Afghanistan

Into a crucial phase

Print edition : October 27, 2001

An F-14 Tomcat takes off from USS Theodore Roosevelt on October 22.-DAVID LONGSTREATH/AP Photo: DAVID LONGSTREATH / AP

A fuel dump near Kabul goes up in smoke.-REUTERS Photo: REUTERS

Relatives cover the bodies of four brothers, who along with their mother and three other relatives were killed in the air raids on Kabul on October 21.-SAYED SALAHUDDIN/ REUTERS Photo: SAYED SALAHUDDIN / REUTERS

A CPI(M) rally in New Delhi in protest against the war.-ANU PUSHKARNA Photo: ANU PUSHKARNA

As the military action in Afghanistan enters a crucial phase with the induction of ground forces, the U.S. apparently begins desperate moves to secure legitimacy for the war by adding a political component to it.

OPENING with a flurry of night-time aerial raids, the United States' campaign in Afghanistan rapidly graduated to day-time operations. Mastery over the air was established in a matter of days with ridiculous ease. At the level of military doctrine, there has curiously been no challenge yet to the elaborate charade that was played out in the U.S. Defence Department about degrading the Taliban regime's air defences and destroying the nerve centres of its command and control system. Beyond the manipulative media outpourings of U.S. defence strategists, the land-locked and impoverished country that had been banished into the Stone Age as a reward for its loyalty to U.S. interests during the Cold War, had none of these capabilities.

Into the 13th day of the war, the first ground operations were conducted deep within Afghanistan territory. In a calculated strike at the morale of its Taliban adversaries, U.S. Army special operations groups chose Kandahar, the spiritual capital and foundational venue of the Taliban militia, as the theatre for its first ground strikes.

The first ground operations represented a crucial turning point for the legitimacy that the U.S. had been claiming for its military operations. Within days of the October 7 commencement of air strikes, the U.S. seemed to be confronting a global crisis of credibility, with the military side of its operations running far ahead of the political component. When they were belatedly launched, ground operations seemed to indicate that a new phase of the war had been opened, which would be more attentive to the tasks of political reconstruction and consolidation within Afghanistan. Naturally enough, there was immediate speculation that the U.S. had managed to link up with Afghan sources - outside the narrow zone of influence of the Northern Alliance - that were providing intelligence inputs of quality that could serve as the basis for risk-free military action on the ground.

Several candidates emerged for the role of the Afghan mole. The first indication of infirmity within the Taliban regime was a statement attributed to its Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, about the possibility of a truce. This declaration, however, came with a rider - that the U.S. bombing campaign would have to be called off for an indefinite duration to allow dissident elements within the Taliban to consolidate their hold. But within hours of this possibility being broached, Muttawakil himself issued an unequivocal disclaimer.

Another round of frenetic speculation was triggered by the visit across the border by the Taliban Ambassador in Islamabad, Mullah Abdus Salam Zaeef. Stopping at Quetta on his return to Pakistan, Zaeef declared that he had concrete proposals for a halt in the fighting, which enjoyed the blessings of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar. Pakistani authorities welcomed this little sliver of a chance for securing a halt in the military operations that threatened them with serious internal disorder. But after his enigmatic utterances at Quetta, Zaeef seemed, on arrival at Islamabad, to revert to the idiom of defiance even in the face of certain destruction.

A more credible candidate soon emerged. On October 20, the Pakistan Foreign Office confirmed that it was engaged in talks with the Taliban Tribal Affairs Minister, Jalaluddin Haqqani. In his public utterances Haqqani was all belligerence, vowing to lure the U.S. forces into the trap of Afghanistan's cities while he retreated to the surrounding rugged hilltops, choosing his moment to launch devastating strikes against the "infidels". But Haqqani's history, as a former commander of the Hizb-e-Islami militia during the years of the communist regime in Kabul, render his claims to being the U.S.' new strategic asset in Afghanistan somewhat credible.

As the militia of Pashtun resistance to the communist regime, the Hizb-e-Islami is the nearest ethnic and ideological progenitor that can be found for the Taliban. In the years following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Hizb was hamstrung by the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun from one of the lesser tribes. Haqqani's defection in 1995 was a key factor in securing a territorial advantage for the Taliban, a supposed student militia that was then emerging as a new force in Afghanistan - though evidently, except to the most blinkered, under the ideological and military overlordship of the Pakistan army. A Pashtun warlord with experience of guerilla insurgency against the communist regime in the 1980s, Haqqani has a relationship with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence that stretches back to the early 1980s.

