Mar 9, 2009
An Afghanistan perspective
In the words of US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Afghanistan “is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be tougher than Vietnam.” He was speaking at the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy from Feb 6-8 and his assessment was certainly not overly pessimistic. Conflict has been endemic to Afghanistan, peace alien to it. When Ahmed Shah Abdali founded the Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1747 and extended it up to Kashmir, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan, he could not have imagined that after his death in 1773 the empire would fragment, spur rivalry between imperial Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century, and ignite ethnic tensions, external aggression and internal conflict which continue to ravage the country as Holbrooke embarks on his mission.Several distinct phases are identifiable in recent Afghan history that singly and collectively contributed towards the unending turmoil in the country. In a cause-and-effect like manner each phase prompted a reaction and ushered in the next. Thus the PDPA coup of Apr 27, 1978 instigated the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country from Dec 29, 1979 to Feb 15 1989. The decade-long struggle against the Soviets was a decentralized conflict, fought in many theatres through approximately 647,500 square kilometres of rugged terrain. There was no central figure around whom the people could rally. The nationalist upsurge that normally accompanies a successful freedom struggle was, therefore, absent from Afghanistan. After the Soviet retreat, the next phase was resistance against the Moscow-installed Najibullah regime till Apr 28 1992. The mujahideen government which followed failed to establish its writ beyond Kabul and a few major cities as a result of which local commanders established themselves in their respective areas. The conflict that ensued transformed itself from a heroic war of liberation to an ugly contest for power among the leaders of the factions who had previously constituted the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation forces.The reaction to the prevalent anarchy was the emergence and rise of the Pushtun-dominated Taliban, who by Sept 27 1996 had captured Kabul and established their control over 75 percent of the country. The first formal American pronouncement on the Taliban was on Nov. 18, 1996 during a UN conference in New York. The US delegate stated that the Taliban were purely an indigenous movement whose success had little to do with military prowess and though some of their policies were extreme these could be moderated by engaging with them. The last element in this statement was particularly important. Had there been engagement with, rather than isolation of, the Taliban despite their reprehensible human rights record, Al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits might not have been able to establish themselves in Afghanistan and 9/11 may never have occurred. The post-9/11 US-led invasion of Afghanistan merely ousted the Taliban from the major cities but did not diminish their influence in the countryside. The Soviet-installed PDPA rulers as well as the Najibullah and Rabbani regimes also controlled only the urban centres but could not withstand the insurgencies that sprang from the Pushtun-dominated rural heartland of Afghanistan. The Karzai government finds itself in a similar predicament. Its inability to establish its writ in the countryside has resulted in a Taliban surge and extremist violence which has transformed Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan into the epicentre of regional and global terrorism. Instead of strengthening the police and the regular army, a Public Protection Force consisting of local militias to be armed, trained and financed by the US was announced by the Afghan Interior Minister on Jan 31. Exclusively Pushtun, the force has already been vehemently criticized by minority ethnic groups. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the weapons will not fall into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. According to the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, an estimated 87,000 weapons or one-third of 242,000 shipped by the US between Dec 2004 and June 2008 are unaccounted for and could have been siphoned off by corrupt Afghan officials to the Taliban. As at the time of the Soviet occupation, the US-led troops in Afghanistan face an enemy that resorts to decentralized hit-and-run guerrilla tactics and has the advantage of operating in known terrain with a network of supporters who provide them superior intelligence about American and NATO troops. Though the latter possess enormous force and firepower, they rely excessively on technical intelligence from unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites which are not as reliable as the human intelligence available to the Taliban and their supporters. There is an urgent need to share intelligence and a good starting point is the establishment of a mechanism consisting of the six countries with contiguous borders with Afghanistan plus the US, Russia and Britain. Such a mechanism will facilitate precision targeting of terrorist groups and minimize collateral damage. This has to be accompanied by a concerted effort to win hearts and minds through mega-doses of economic assistance.