The Tribune - Spectrum

, October 7, 2001
Lead Article

The Afghan Trap
Himmat Singh Gill

Osama bin Laden

ONCE, not very long ago, Rustam and Sohrab had battled it out on the banks of the mighty Okus river (also called the Amu Darya). It is said that the clang of their powerful swords was heard across Central Asia. Today, much in the same region where Afghanistan borders Uzbekistan, Tazikistan and other Muslim-predominant independent nation-states, one of the largest build-ups in the annals of military history has taken place. It could well surpass the earlier 1979 invasion by the erstwhile Soviet Union and possibly trigger off a wave of violent convulsions around the world.


In 1979, President Habizullah Amin of Afghanistan had invited the Soviets. But today, America and its allies would enter forcibly into the country, looking for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, who have afforded him sanctuary. The land of the sturdy Afghans — be they Pushtuns, Uzbeks, Taziks, Hazaras, Shias of western Herat or the blue-eyed Nooristanis on the eastern frontiers — has known no peace or tranquillity for any viable stretch of time.

The Pathans know the art of survival in "badla" or battle and their tribal loyalties are fierce. They have very few effective boundaries to guard as the porous Durand Line is often transgressed. However, a number of wars over the last few centuries have cemented the Afghan resolve of resistance and self-reliance. They proved to the British during the British-Afghan wars and later to the Soviets that it is easier to enter Afghanistan than to get out of it. The spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the exploitation of oil, gas and mineral resources in Central Asia, and the manoeuvring for power by the larger nations of the world have all left ugly pockmarks on a once enlightened, non-aligned and justly ruled land.

But today, after the horrifying bombing in the USA, no one would raise any questions if the present US military exercise and deployment is targeted at Osama bin Laden and his followers, and if that eventually leads to an open war against global terrorism. However, with geo-politics changing almost every day, it seems that the political and geographical make-up of Afghanistan may be altered beyond recognition after the Taliban exit from power and when a new dispensation is imposed on the country. This, however, may not be able to meet the aspirations of the Afghan people and the hope for stability in the region, nurtured by many well-wishing neighbours like India. The return of King Zahir Shah to rule the land with the active support of the USA and other European nations is unlikely to improve matters much. It also remains to be seen how the warriors of the Northern Alliance who have been waging a long and costly war against the Taliban will react to the return of monarchy over their own heads. An Afghanistan struggling to come to grips with its own problems of religious identity, governance and the eradication of poverty, would be on the lookout for the type of leadership that only the Northern Alliance can provide them. Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian enmity, the availability of warm water ports in the Gulf and the Arabian sea, and the desire of many a nation to establish a permanent presence in the region, all possess the potential for considerable diplomatic and strategic interference in the affairs of Afghanistan. Any act of one-upmanship by a group of nations bent on imposing their kind of a world order on Afghanistan may invite prompt counter-response from other powers in the region. Even a weakened Russia, the CIS bordering Afghanistan, Iran and China are unlikely to welcome a new regime in Kabul that is inimical to their interests. India, though not a bordering state, is a close neighbour of Afghanistan where a large Hindu and Sikh population used to reside in better times as Afghan nationals. It cannot sit back unconcerned. Even otherwise, the tactical and strategic importance of Afghanistan, bordering an India-hostile Pakistan, cannot be overemphasised. During the Soviet invasion, one still cannot forget the diplomatic mess India made when Charan Singh was Prime Minister and later when Indira Gandhi came to power. We failed to call a spade a spade and sided with the Soviet Union, much to the dislike and anger of the Afghan people. In the present times, a non-aligned, moderately secular broad-based Muslim dispensation, which will interact energetically and freely with its other neighbours, including Pakistan, is the best bet for an Afghanistan that has bled for long. Rabbani’s Northern Alliance appears to be the logical choice for this role.

The emerging post-Taliban dispensation will give rise to other interesting possibilities in the region. Iran has said it will support a coalition against terrorism, but only under UN supervision. Many of the Islamic nations are also meeting next week to suggest measures that will combat the poor image that the Islamic world is stuck with because of the WTC and the Pentagon bombings. Pakistan has once again emerged as a frontline state and a forward outpost for the US and NATO forces. Pakistan’s foreign debts will soon be eased off, the supply of military hardware and nuclear know-how will resume shortly and the benevolence of Japan and some other countries should redeem their faltering economy. The overt and covert supply of arms and munitions routed through Pakistan for the fight against the Taliban (ironically, the Taliban originated from Pakistan) would create large arsenals in the region. It can be put to good use against India at a later date. A large-scale logistic infrastructure now being put in place for the US forces will also remain once the allied forces have departed. The question that one must ask is how is it that much of the diplomatic gains that we had garnered post- Kargil vanished overnight, and Pakistan has been able to upstage us with admirable ease. Was something lacking in our response to the US call for help against the Taliban? Our rather hasty action in pushing the USA to put some of the terrorist outfits operating in Kashmir under the umbrella of anti-terrorism has only elicited the response that the USA would look into it later. One wonders whether we are even being consulted in the deliberations underway to combat terrorism. It is also within the realism of a dim possibility that in the ultimate dispensation in Kabul, the USA may yet find a place for the moderates within the Taliban fraternity. Indian diplomacy has to work overtime to recover lost ground.

