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Afghanistan - Treading on the Toes of Iraq

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by Ehsan Azari

The two-day NATO’s heads of government summit in the Latvian capital, Riga, on November 28-29, has ended with incremental progress, as its first-ever combat beyond Europe in Afghanistan is facing an increasing Taliban insurgency.

The 26 member states for the first time have agreed to scrap some of their caveats on the use of their combat troops outside their bases in the war-torn country when the 2008 deadline for a gradual rendering of security responsibility to the Afghan government was made. Under mounting pressure from the US and Britain, Spain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, and Macedonia agreed to commit additional troops to the current 32,800-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan.

The lessons of the five years since the US-led forces have overthrown the Taliban regime reveals that a solely military might from outside could do little in Afghanistan unless it muster sufficient local support for change and democracy. Pursuance of military path has so far failed to knock out the Taliban, largely for Pakistan’s covert support for the Taliban leaders and for allowing its soil to be used for Taliban’s training and re-supplies. In the face of the deteriorating security situation, and the realisation that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, Pakistan seems to have stopped hedging its bet. Its press and foreign office have already begun a propaganda campaign about the “defeat” of the NATO forces in Afghanistan. It will be the West’s strategic mistake if it leaves Afghanistan, once again, at the mercy of Pakistani generals and mullahs who are currently trying to play a power broker in Afghanistan in a bid to bring their proxy, the irreconcilably anti-Western elements among the Taliban back to power.

Simultaneously, besieged by parasitic warlords from the Northern Alliance, the government of President Hamid Karzai is rapidly failing to deal with a revitalised surge of Taliban insurgency. His government’s share in the counterinsurgency combat and consolidating security in the country is shrinking. Most importantly, his own fellow Pashtoon tribes in the south and east of the country are losing faith in his government, in whose eyes he is seen largely as a cover for the warlords representing Afghan ethnic minorities. This year alone, 4000 Afghans died—the highest number since invasion began, while thousand more were left internally displaced in the Pashtoon dominated south and east. Afghanistan is harvesting 92% of the world narcotics.

The war in the south and east of the country has mostly affected Pashtoons. Every civilian killed or home bombed fuels the cycle of Afghan vengeance, expands space for the Taliban’s recruitment and regenerative capacity. It also strengthens the driving force for their extremist ideology. The situation is worsening and Karzai is losing the power and credibility to shape events in his country.

The beneficiary of the status quo is Pakistan that continues to regard the Taliban as a vital tool for the country’s foreign and domestic policies. With the supervision of the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) and radical mullahs, the Pashtoon Taliban espoused a perverted extremist ideology, misogyny, and cultural barbarity, unprecedented even by Afghan standards. The same thing was done in Karshmir, which in Nehru’s vision was “the sub-continent’s laboratory of secularism”.

For Pakistan, the Taliban is an insurance policy against Indian regional influence and more importantly, to pulverise emerging nationalism in the country, which is regarded a serious threat to its existence. However, Pakistan is experiencing a separatist aura in its Baluchistan province where Pakistani generals and mullahs failed to flourish a Taliban-style religious ideology. That is why Pakistan is doing everything in its power to keep Taliban’s explosively religiosity, and prevent a spell-over of nationalism into the Pashtoon communities in both sides of the Durand line.

Pakistan’s new trump card in the Afghan game is its nuclear arsenal that is being used as an excuse for compromise with its homegrown Islamic militants. To attract awards and blandishments from the West, President Pervez Musharaf tries to convince the West that a hard push against radical mullahs will mean the nuclear arsenal falls in their hands. The Western pleading tone is read in Pakistan in this very context. The best way in Musharaf’s eyes, to deal with Afghanistan, therefore, has to be his signing of a lucrative contract with the West over the Taliban.

So the military reality and political rationale suggest that a change in direction of NATO’s fight in Afghanistan is necessary. For a start, Karzai with help from the West has to open a political front in order to moderate the Taliban and detach them from the ideology of terror. The West can win in Afghanistan provided it overcomes Pakistan’s insidious resistance to civilising and moderating the Taliban.

The final verdict on whether NATO has salvaged Afghanistan and promoted democracy will hinge on its ability to implement a comprehensive policy, re-order its strategic priorities in the country, and shift its focus towards winning the hearts and minds of the majority of the Afghan people.

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