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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001


Afghan unification looks impracticable

NEW DELHI -- In the name of nation-building, a new great game is unfolding in Afghanistan even before the retreating Taliban militia's capacity to hold on to the southeastern provinces has been crushed. The new game is premised on the supposed need to keep that landlocked country united through a broad-based, multiethnic, stable government.

The outside interests that have set that goal for Afghanistan are busily trying to establish ground assets and influence in that war-battered country. Foreign aid, troops and advisers are the tools of this new game. In the scramble to influence the new political set-up in Afghanistan, two things are being forgotten:

(1) Narcotics and terrorism are linked. Without a war on narcotics, the war on terrorism cannot be won, as terrorists and others in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt profanely draw their sustenance for "jihad" (holy war) from drug trafficking.

(2) Afghanistan has been politically and ethnically fragmented for many years, and that reunifying it now is impracticable.

Just as the NATO protectorate of Bosnia-Herzegovina stands functionally partitioned into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim components despite outside intervention, Afghanistan will remain fragmented into ethnic entities formed and maintained by powerful warlords who command ethnically pure military forces. These enclaves will form shifting, uneasy coalitions among themselves.

Clearly, the war on terrorism will be a long-lasting affair because difficult goals need to be accomplished -- to militarily root out the vestiges of the Taliban and to politically deracinate the pernicious culture it represents. It is this culture -- mirrored in the spread of the Taliban-like mindset in Pakistan and elsewhere, including among the top political, military and intelligence echelons -- that threatens the secular, democratic, pluralistic nations. Given that terrorism springs from religious extremism shielded by political autocracy, the most daunting task will be to instill a secular and democratic ethos in societies steeped in bigotry.

The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan represents barely half of the required international counterterror effort in this part of the world. The other half of the requisite effort would have to try and achieve by political means in the Taliban's cradle -- Pakistan -- what militarily is being sought to be accomplished in Afghanistan. Unless the state-run terrorist complex in Pakistan is dismantled, the security of democratic societies cannot be safeguarded from the spreading cancer of jihad.

Eliminating Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammad Omar and other al-Qaeda figures cannot bring enduring success as long as the 4,000 "madrassah" (religious schools) in Pakistan continue to mass-produce jihadis. The internationally steered reform of Pakistan (which needs nation-building no less than Afghanistan) must include the restructuring of these cosseted seminaries that sprang up in the 1980s with funds provided by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other oil sheikdoms. Such bankrolling states, too, are likely to be targets of the antiterror campaign.

Durable success also demands that the United States heed the most important lesson from past mistakes -- the need to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political expediency and narrow military objectives. By focusing on immediate goals in the past, U.S. policymakers ended up creating monsters that have come to haunt the security of secular, democratic states.

The Reagan doctrine of arming anti-Communist "freedom fighters" in places such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua sanctified the doctrine of low-intensity conflict. By funneling billions of dollars worth of arms through conduit states and their agencies, Washington allowed the conduits to bring into play their own interests, biases and rivalries.

Pakistan used its participation in the covert U.S. operation not so much to rout the Soviet forces in Afghanistan as to strengthen its military position against India and to favor Afghan guerrilla groups based in Peshawar (such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezbul-e-Islami) rather than assist groups engaged in combat inside Afghanistan.

Pakistan could push its own agenda because the U.S. accepted its condition that its Inter-Services Intelligence agency control the weapons flow and select the arms recipients.

According to research done by American scholar Lucy J. Mathiak, the ISI siphoned off an estimated 50 percent to 70 percent of such military aid, with the weapons coming handy to ignite an insurgency in Kashmir from 1989. Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner in "The Lessons of Modern War" say that barely 30 percent of the supplied aid reached the Afghan guerrillas.

U.S. weapons and other aid created the Frankensteins that have come to haunt regional and international security. Hekmatyar, fattened by the ISI at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, was responsible more than anyone else in blocking a peaceful transition to post-Soviet rule in Afghanistan.

Another Frankenstein, bin Laden, was unsuspectingly endorsed by the CIA during the Afghan war. And in response to his subsequent terrorist exploits of the 1990s, Washington has done precisely what bin Laden himself has done -- mythologizing him, turning him into a hero for Muslim radicals.

It was at a White House ceremony attended by some bearded and turbaned Afghan guerrillas in the mid-1980s that President Ronald Reagan proclaimed mujahedin such as bin Laden as the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" of the United States. One such moral equivalent, Mullah Omar, gave vent to his destructive genius last spring by demolishing Afghanistan's most famous antiquities, including two towering, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues -- the priceless legacy of Indian Buddhist pilgrims who settled in the region before the advent of Islam.

To fight Soviet-style atheism, U.S. policymakers did not hesitate to use religion for political ends -- the Catholic Church in Central America and Islam in Afghanistan. Islam was employed to unite the Muslim world and spur the spirit of jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now with the jihad fires threatening to go out of control, the blatant misuse of religion for political purposes can no longer be tolerated.

Terrorism cannot be tackled the way the way the U.S. fought two other interconnected "isms" -- communism and atheism. The first war of the 21st century is already being likened to the last war of the 20th century -- the fight against communism -- with some commentators suggesting that it will take a new Cold War to defeat terrorism. That will prove divisive. More importantly, it misses the point that terrorism and monsters like bin Laden and Mullah Omar are the haunting byproducts of the war against communism and atheism that the West was supposed to have won.

Terrorism can be effectively contained only by strengthening the current international consensus and by inculcating the values the West stands for. Democracy and human rights are the antidote to terrorism. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The new Great Game cannot hide the fact that democratic societies in general do not breed and shelter international terrorists.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.

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