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MGG: For Afghanistan and the US, the quagmire begins anew
By M.G.G. Pillai

6/12/2001 12:01 am Thu

15-31 December 2001

For Afghanistan and the United States, the quagmire begins anew

M.G.G. Pillai

The US bombing of Afghanistan continues amidst the UN-brokered conference in Bonn on its future; the dawn, we are told, she dared not hope. But it is a false dawn. The west's interest in her began with the Great Game in the 19th century between the British Raj and Czarist Russia which made Afghanistan a buffer. Russia wanted access to a warm water port, which London was at pains to deny; as the US now an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to an Arabian Sea port, which Russia and Iran move heaven and earth to deny. The playground of the Big Powers of the day made Afghanistan what it is, her distaste for foreigners honed, with her reactive rebellions making it more so; her future dictated from distant capitals. Once that was London or New Delhi or Moscow or Athens. Today, it is anywhere but Kabul.

The Great Game is alive and well, with Afghanistan still the pawn. The Taliban, and Mr Osama bin Laden, once had no stronger backer than the United States, but she shifted her loyalties to the Northern Alliance when she could not have its way and after four jetliners caused so much havoc in the United States three months ago. Now she mounts an Anglo-Saxon war machine, with an arm-twisted international coalition behind her, causes even more disruption, damage and deaths, insists she alone is right, and her cause just.

The US wields the big stick, assumes as the British Raj and the Soviet Union before her, she would succeed as they did not. The high technology of war gives her a tremendous advantage over London and Moscow in their heyday, and makes her tasks simpler. But this presumes an Afghanistan willing to be ordered, and bandied, about. This reliance on high tech warfare comes with it, as in the US, a reluctance to take casualties. What brought the US down in Vietnam was the unacceptable casualties. With high technology, the war must be over before the casualties mount. As the Gulf War showed, this decides nothing. President Saddam Hussein is still in power ten years after he was pulverised from the air. The intiial "success" in Afghanistan now leads President Bush to consider expanding the war into Iraq.

Watching the television coverage of the war in Afghanistan, one gets the distinct impression that whom the United States supports is beyond reproach, and who she deems her enemy disreputable and devoid of any redeemable human quality that death is too good a fate. A country must demonise the enemy for the public support it needs from within to send soldiers to certain death in distant countries fighting wars for no reason than global prestige. So, the Taliban is the devil incarnate. And the Northern Alliance, and the anti-Taliban Pathans, paragons. But these labels in Afghanistan are interchangeable by the moment. Indeed, only six months ago, Washington thought the Talibans paragons and the Northern Alliance the devil incarnate!

The Northern Alliance's carnage and destruction in, for instance, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz exceeds the Taliban's worst. The US exchanges, as Robert Fisk notes in a front-line despatch in the British newspaper, "The Independent", one bunch of murderous warlords for another. General Rashid Dostum, the warlord of Mazar-e-Sharif, once tied a young soldier of his army to the tracks of a Russian tank and drove it around the compound of his headquarters, as a Pakistani reporter witnessed, until bits of flesh and bones and blood were all over the courtyard. Fifty thousand people were killed in the four years Mr Rabbani was in Kabul before the Taliban ousted him.

The US rout of the Taliban and the return of the Northern Alliance to Kabul therefore sets the clock back six years. Afghanistan, with an area twice Malaysia's, was controlled then as now by warlords: President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, in Kabul; Mr Ahmad Shad Massood, a Tajik, since assassinated, in the Pansheer Valley then and now his successor, Gen. Fahim Khan; Gen. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, in Mazar-e-Sharif; Mr Makhmoud Safdar and Mr Mohamed Atta, Turkmens, in Kunduz; Gen. Ismail Khan, or Iranian descent and a Shia, in Herat; Haji Qadir, a Pashtun, in Jalalabad, with Kandahar (the ancient Hindu city of Gandhara) the province of several Pathan warlords, as now. Its supplied heroin to the world markets. The Taliban had curtailed it drastically. This trade has resumed.

The carnage and destruction in its wake is as much the settling of old scores when enemies emerge victors. No amount of Western moralizing could have prevented it. Nor can how Afghanistan be governed be dictated to it. The UN tried it in Asia, in Cambodia, where Vietnam invaded, ironically on the same day in 1979, Christmas Day, as the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. All it did was to to legitimise the regime Vietnam backed by bringing back as King its former King and his son as co-premier but clearly sidelined: Mr Hun Sen, the Cambodian leader Hanoi installed is the UN-installed leader of a democratic Cambodia. In Afghanistan, this would not work when dictated from outside, as the Bonn conference tries to. When it shuts out important warlords and imposes conditions unacceptable in Afghan society, at best it sets the scene for another murderous round of uncertainty.

The US wants 87-year-old King Zahir Shah, exiled in Rome after his cousin, General Douad, ousted him in 1973, re-installed. Kings are not popular in Afghanistan, installed not on popular will but by the dictating foreign power. He ruled for 40 years before his ouster, and out of touch as he could possibly be. The Bonn meeting inches towards the US-backed Mr Hamid Karzai, from the same Populzai subtribe of the Durrani tribe as King Zahir Shah, as the new leader. The Northern Alliance in Kabul baulks at this. The tribal and sectarian hatred amongst the Pathans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Hazaras presents a volatile mix to skew any outside attempt at peace as shifting loyalties.

The Taliban, with Pakistan and Saudi help, in the 1990s, made themselves a force in the Pashtun homelands in southern AFghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. When Mr Burhanuddin Rabbani swept into power with what is now the Northern Alliance in 1993, he wanted to oust the one important Pathan leader on his side he detested, Mr Gulbudeen Hekmatyar, who became Prime Minister. But as an ally of Mr Ahmad Shah Massood, he could not be moved. The Taliban took on Mr Hekmatyar at Mr Rabbani's request, routed him in a pitched battle outside Kabul, and in turn set upon by Mr Massood's forces. The Taliban took this as Mr Rabbani's treachery, declared war on him, and the same shifting loyalties of warlords ousted Mr Rabbani as they now are.

When Afghanistan roils from within, as now, the tribes and warlords unite to drive out the foreigner. When Mr Hamid Karzai talked, in a BBC programme, of driving out the foreigner, every Western report I read meant him to mean Mr Osama bin Laden and his pan-Arab theocratic fundamentalist army. Not so. It includes every foreign country, including the US. Yes, if Mr Osama is in Afghanistan, and some believe he is not, he could be bartered or killed, not for the US$25 million reward Washington has offered but as a consequence of shifting loyalties. But even if he were killed, and the Taliban routed, a new Afghan group would emerge to drive the Northern Alliance, and any government the UN-conference in Bonn decides, out.

But Washington cannot disengage as quickly. It has taken the fatal step to be involved in the Afghan quagmire. An aerial bombing is to cause maximum damage and casualties, however "smart" the technology and the bombs. Technology fails; if only a small percentage of bombs is off target, the result, as we begin to see in Afghanistan, is horrendous. The residual anger and hatred manifests itself in violence far from the scene. The car bombs in Israel and renewed fighting in Kashmir could be a direct, perhaps impotent, response to the bombing of Afghanistan.

But Washington must inspect its handiwork. That is where it is put to its toughest test. When the Taliban, in the early days of its rule, killed an Iranian diplomat sent to negotiate, Iran threatened to invade. Mullah Omar, the recluse Taliban leader, sent a two-sentence reply: "You must decide when you want to invade. We will decide when and how you would leave". The Iran demurred. The US did not. And an Iraq or a Vietnam, or both, is in the making in Afghanistan.

M.G.G. Pillai