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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
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
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
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
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.