The Afghan quagmire

At the best of times, Afghanistan was among the poorest countries. Now, after two decades of Cold War conflicts and Taliban torture, the nation starts bleeding again.

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

Tajik refugees at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar in September.-GLADIEU STEPHANE/ GAMMA

Tajik refugees at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar in September.-GLADIEU STEPHANE/ GAMMA

"THE hawks will pick the bones of the Afghan nation until nothing is left, but many Russian soldiers will pay the price. The lessons of Vietnam and nineteenth-century Anglo-Afghan wars have been lost," wrote Luis Dupree, the renowned scholar on Afghanistan as the Soviet military intervention started in the early 1980s. Now with the United States and Britain dropping bombs and missiles, the Afghan nation has started bleeding yet again. American forces too will pay a bloody price if they start sending in land forces.

Afghanistan's location at the Central Asian crossroads has always enhanced its strategic importance. Lord Curzon described Afghanistan as the "cockpit of Asia".

The unfortunate people of Afghanistan have not known peace since the beginning of the 1980s. At the best of times, the country was among the poorest in the world. Before the internecine conflict started in 1979 and it drew in outside forces, there was comparative peace in the land-locked, largely mountainous country. But even at the best of times, health services covered only around 25 per cent of the population. Only around 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the population was literate.

Since the civil war started, at least a million Afghans out of a population of 17 millions have died owing to its consequences. A couple of millions more are refugees in Pakistan, Iran and some neighbouring countries. The infant mortality rate has soared to 30 per cent. Very few could have visualised such a dismal scenario for Afghanistan, which, for most part of the Cold War period had steered clear of the two power blocs. Under King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan had enjoyed unprecedented peace for more than 40 years. In fact, until the early 1970s, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying with each other in aiding Afghanistan. The Zahir Shah regime followed a strictly neutral foreign policy. American-aided projects were allowed to be set up near the Soviet border, while Soviet-built projects such as a hydro-electric dam came up in Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border. Pakistan then was among the closest allies of the U.S.

Zahir Shah, until his ouster in 1973 in a military coup by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, had embarked on a half-hearted attempt to democratise the feudal and tribalistic Afghan society.

Politics at the best of times did not transcend the "tribal milieu". In a way it suited the former King to let things remain the way they were. The monarch did not show any inclination to shed his absolute powers. But there were stirrings for democratic and social change, especially in the urban areas.

The two Communist Party factions, the Khalq and the Parcham, had started organising street protests by the late 1960s. There used to be frequent clashes between the Communists and the conservatives even in those days. In 1970, women and schoolgirls took to the streets in Kabul to protest against the violence unleashed by fundamentalists against organisations fighting for the emancipation of women. In the late 1960s, four women were elected to the country's Parliament. Parliament was of course used as a rubber stamp by the monarchy.

The coup that ousted Zahir Shah hastened the pace of events. The progressive elements in the country, led by the communists, were not happy with Daoud. Although Daoud abolished the monarchy, he conducted himself in an authoritarian and undemocratic way. The communists, who had a strong presence in the urban areas and some rural pockets and had influence in the top echelons of the armed forces, staged a coup in 1978, which they called "Saur Revolution". Nur Mohammed Taraki, who had spent his early years in Bombay (now Mumbai), became the President. He was the head of the Khalq faction. Moscow was taken aback by the pace of events in Afghanistan.

Many Soviet communist theoreticians at the time were of the opinion that the people of Afghanistan were not ready for such a radical transition. The Saur Revolution introduced socialist reforms in Afghan civil society. The communist agenda was to bring about fundamental changes in the political, economic and social structures of the country. The feudal landlords and the religious establishment feared that they would lose their privileges if the progressive regime was allowed to consolidate itself. The reforms were characterised as un-Islamic by the conservative clergy who had considerable influence in the rural areas.

The otherwise well-meaning Khalq and Parcham leadership, while trying to hasten the pace of reforms, was also engaged in bitter infighting. Taraki was assassinated by his second in command, Hafizullah Amin, the leader of the rival faction. The fundamentalist opposition to them had not yet crystallised into a cohesive fighting force despite the efforts of Washington and - Islamabad. A senior Soviet General involved in the Afghan misadventure said that the Kremlin acquiesced to sending its forces only after repeated requests from Afghan authorities. "The legitimate authorities in Afghanistan asked the Soviet Union 12 times to send troops. Nobody invited the Americans," said Valentin Varennikov, who was head of the Soviet military mission in Kabul.

Failure to do so would have meant the setting up of an avowedly anti-communist regime at the doorsteps of the Soviet Union when the Cold War was at its height. Varennikov insists that the Soviet military action in Afghanistan was confined to guarding systems of communications, seizing caravans with weapons, ammunition and drugs and helping the Afghan military eliminate militant groups armed by the Americans and trained by Pakistan.

Once the Soviet troops started assisting the Afghan government forces, it became easier for the Mujahideen - as the fundamentalist opposition forces were named - to paint the Saur Revolution as anti-Islamic. Covert funding on an unprecedented scale by Western governments and their client states in West Asia, such as Saudi Arabia, gave the Mujahideen the upper hand in the bloody struggle, which lasted more than eight years. Osama bin Laden was one of the first Saudi mujahids to come to Afghanistan. He worked closely with U.S., Pakistani and Saudi intelligence. He is said to have personally financed the participation of Arab and other international players in the Afghan war and was present in the region for the entire duration of the war. Osama broke with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after 1990, after the U.S. stationed its troops on Saudi soil.

