problems of their own with radical Muslims, much like the Taliban itself. But both countries want political stability in South Asia, and both countries have a stake in oil and natural gas reserves and pipelines that crisscross Asia and could transit a peaceful Afghanistan.
Of course, the Obama administration seems obsessed with its “pivot to Asia” and enhancing its military presence in the western Pacific and the Indian oceans. So it’s not surprising that Panetta, who stopped in India, is encouraging New Delhi to take a greater role in Afghanistan. Some hawks in the United States believe that India, which is militantly opposed to Taliban-style Islamism, ought to get involved in supporting and training Afghan security forces—something that would provoke the wrath of Pakistan. And they see India as a pro-American counterweight to China. Worryingly, the Washington Post reports :
In Afghanistan, the United States until recently has encouraged limited Indian engagement, consisting largely of economic development, for fear of spooking India’s longtime rival Pakistan. But with the U.S.-Pakistan relationship at an all-time low, the United States appears to be pushing for deeper Indian engagement that includes training Afghan security forces on a larger scale.
Uh-oh. As the Post notes, India isn’t interested in any confrontation with China, certainly not as a US ally. While India has its own problems with China, including border disputes, the Indians are smart enough not to allow themselves to be used by the United States in a geopolitical game.
But the real point is this: if the Obama administration truly wants to exit Afghanistan and leave behind something moderately stable, it needs an all-out effort to bring India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran into a concerted effort to stabilize that country and to convince its warring factions to lay down their arms (including the Taliban). So far, I just don’t see any evidence that Obama has a global game plan to bring all these players to the table.
Meanwhile, the civilians die en masse.