Back in the USA, anti-war demonstrators chanting "I don’t want war" and "Stop the war" have taken to the streets. The stress is not so much on taking revenge but in despatching more foodstuffs to the starved Afghans. Such a policy will pay handsome dividends as the local population may get disenchanted with the harsh Taliban rule. With the winter already at the doorstep, food stocking on a large scale will have to be resorted to if the Afghan population is not to starve. The UNHCR and the UNICEF are already active on this front and it would be a good gesture on India’s part if it were to fly in wheat and other food grains into Afghanistan as part of the UN-aided efforts.

On the military front, all efforts must be made to avoid an open war even at this stage. The casualties in advancing in a north-south direction will be heavy in any ground action. One knows these mountains well, and to ferret out the terrorists from their hideouts will be costly and time-consuming. Also with the free flow of nuclear capability, at least at the tactical level, there is no telling when a hasty decision to hit back in retaliation could engage the whole region in conflict. In spite of the UN resolution on rooting out terrorism and the NATO’s resolve, care would have to be taken that an open conflict in this region does not aggravate matters further. In our context, Prime Minister Vajpayee would have to decide what role India should play in helping avert a conflict that could drag on for years. With foreign troops located in the vicinity on a semi-permanent basis, there could be a downslide in foreign trade for all countries in the region.

Two other issues need to be examined in depth. Given the present Afghan situation, migration of the Afghans into neighbouring countries will become a virtual exodus. Secondly, the heroin trade market in Afghanistan may boom again. The migration this time will be of a gigantic nature and may create unrest and turmoil in the country that affords them a haven. As far as opium trade goes, it is estimated that Afghanistan provides over 75 per cent of the total world supply. Heroin worth US $30 billion is believed to be in the possession of the Afghan warlords today. The Taliban appear to be making frantic efforts to push these supplies into the European market so as to earn cash for the purchase of military hardware. As is well known, one conduit for these supplies is Pakistan and there are reports that the Taliban is now once again permitting the sowing of poppy in the countryside. Gun- running and heroin-running has often been associated together.

It needs to be reinforced that though the USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the major players in the current Afghan turbulence, other nations are also getting affected. In Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalists do not take kindly to American troops’ presence and, in case of a war, the Saudi oil reserves could be at risk. If the USA expands its attacks on Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, whose population is Palestinian-predominant, these countries could face convulsions domestically. In Iran, a US-led war could actually help President Mohammed Khatami establish better relations with America since a Shia-dominant Iran has never had any time for the Sunni Taliban. In Iraq, the noose is already tightening with the USA examining possibilities of squaring up matters there once the Afghanistan drive achieves any tangible success.

Pakistan’s economy and standing is likely to be resurrected in the interim, though how General Musharraf handles the pro-Taliban and Arab backlash in the long run is a matter of debate and speculation. China will continue to play the ‘lone ranger’s role, safeguarding its Muslim insurgency and doing nothing at the moment to annoy the USA. Russia will support the Northern Alliance and seek a larger role in the post-Taliban era in governance and policy formulation within Afghanistan. If India does not move fast enough (why is it that we always burden ourselves so much with an Arab and Indian Muslim backlash?), we will be left behind in every department of international diplomacy and future Indo-Afghan relations.

Today, Afghanistan once again stands at the crossroads of its jinxed destiny. The common Afghan continues to suffer privation and hunger as the world powers go after Osama bin Laden and global terrorism. Nations seeing their own self interests are jockeying for advantageous positions of gain and profit. But as one who has lived with the Afghan people and seen their unending suffering, it is necessary that the comity of world nations should move in urgently to improve the lot of these forgotten and unfortunate people.

History will not forgive those nations, who forget their fellow brethren in distress. Along with the rooting out of the terrorism, the social reformation of Afghanistan must be accorded the highest priority.

The writer was the Military Attache in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.

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