Prior to his defection to the Taliban, Haqqani was renowned as the architect of one of the most stunning military reverses suffered by the communist Najibullah government - the fall of Khost in 1991. That was a military operation in which the Pakistan Army and military intelligence are known to have participated in ample measure. In its beleaguered state today, the Pakistan military regime is calling in all the debts of gratitude it has acquired over the years, in the desperate pursuit of a deal that will release it from the onerous burden it now carries - fighting back the growing tide of resentment at home while seeking to retrieve lost goodwill with the U.S.

Obviously, Pakistan is yet to surrender its presumptive right to broker a deal in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S. This is a matter that should cause grave concern within India's security establishment - now augmented by the reinduction of the tainted George Fernandes as Defence Minister. The much-awaited visit to the subcontinent by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has in this sense done little to assuage India's security concerns, since a resolution of the Kashmir dispute is still peripheral to the new war against terrorism. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has with unseemly alacrity accepted an invitation from Powell to visit Washington in November. But he now faces the prospect of being compelled by a curious coincidence engineered by the U.S., to renew the dialogue with President Pervez Musharraf. The strategic advantage against Pakistan that India had sought from its early declaration of the intent to participate in the war against terrorism still remains elusive.

There is a faint suggestion of the bargain that India has sought to drive from the imminent visit to Islamabad of a high official of the Government of Turkey. The U.S. is eager to utilise Pakistan for logistical purposes, but evidently considers it an unreliable strategic ally because of its fractured internal polity. Pakistan was given the task of subduing its truculent neighbour in the early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. But it only succeeded in creating the greater horror of the Taliban regime. For the new project in Afghanistan, the West is inclined to bring in the services of a more stable ally. And Turkey, which has cultural bonds with several of the ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, is considered the most dependable accessory for U.S. interests. The prior history of association with Turkey - notably in U.S.-sponsored strategic alliances in the 1950s - could serve to mitigate anxieties within Pakistan about the destiny of the Pashtun ethnic groups in Afghanistan. And India's own recent incorporation into the strategic axis comprising Israel, Turkey and Jordan could lessen the resentments on this side of the border.

Aside from the obvious risks of internal turmoil in India and Pakistan - not made any less serious by the Hindutva cabal's recent communal rampage in India - this scheme could go disastrously wrong on the global canvas, particularly in West Asia. The U.S.-sponsored compact between Israel and the Arabs has now unravelled with such dramatic effect that even the most loyal allies of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are unwilling to sign on to the new war against terrorism.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now embarked upon the final destructive rampage of his thuggish career, ostensibly in retribution for a Cabinet colleague slain by the Palestinians. As an outspoken advocate of the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Rehavam Ze'evi was different only in degree, rather than kind, from the fanatical Jewish rabbi Meir Kahane, assassinated in 1991 for the espousal of precisely these views. Kahane's organisation, now kept afloat by a group of diehards, has won well-justified notice in the U.S. State Department's annual catalogue of terrorist organisations. But Ze'evi curiously was spared all such odium, gaining instead a berth in the Sharon Cabinet as Tourism Minister - making him the only tourism official who believed in expelling people from his land, rather than inviting them in. Ze'evi's assassination on October 17, ostensibly by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was integrally a part of the cycle of violence that was launched by Sharon in September last year, when as leader of the Opposition in the Israeli Parliament he undertook a provocative visit to the most important Islamic shrine of Jerusalem. It now represents the final pretext that Sharon had sought to put into effect his chilling agenda for the extinction of Palestinian resistance.

The new wars of Western imperialism recognise no durable allies. India for its part has ejected decades of principled dissent against U.S. geopolitical designs, as it has eagerly leapt on board the brutal military campaign launched by the world's richest nation against the world's most impoverished people. But the narrow political perspective of the Indian security establishment could prove its own undoing. In a matter of months, if not weeks, the U.S. is likely to shift its attention towards a part of the global canvas where India's lack of scruple and principle will be more ruthlessly exposed. In the interim period, the divisive domestic agenda being pursued by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its confederates in the Hindutva cabal could foment communal disturbances on a scale not seen for at least a decade. That, finally, may be the price that the country pays for the opportunism that today animates foreign policy thinking.

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