by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1430)
April marks a grim milestone in Afghanistan’s tortuous history. On April 27, 1978 the country was plunged into crisis following a Marxist-led military coup in which President Sardar Daud and virtually his entire family was killed. An internal uprising followed leading to the Soviet invasion of December 27, 1979. After killing more than a million Afghans but still failing to subdue them, the Russians decided to cut their losses and run. Seven years of internecine fighting resulted in the Taliban grabbing power in Kabul in 1996. Despite their primitive ways, they restored some semblance of law and order only to be shattered by the US invasion and occupation of October 2001.
Seven years of brutal warfare by US and NATO forces and the murder of some 100,000 Afghans, the country is no closer to peace. Resistance to foreign occupation has intensified. Afghan Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar admitted on February 26 that between 10,000 and 15,000 Taliban are fighting inside the country and operating across 17 provinces. The International Council on Security and Development estimates 72% of the country is under insurgent control. Here is why. A million pounds of bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in 2007; an even larger tonnage was dropped in 2008 resulting in 40% more civilian casualties.
An opinion survey commissioned by a coalition of Western television broadcasters (US-based ABC News, BBC and the German ARD network) found only 40% of Afghans believed the country was going in the right direction compared to 77% in 2005. Conducted between December 30, 2008 and January 12, 2009 in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, the survey found only 47% had a favorable image of the US compared to 83% in 2005. Three-fourths of the respondents viewed coalition air strikes as “unacceptable because they put too many civilians at risk.” The number of respondents who considered attacks against coalition forces justified had doubled, to 25%, and up to 44% “among people who report coalition bombings in their area.” People need food — 63% cannot afford it — before they would celebrate the opening of new roads.
President Barack Obama has announced a surge of 30,000 troops and adopted Afghanistan as the “good war” but he also wants to involve regional players Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India. Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations admitted on March 13, “We can’t defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Obama is pursuing a two-pronged approach to change the dynamics even if not the strategy: scale down expectations of victory — “ensure” Afghanistan does not become a sanctuary for terrorists — and peel off “moderate” Taliban from the hardliners. The Saudis have also been pressed into service to secure this objective. Even Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e Islami who is on the US “terrorist” list, has been approached but so far without much success. The chances of dividing the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, are low; they demand a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the release of all Taliban prisoners before they will negotiate. They believe they are winning and that foreign troops will have to leave, sooner rather than later.
US defeat in Afghanistan, however, poses an existential threat to Pakistan. It is being turned into another Cambodia with a grim twist. During the Vietnam War, the Americans bombed their way out by killing two million Cambodians. The process of Pakistan’s destabilization is in full swing with Pakistani rulers and generals acting as willing accomplices in this criminal enterprise for a fistful of dollars.
One must still ask whether the Americans intend to leave Afghanistan. Beyond US rhetoric of the war on terror, their principal objectives of invading the country — access to Central Asian oil and gas, encirclement of Islamic Iran and containment of China — have not been achieved. It is inconceivable that after spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan, the Americans will simply walk away. One clue to their intention to stay for the long-term is the money they plan to spend on “training” the Afghan army and police. The “Afghanistanization” of war is aimed at making the Afghans fight each other but this will not happen as long as there are foreigners to fight.
What about the future? It is clear Pakistan will replace Afghanistan as the theatre of war. Washington has announced plans to start bombing “Taliban hideouts” in Baluchistan. The murderous attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas have resulted in an insurrection against the Pakistani State. Baluchistan is already seething with anger. The Baluchistan Liberation Army, funded by the Americans, British and Indians, is involved in attacking Pakistani troops. American bombings of Baluchistan will only pour oil on a raging fire. It is no secret that the Americans would like to break-up Pakistan; the Greater Baluchistan project is high on their agenda. This will achieve several objectives, the most important of which are denial of the deep-water Gwadar port to China and control of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.
When Americans say the solution to Afghanistan’s problems lies in Pakistan, they mean rearranging Pakistan’s geographical landscape. Such are the murderous ways of Uncle Sam.