As we enter 2014, one looks forward rather furtively to the explosive strategic environment that is likely to prevail in the Af-Pak Region (APR) in the wake of the Afghan Presidential and Parliamentary Elections (05 April 2014) and US/NATO/ISAF withdrawal (December 2014) from the region.Regional and extra regional players are becoming even more proactive in their efforts to assume advantageous and influential positions in the region. The US is trying desperately to retain its grip on the region despite its announced withdrawal while Russia and China are continuing to make further inroads. Iran is moving in to secure its own interests and perhaps would not be averse to assisting the US in getting a mutually acceptable Government in Kabul. Pakistan on the other hand needs to become more assertive and effective in securing its own interests in the region. Meddlesome and marginal India continues to be the joker in the pack at the beck and call of the US. Afghanistan in the meanwhile stutters along its way to another electoral exercise in the next few weeks.The US did not launch the Afghan campaign to give it up meekly without achieving any of its major aims and objectives. It has abiding interests in the region and will certainly try to salvage some of them. It has been defeated in the Afghan War but still has multifaceted geo-economic, geopolitical and geostrategic designs to accomplish. It still feels the need to command the Central Position in the region, to sit at the confluence of the Greater Middle East Region – South and Central Asia Regions, to threaten the Russian under belly and to contain China. The nine military bases that it intends to maintain in Afghanistan will be used for purposes other than supporting the “elected” Afghan Government and the unpredictable Afghan National Security Force only. These bases allow the US to retain a very substantial foothold and influence in the region and obviate the emergence of a vacuum of power which other regional powers like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China or Russia independently, may want to exploit. They will act as the vanguard if the US feels the need to ever venture into this region again. These bases have the potential too, to be developed into intelligence and communication hubs, for the US to gain oversight on Iran’s and Pakistan’s nuclear programs amongst other things. And if required, these could be even further developed to station ballistic missile forces and ABM systems; much to the combined horror of all regional players especially Pakistan, Iran, CARs, China and Russia. Although defeated and ostensibly on its way out, the US is actually here for the long haul!Therefore, a continuation of its policy in the APR is of utmost importance to the US. In order to achieve that it must have a friendly, cooperative and obedient Government in Kabul. It needs to influence the political change that is due in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. It will be very strongly inclined to “manage this regime change” clinically and purely to its advantage. It will ideally, seek a continuation of the same Northern Alliance Government and political dispensation with, at worst, a change of faces only. The US has not been averse to meddling in Afghan elections earlier too. It did so without much success in 2009 when Messers Holbrooke and Eikenberry failed rather spectacularly to keep Hamid Karzai from getting into the Presidency. But this time it cannot afford to fail as it intends to “leave” the region very soon. Under no circumstances will it tolerate a regime that is inimical to its interests. And therein lies the rub. Free, fair and all inclusive elections and US interests appear to be in conflict and mutually exclusive! The US appears to be caught in a vicious Catch 22 type situation. For the elections to be credible, acceptable and democratic in the real and truest sense of the word they will be have to be “all inclusive”. That would require the Pashtun majority including the Afghan Taliban to take part in them whole heartedly. And in a free, fair and all inclusive truly democratic election the Pashtun majority would in all probabilities gain the upper hand – much to the chagrin of the US. The only way to keep them out of the Government would be to keep them away from the elections. And that act by itself would not only rob the elections of all credibility but would pave the way for further strife and bloodshed in the country.Conversely, if the Northern Alliance is brought in on a manipulated mandate then again the Pashtun majority is likely to resist it with force. With the balancing and stabilizing factor of the US/NATO/ISAF Combine fading away fast the Afghan Taliban are likely to make short work of an ethnically lopsided, dis-spirited and crumbling ANSF. Thus the US finds itself in a no-win situation. If it holds all inclusive, free and fair elections then it might not get a government that it desires. And if the elections are manipulated and managed then they will lose their credibility and will initiate further instability, strife and bloodshed in the country and the region!One way out of this imbroglio could have been to hold the Afghan elections under the auspices of the UN who could have played a lesser biased role and perhaps convinced the Afghan Taliban to take part in the elections. However, in the given circumstances, it becomes imperative for the US, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan to come up with a collective and viable plan of action that not only ensures all inclusive, free and fair elections for the entire Afghan nation but also brings in a true democratic dispensation. Thereafter the genius of the Afghan nation ought to be allowed to decide the path that it wants to take to posterity.The US is, however, unlikely to allow it that liberty. In that case, this region and the world at large are doomed for a further dose of widespread instability, terrorism, conflict and bloodshed.The author is a retired Brigadier, a former Defense Attache’ to Australia and New Zealand and is currently on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).