OPINION

Crunch time comes in Afghanistan

M.K. Bhadrakumar



Managing the Afghan war is not going to be easy for the U.S. The Taliban is back — “refit, retrained, and rearmed.”



Even an intrepid traveller will fail to realise the half-hour on the crowded highway leaving Peshawar, by when he is already in the Khyber Pass. The winding road stretches ahead for another 50 km until he reaches the summit at Landi Kotal, just inside Pakistan, after a lifetime journey through mountains and canyons of such staggering beauty that he loses track of time and space. And then a breathtaking decline commences, depositing him summarily at the border town of Torkham. The Khyber Pass simply envelops you with its charm.

The Khyber Agency has always presented in history and politics an intriguing turf of the great game. Indeed, the dispatches in the western media from the Khyber in the recent days proclaim one thing insistently: it is unfair to say Pakistan isn’t fighting the “war on terror,” and with such a committed ally on its side, there is no need for the NATO to bypass Islamabad and deal directly with the tribes.

The Khyber operation will help to blunt the United States and NATO criticism — for the time being, at least — that the Pakistan military easing pressure on the militants in the tribal areas in the recent weeks gave them more space to operate within Afghanistan. It has given high publicity to the operation. Influential western journalists have been taken to the frontline. But does the Khyber operation make a difference?

It must be seen for what it is — a thoughtful public relations exercise. Khyber’s brooding mountains come out with stunning effect on western television screens. During the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, ambitious American politicians almost invariably visited Peshawar for a “photo opportunity” in the Khyber in the company of handsome Afghan mujahideen.

In fact, the Pakistani military was not involved in last week’s operation before the expected arrival of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher in Islamabad. The paramilitary Frontier Corps under the control of the North West Frontier Province government was in charge. A day into the operation, Major General Alam Khattak, head of the Frontier Corps, told Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press on the Afghan beat: “We have occupied, captured all important heights, and we have taken control of the area.”

If so, it was a historic feat. Ms Gannon promptly wrote: “The offensive in the Khyber tribal region marked the first major military action Pakistan’s newly elected government has taken against the militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The government had said it preferred to try to defuse tension with the groups through negotiations, but with threats by Islamic militants to the city of Peshawar growing in recent weeks, the military decided to take action. Khyber is also a key route for moving U.S. military supplies into neighbouring Afghanistan.”

But the “success” of the operation proves nothing — neither the Frontier Corps’ professionalism nor the future of militant activity. There was no fighting; there were no casualties; there was no capture of irreconcilable militants. Nothing changed hands. If anything, Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud turned more rowdyish, warning that he would “turn into furnace” Sindh and Punjab. Baloney, of course. The mystery of Mr. Mehsud deepens.

Meanwhile, the war rolls on inside Afghanistan. It has become much more serious. For a second successive month, more U.S. and NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In June, the number touched 44 in Afghanistan compared to 30 in Iraq. But statistics can never tell the whole story. At any rate, scores of Afghans are also getting killed on any single day in the rain of American bombs. The war is becoming indescribably mean. Britain’s Ministry of Defence admitted to the London Times the use of the controversial thermobaric weapon, Hellfire AGM-114N. When fired from Apache attack helicopters or predator drone aircraft, the missile sucks the air out of the Taliban’s chest, shreds his internal organs and crushes his body. He cannot take shelter, as the blast creates a human-crushing vacuum with a second explosion. He instantly disintegrates.

Britain’s MoD spokesman in London said: “We call it an enhanced blast weapon.” But the unfortunate part is the weapon — also known as vacuum bomb — cannot identify a Taliban fighter. At the end of the day, no wonder, the Taliban’s “area of influence … is constantly growing,” to quote Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s veteran Afghan specialist who is serving as ambassador in Kabul. He believes that the Taliban has influence in “more than half of Afghanistan’s territory and controls up to 20 per cent of that area.”

A Pentagon study, Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, which was released in Washington DC last week, also depicted a “fragile” security environment in Afghanistan. The report anticipated that the “Taliban will also probably attempt to increase its presence in the west and north.” No doubt, the Taliban has infiltrated the Afghan security organs. An inquiry into the abortive attempt to assassinate President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in April as he sat on a podium with foreign dignitaries revealed that at least six Afghans blamed for the attack were government functionaries, including an army general.

Curiously, the Pentagon study did not identify threats emanating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region as a primary security challenge facing the U.S. troops. Instead, it cited a weak Afghan government, a non-functioning economy, narcotics production and corruption as the main challenges. It admitted that the Taliban had “coalesced into a resilient insurgency,” and would likely “increase the scope and pace” of its activities. The study saw the possibility of “two distinct insurgencies” appearing — the Taliban-led insurgency in the south and a “more complex, adaptive insurgency” in the east by several groups — with mutual cooperation and coordination.

But the NATO member-countries resist Washington’s exhortations to step up their troop commitments. The U.S. military does not have the manpower to cover the shortfall. In a presentation recently, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said: “The simple math is that I can’t put any more forces in Afghanistan until I come down in Iraq.” He said the U.S. troops were “pressed very hard” from multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan and keeping up the present operational tempo would be “impossible.” At the same time, Adm. Mullen pointed out that Afghanistan was “at the heart of NATO right now. And I believe that whether NATO is relevant in the future is tied directly to a positive outcome in Afghanistan.”

Clearly, the crunch time is coming in Afghanistan. Added to the crises there — ranging from corruption and misgovernance to the drug problem — and growing alienation of the people due to the increasingly barbarous military tactic adopted by the coalition forces, plus the inability of the NATO to step up troop presence, there is the inchoate factor, what the outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Dan K. McNeill, called the “dysfunctional” political situation in Pakistan.

Diverse power centres

The reality is that whereas Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military took all decisions previously, diverse power centres have since emerged and there are fundamental differences over the insurgency. Across the board — both civilian and military — there is reluctance to use the military for counterinsurgency operations. Army chief Ashfaq Kayani appears to be sensitive to the sentiment in the barracks, which is one of guilt about fighting the Taliban. Thus the NATO and U.S. attempts to shift the locus of the war to the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Pakistani tribal areas are meeting with resistance.

But the problem is also over the U.S.’s war strategy. To quote Mr. Kabulov, “There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated [by the U.S.] … Underestimation of the Afghan nation, the belief that we have superiority over the Afghans and that they are inferior and that they cannot be trusted to run the affairs … A lack of knowledge of the social and ethnic structure of this country; a lack of sufficient understanding of traditions and religion.” As he put it, NATO soldiers and officers “communicate with them [Afghans] from the barrels of guns in their bullet-proof Humvees.” Mr. Kabulov admitted that he couldn’t help having some satisfaction that those who once backed the mujahideen were now suffering in the same way the Soviet troops suffered.

Managing the Afghan war is not going to be easy for the U.S. The window of opportunity in 2001 was to go in with an overpowering force, annihilate the Taliban and get out quickly. Instead, Washington placated Pakistan by allowing the Taliban to escape, settle down in the Hindu Kush and create a surrogate regime that would serve its regional strategies. Now, the Taliban is back — “refit, retrained, and rearmed,” as the former CIA officer, Michael Scheuer, wrote. A winless situation is developing where the choice is between an interminable conflict — oscillating between killing and conciliation — and retreat in shame and agony. Either way, the path seems to be leading to a humiliating defeat.

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