Friday, October 16, 2009




    Why is anyone surprised that the US finds itself in a complete mess in Afghanistan as also in Pakistan? The portents of disaster became clear within the first few weeks of the Operation Enduring Freedom – the Kunduz airlift being a prime example – only they became manifest after a few years. The single biggest mistake that the US made was that it enlisted the Pakistan army as its most critical ally in the War on Terror, not realising that this was in many ways the nub of the problem and could never be the solution. Perhaps, under the given circumstances and geo-political realities, the US had no choice but to use the Pakistan army. This however does not answer why the US either turned a blind eye or continued to make concessions to the innumerable shenanigans of the Pakistan army on the issue of the Taliban. After all, unless the US has discovered the existence of the 'Quetta Shura' just now, why have they been soft-peddling this issue for so long?

    Clearly, the single biggest mistake made by the Americans has been their failure to force compliance on the Pakistan army which even now continues to draw a distinction between al Qaeda and Taliban, between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban and between 'good' jihadis (Lashkar-e-Taiba and others who don't indulge in terrorism in Pakistan and follow the instructions of the handlers in the Pakistan army and intelligence agencies) and 'bad' jihadis (those who are directing their attacks on targets inside Pakistan). The evidence of this came recently from none other than the spokesman of the Pakistan army who has been taking pains to make clear the army's intention to target the Tehrik-e-Taliban 'Baitullah Mehsud network', thus sending out a clear signal that the Pakistan army has no problems with the TTP as such, but only with those elements of this umbrella organisation of Pakistani Taliban who are waging war against the Pakistani state. In other words, the Pakistan army is willing to tolerate jihadists who target American soldiers in Afghanistan or innocent civilians in India so long as they don't launch attacks inside Pakistan.

    The primary reason for the inability to make the Pakistan army fall in line is that the Americans neither understand completely the nature of the Islamist phenomenon nor for that matter do they understand how the Eastern mind operates - the native cunning, duplicity, deception, instinct for siding with the winning side and most of all the tendency to give solemn assurances which they have no intention of honouring. The cultural milieu of this region is just too alien, and indeed slippery, for the Americans to know when they are being led up the garden path.

As a result, the Americans have tended to take things at face value, falling hook, line and sinker for any and every self-serving, if disingenuous, argument that has been given to them by the Afghans and the Pakistanis. From the manufactured outrage over the Kerry-Lugar bill and the drone attacks to the constant whining about Indian presence in Afghanistan, and from the desperate attempts to delink the al Qaeda from the Taliban, to the advocacy for giving the Pashtuns a greater stake in power in Afghanistan at the expense of the pro-US Tajik and Uzbek elements, the Americans seem either desperate enough or clueless enough to be buying whatever line, or lie, is sold to them.

    Why else have the Americans suddenly started subscribing to the nonsense of seeing the al Qaeda as being different from the Taliban? The fact of the matter is that the Taliban are nothing but a localised manifestation of the virulence that the al Qaeda symbolises at the global level. From Morocco to the Moro Islands, there is an underlying continuum in ideology, philosophy and world view that binds radical Islamic outfits. While the tactical and strategic alliances of these myriad Islamist groups may differ from place to place, their objectives are more or less similar. This is the reason why any attempt to draw a distinction between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban is laughable, if not downright dangerous. For anyone to say that the Afghan Taliban are no longer thick with al Qaeda or that they have disassociated themselves from the Pakistani Taliban and disapprove of their actions that destabilise Pakistan is at best, naive, and at worst, self-deception. While one can understand the Pakistani proclivity to indulge in this sort of a thing, what boggles the mind is the American's giving credence to this specious argument. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, a Taliban government in Afghanistan is an open invitation to another 9/11 type attack in the US or Europe.

    Apart from the failure to understand the nature of the beast that they are fighting, another major problem of the Americans is that they are either clumsy, or ham-handed and very often apologetic in exercising their immense power and influence. It wouldn't be very wrong to say that they are either unaware of the influence and leverages that they command, or else they are uncomfortable using these instruments to force compliance. Had this not been the case, then after 9/11, they would not have been surprised when Musharraf accepted each and every of their demands. What they don't realize is that whatever they asked Musharraf was so small that he would have in fact been relieved, if not amused, by the list of demands put before him.

Even today, if the Americans were to really lean upon the Pakistanis and apprise them of all the horrible things that can happen to their country, there is nothing that they would not get out of them. All this talk in Pakistan about national dignity and self-respect is only so much hot air and a couple of pricks in the right places and to the right quarters will puncture this hot-air balloon. After all, many of those making inflammatory speeches against the Americans have stashed their ill-gotten wealth in bank accounts in the West, their children study in Western universities, they go for medical treatment to the West, the clothes and shoes they wear come from the West, their cars, their homes, their businesses, their holidays, their preferred destination for exile – the list is endless – is all in the West. And yet, instead of exploiting the vulnerabilities of the Pakistanis, the Americans are more concerned about their own vulnerabilities.

    What the Americans do not understand is that in this part of the world, the slightest hint of vulnerability leads to switching of sides. Had they understood this, there would be no talk of an 'exit strategy' from Afghanistan, nor for that matter would there be any public disclosure of the precarious security situation in Afghanistan, as was done by the deliberate leakage of Gen. Stanley McCrystal's assessment of the Afghan campaign. Even greater damage has been done by the reports of a secret dialogue with the Taliban. Quite aside the fact that this dialogue is being done with people who count for nothing, it is being used by the Islamists and their supporters as a sure shot sign of the imminent defeat of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, something that is making more and more people join the ranks of the Taliban who they see as the future rulers of Afghanistan. Cynical though it may sound, the reality is that negotiations never solve anything; they only enable the formalisation of something that will be decided on the battlefield.

    While there can be no denying that the US is in a very precarious situation in Afghanistan, all is still not lost. There is still a lot that can be done to retrieve the situation. But this can only happen if the US does what needs to be done to set matters right. If this means giving up the quest for a democratic Afghanistan and empowering local warlords by giving them money and weapons to defeat the Taliban, then so be it; if this means forging a common front with India (which incidentally is the only country to have done any worthwhile work to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans), then so be it; if this means squeezing the Pakistanis where it really hurts and forcing them into compliance, then so be it. One could go on and on, but suffice to say that unless the Americans get real, their defeat is inevitable, as is the next 9/11.


    <1400 Words>                    16th October, 2009



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