Detoxifying a nation

What started off as Enduring Freedom has in reality become Enduring Hatred. Armed operations must end in Afghanistan before a political process can begin, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2006 02:14 IST

The scores of well-equipped and well-armed Europeans and Americans who thought they had gone into Afghanistan as liberators and dispensers of freedom and democracy are increasingly being seen as infidels belonging to an occupying force.

That is how Afghanistan today sees the Nato/US forces. Not having received the promised security, basic law and order or economic reconstruction, livelihood or rehabilitation, most Afghans have begun to climb on to the fence and not take sides between the resurgent Taliban and the ‘firangi’ forces, waiting for the end game to play itself out.

Meanwhile, sitting on top of the crumbling heap is a good but helpless man, imported from Washington, but without the freedom to act or the authority or equipment to impose the will of the State on the rest of the country. Real oversight lay with Zalmay Khalilzad, a White House consigliere, who acted as a pro-Consul.

Thus, from the very outset, Hamid Karzai’s authority was hobbled in a world of powerful warlords who commanded strong ethnic loyalties. Afghanistan is a land where the main ethnic groups, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras, have not concealed their hatred and suspicion of the Pushtoons. And each successive year is a bumper year for opium production, as the economy continues to sink to newer depths.

Those of us who have had to deal with insurgencies and terrorists for decades know that there has to be an adequate and mobile force that militarily engages the opposition before a political process can be attempted. In Kashmir, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists have never numbered more than 3,000 to 3,500 in an operating season.

Yet, the Indian force deployed along with the paramilitary has been anywhere up to 100,000. Assuming that there are 10,000 Taliban loose in Afghanistan, a force of 250,000 would be needed to engage the Taliban. What is needed is boots on the ground, not aerial attacks that create more enemies than they destroy. Not only is the present Nato/US force of 40,000 inadequate, it is also counterproductive to deploy a force thinly.

Added to this has been the futile attempt to introduce democracy in a society that is conservative, strongly divided into ethnic groups and tribes and where loyalties are hierarchical. Afghanistan is not ready for this experiment and has to be left to be governed in a very Afghani way.

Ironically, democracy has been sought to be introduced with the help of a dictator who has no such visions for his own country, Pakistan, where the people are ready for this experiment. Frustrated at the increased activities of the Taliban, Hamid Karzai has not hesitated to blame Pakistan for his troubles and Karzai and Musharraf have ended up having slanging matches more than once.

No one today remembers the first mistake, when an angered America launched a massive air attack in October 2001. This over-muscular response had the fly-swatter effect. A few Taliban and al-Qaeda members did get killed, but the Big Ones disappeared and the rest dispersed in different directions, but chiefly into Pakistan to re-establish themselves in the Fata area that became Pakistan’s Special Terrorist Zone.

Into this STZ came various jehadi foot soldiers from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even Chechnya, who at times were in Iraq. Helping this rapid deployment force of the jehadist soldiers was a benign Pakistani government that looked the other way and provided the additional man-power. Foreign Direct Investment into these joint ventures came from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The original sin continues. Wars fought from the comfort of air-conditioned consoles thousands of miles away or bombardment seen as blips on LED screens do not record the sound of pain or the anguish of death that a cluster bomb dropped from the air brings. Cluster bombs are nasty pieces; they come in various sizes and can be as heavy as 1,000 kg and three-metres long.

They come in canisters that are dropped from the air or lobbed as artillery shells and are designed to explode before hitting the ground. Lethal bomblets are let loose over an area that can be as large as two cricket fields. Many can lie unexploded for decades; others kill without distinguishing between an innocent citizen, terrorist or soldier. They go down in records as ‘collateral damage’.

Thus, while the Soviets left a legacy of landmines all over Afghanistan, the Americans are going to leave behind unexploded cluster bombs. What started off as Enduring Freedom has in reality become Enduring Hatred.

In its report of December 11, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group has described the agreement that the Pakistan government entered into with the Taliban in September 2006 as appeasement. The report states, “Following the September accord, the government released militants, returned their weapons, disbanded security checkposts and agreed to allow the foreign terrorists to stay if they gave up violence. While the army has virtually retreated to the barracks, this accommodation facilitates the growth of militancy and attacks in Afghanistan by giving pro-Taliban elements a free hand to recruit, train and arm.”

Three months ago in this column (Addicted to the Talib, September 25), it had been mentioned that on realising that the Taliban could not be militarily defeated, Musharraf had thought it better to strike a deal with it as the next force in Afghanistan. It was also mentioned that Fata would become a safe haven for Arab and Central Asian terrorists.

The situation has continued to worsen in Afghanistan. With over 4,000 killed this year alone, there seems to be no let-up in suicide attacks even in the winter. Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan continue to face Taliban attacks that are increasingly sophisticated and frontal and not just hit-and-run. Islamabad probably calculates that it is in a win-win situation. Continuation of trouble in Afghanistan retains Pakistan’s relevance to the US and may eventually force the US to sub-lease Afghanistan to Islamabad.

What Pakistan does not calculate is that, listed 10 in the failed State index, Afghanistan may just implode one day. Neither of these options is acceptable. The consequences of a failed State in our neighbourhood are far too dangerous for India and for Afghanistan’s other neighbours, including Pakistan. Afghanistan is far too close and too vital for India to remain indifferent to what is happening.

International force has to be increased substantially and given the mobility and firepower to tackle the Taliban. Such a force has to be seen to be effective — which it is not at present — not only in tackling the Taliban but also in providing security to the average Afghan. The force must have the choice to exercise hot pursuit. Countries like India that have a stake in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan could look after the infrastructure and human development through hospitals, schools and road construction.

The UN, the US and Nato must insist with Musharraf that his doctrine of enlightened moderation dictates that Islamabad should stop aiding the Taliban and abide with the wishes of his main benefactor and protector, the US. There should also be no deal with the Taliban under the mistaken and naïve assumption that there are moderate Taliban. There is no such thing. Moves to strike deals with such self-proclaimed groups only indicate a readiness to cut and run. This in turn strengthens the bargaining power of the opposition, would be suicidal for the region and must not be allowed to happen.

Vikram Sood 1is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.

First Published: Dec 20, 2006 00:19 IST