INTERNATIONAL FEATURE: The March of Folly in Afghanistan

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE: The March of Folly in Afghanistan – from the USSR experience and before ?!!

Darjeeling MP, Hon'ble Jaswant Singh

From Project Syndicate
By Jaswant Singh

NEW DELHI – When the Wikileaks exposé of raw United States intelligence data and reports from Afghanistan hit computers worldwide, commentators in Pakistan reacted with vitriolic broadsides. One spoke of “Neocon vampires…blood-thirsty Islamaphobes…think tank irredentists…(Indian) revanchists…planning another dismemberment, so that they (can) continue their blood-fest in…Afghanistan.” Strong words, particularly when compared to US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was only “mortified” and “appalled” by the leaks.

The leaks provoked such fiery debate because the US-led fight against “jihadism” had suddenly run into an unexpected adversary: truth. Indeed, it now seems clear to anyone with eyes that the invasion of Afghanistan was built upon a great miscalculation: that Afghanistan can be successfully invaded.

Throughout history, such undertakings have always floundered. The country may, perhaps, be occupied for a time, but only temporarily; it cannot be conquered. The realization of this historical truth, which the Wikileaks affair has brought home, is now troubling today’s invaders.

The great miscalculation that led to the Afghan invasion was based on a faulty response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Of those who attacked the US, an overwhelming number were citizens of Saudi Arabia, aided by Pakistanis. How curious that in revenge, following the Afghan invasion, the US attacked Iraq, and then, even before that mission had been concluded, ratcheted up the Afghan war with the so-called “surge” of military force.

So, almost a decade after the war began, we are back to asking a basic question: toward what goal is this endeavor directed? If it is about countering terrorism, then why are the US and NATO not present in Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan, which are increasingly terrorist havens? Or is the war in Afghanistan really now about countering the insurgents fighting Hamid Karzai’s government?

In attacking “terrorism” and simultaneously engaging in “counter-insurgency,” the US- led NATO forces in Afghanistan have, unfortunately, become a perpetrator of what they are fighting. Worse yet, a feeling of imperial revival has also become part of the picture, and not only among Afghans. This sense of imperial occupation has transformed the supposed solution to the problem of terror in Afghanistan into the problem itself.

And if the muddle of motives in Afghanistan is not bad enough, there is Pakistan to add to the confusion. Without Pakistan as a strategic partner to provide land, resources, and military support, operations in Afghanistan would be stymied further. But Pakistani support clearly comes at a high price.

The US “buys” an ally in Pakistan that dictates the terms of its collaboration, and simultaneously guards its flanks by keeping open its channels of communication to the Taliban. This, however, is an entirely understandable precaution by Pakistan, whose government, like every other government in the region, must be prepared for the day when the US and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan.

It is, of course, good that the US no longer thinks that Afghanistan can be transformed into some Jeffersonian democracy on the Hindu Kush. But an even more fundamental reservation should have followed, because Afghanistan is more of a concept – a polyglot entity of various ethnic groups – than a functioning state. Yes, Afghans live in a shifting pattern of loyalty to Kabul, but this unity has historically been only episodic, with frequent periods of fragmentation as well.

Only when the ruling “emir” in Kabul demonstrates understanding, tolerance, and strength do Afghan unity and a sort of peace prevail. Finding that type of Afghan leadership is the true challenge today. So it is vital to accept that Afghanistan cannot be governed centrally, only guided. Herein lies the crux of the many failures of the Western alliance: their demonstrated lack of a true understanding of Afghanistan’s essence.

As for other complicating factors, such as the support of some parts of Pakistan’s military establishment for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, a three-decade-old reality must be kept in mind: the Taliban were born of a 1980’s confluence of national interests between the US and Pakistan. Moreover, any attempt to drive the Taliban out of Waziristan risks tearing Pakistan apart.

In addition, Pakistan, in the words of chief military officer General Ashfaq Kayani, views the Taliban as “a strategic asset” in the struggle with India. The US and NATO do not seem to have begun to consider what will be needed to separate Pakistan’s foreign-policy objectives from the requirements of domestic cohesion, since irredentist agitation against India is part of the glue that holds Pakistan together.

In targeting the Taliban, the US has converted them into an insurgent “army,” an idea of resistance that the population is beginning, once again, to find acceptable. Of course, Al Qaeda is made up of unwelcome “foreigners,” but when US and NATO forces attack them, all unite – and Pakistan covertly backs that union.

This dynamic is something that we in South Asia have known and lived with for ages. Wikileaks has now documented our hard-earned knowledge in a language that ordinary Americans and Europeans understand.

The urgent task facing US President Barack Obama is to move American strategy away from the current cul de sac in which it is now stuck towards one that maintains a balance between its own national interests, and those of India, Pakistan, and a China that is looking on intently. An extraordinarily complex end game is underway. The longer it drags out, the more destructive the final outcome will be.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.


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