The orderly departure of the Soviet troops in 1989 from Afghanistan saw the remnants of civil society come under a more intense attack from the extremists, with the CIA and their Pakistani proxies pumping in more aid, for the final kill. The political and military astuteness of President Mohammed Najibullah was negated by the purchasing power of his enemies. The classic example was that of the Uzbek warlord, Rashid Dostam, who was bribed into changing sides, leading to the capture of Kabul in 1992 by the Mujahideen. Bloodshed and mayhem on an epic scale followed.

Human Rights Watch reported that the Mujahideen bombarded civilian targets, cut off water supply, and indulged in torture and other atrocities with U.S.- and Saudi-financed weaponry". By 1993, 30,000 people were killed. The refugee camps swelled mostly with educated people like doctors and engineers and their families. Washington, which earlier backed the Mujahideen, then decided to turn its back on Afghanistan. By then the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc were unravelling and the land-locked, poverty-stricken state was of no immediate importance to the West.

Afghanistan slid into anarchy, as various Mujahideen factions, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Masood, Rashid Dostam and others fought among themselves for control of Kabul. In the years that followed, it was impossible for an ordinary Afghan to travel safely from one town to another without bribing one warlord or the other. Out of the chaos appeared the Taliban, seemingly out of nowhere. It soon became clear that the young Taliban fighters, many of them products of the hundreds of madrassas (religious schools), were trained by the Pakistani authorities, with the tacit acknowledgement of the CIA. Senior officials of the Pakistani armed forces provided the Taliban soldiers with logistics and on some occasions with troops. After their dramatic sweep of more than half of Afghanistan, including the capture of the main cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, in 1996, the Afghan people experienced relative peace for the first time in many years. By 1998, the Taliban had more than 90 per cent of the country under its sway, including the important northern town of Mazhar-e-Sharif.

However, the strict implementation of the Sharia saw a further depletion of the rights of women and religious minorities such as the Shias. But the countryside was freed from the warlords. One of the first acts of the Taliban after taking power was to issue an edict abolishing the checkpoints set up by warlords to extort money from road travellers. In a way, the loss of human rights was compensated by the restoration of law and order. Washington initially was not complaining either. The Clinton administration had indicated that it was not averse to reopening the U.S. embassy in Kabul provided the security situation improved following the Taliban victory.

During its first term, the Clinton administration advocated engagement with, rather than the isolation of, the Taliban regime in the United Nations and at other international forums. There was also the calculation that the Sunni-dominated government would also serve the American goal of isolating Iran in the region. Washington had grandiose plans for the region, in which a role was assigned for the Taliban. The building of an American oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, passing through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, was part of the strategy. The Taliban too was looking for international legitimacy.

But the situation underwent further dramatic change after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. That was when the international focus was shifted to Osama bin Laden and the activities of his Al Qaeda terrorist network. Osama had moved to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. The Taliban government was willing to give him refuge - it was the only government to do so - despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. disapproved the idea. Pakistani intelligence agencies helped him reach Afghanistan. It seems that influential sections of the Taliban owed a bigger debt of gratitude to Osama than to Washington, Riyadh or Islamabad. It is said that the loyal band of Arab mujahideen who fought in the war against the Soviet-supported government in Kabul are an important component of the Taliban's present security system. Also, the Taliban government's refusal to hand over Osama despite the threat of political and military annihilation reflects its commitment to a radical pan-Islamist ideology.

According to authoritative reports, the Taliban today provides sanctuary to armed insurgents accused of terrorist attacks in Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Some 400 Arab Islamic militants from West Asian countries are said to form part of the 055 Brigade, funded by Osama. Khattab, the leader of the Chechen separatist movement, was born in Jordan. These Islamic radicals have their own priorities, the most important being ridding the region of U.S. military presence. The initial warmth with which the Afghan populace greeted the Taliban seems to have vanished. Even before the present crisis, the number of Afghans fleeing the country had increased. The international embargo on the country, imposed earlier this year, has also had a devastating impact on the Afghan people.

The military attack on Afghanistan will inevitably drive the Taliban out of Kabul and other major cities. However, according to analysts, the Taliban still has considerable support among the rural populace. Unlike the mujahideen warlords, its leaders cannot be easily lured with money. It is unlikely that the Taliban will be militarily defeated by a short but intensive military offensive that is currently promised by Washington. A top diplomat told this correspondent that Washington had explicitly promised countries such as Russia that the U.S. was not planning a permanent military presence in the region and would not try to influence unduly the formation of a new government or change the geography of the region. Washington has also given an assurance that it will not make tactical nuclear strikes at the terrorist bases in Afghanistan. Russia and the Central Asian states have extended cooperation to fight against terror only on the basis of these assurances.

All the important players in the region are calling for a broad-based government to replace the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, which has been fighting the Taliban for the last five years, seems to have gained more credibility after the recent events. But it is viewed by many as being too indebted to Russia, Iran and India. Besides, with the death of Ahmad Shah Masood, it lacks a credible leader. Washington would prefer to see the return of King Zahir Shah to Kabul. But most Afghans think of him as a relic of the past. Islamabad seems to have come around to the view that the return of the King could at the most be a stop-gap arrangement. Gulbudin Hekmatyar, now based in Teheran, has strongly criticised the proposal, probably echoing the view in Teheran. Iran and Iraq are the only two countries that have condemned the Anglo-American attacks on Afghanistan.

There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the beleaguered people of Afghanistan.

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