Thursday, August 21, 2008

Afghanistan: the unravelling of a warlord confederacy

Afghanistan was just a way station in the broader civilisational mission of ridding the world of terrorism, a brief halt for the armies of virtue before they went on to nobler tasks. When the larger project got mired in a strategic mess of exclusive U.S. authorship in Iraq, Afghanistan still remained the saving grace, with all the signs it was showing of change for the better.

The puncturing of that delusion began from about early-2006, though the virtuous took a while to recognise that reality. Since May this year, casualties among U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan have consistently outstripped the toll in Iraq. Afghan civilian deaths meanwhile, have multiplied, increasingly as a consequence of misdirected attacks by U.S. and allied forces. Each such incident elicits a volley of protests from the Afghan national government, followed by a commitment from the foreign forces that investigations would duly be conducted. And as virtually foretold from the moment the inquiries are launched, the finding, finally, is that the occupying military forces acted “appropriately”.

August 18 may have been a decisive moment in the shattering of these illusions. Coordinated attacks on that day killed ten members of an elite French paratroop company near Kabul and caused extensive damage to one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan. It was the worst toll from one day’s fighting for western troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy’s, hasty rush to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath, was as much about deflecting domestic criticism – he had increased French troop commitments a mere five months back – as to express solidarity with soldiers trapped in an unending and unrewarding mission.

Expectedly, Sarkozy was told by his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, that the consolidation of insurgents on both sides of the border with Pakistan, was really the source of the problem. Karzai’s denunciations of Pakistan, even if well-founded, have acquired much of a ritual quality, not merely because he has been pressing the issue for long, but also because he and his allies have acknowledged – in deeds if not in words – that there is nothing much to do about it.

The reasons why the border with Pakistan is now bristling with insurgency against the Karzai regime, owe entirely to the architecture of the western plan for Afghanistan. Because it did not want the retrieval effort in one failed state to end in a situation of two failed states, the west connived in the early phase of its military campaign in Afghanistan, with Pakistan’s strategy of withdrawing most assets invested in the Taliban regime, or at least all that could be salvaged. This withdrawal was part of an agreed compact by which Pakistan’s army chief and president then, Pervez Musharraf, sought in the cataclysmic defeat of his country’s strategic ambitions, a pretence – even if a very thin one – that the country was well-served by the war in Afghanistan.

The militant tendencies transferred to Pakistan’s northern areas, to greatly add to the restiveness of the Pashto tribes there, were handled through perhaps the first armed incursions by the Pakistan army into areas that had zealously guarded their autonomy. Whether this was make-believe, or a serious effort at extending the authority of the Pakistan state to the territorial frontiers, where its writ had never run strong, is a matter for future historians to assess, when they write up the balance-sheet of the Musharraf years.

The visible outcome of these engagements though, was a precipitate withdrawal of Pakistan’s armed forces and a rather demeaning peace treaty with the chieftains of the tribal areas.

The west, having connived at the evacuation of Pakistan’s assets in Afghanistan, applauded the armed incursion of the Pakistan army into the tribal areas, and perhaps unaware of the irony, warmly congratulated Musharraf on his peace accord with the tribal chiefs.

But with Musharraf now having passed into history, abdicating the presidency he had engineered for himself in a sham election conducted by a defunct national assembly, the civilian government that had, belatedly, summoned up the will to oust him from office, remains even more clueless about dealing with the tribal frontiers.

Afghanistan meanwhile, approaches meltdown, since the leadership that the west had anointed for the supposed democratic transition in the country, has carved up the country into a multitude of personal fiefdoms. Rather than attend to the rigours of building up a genuine sense of national solidarity, the west opted for a confederacy of the same warlords – Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Ismael Khan, Karim Khalili, and numerous others – whose ouster by the Taliban was greeted by the people of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s as a form of deliverance.

Denied authority in most of the country, Karzai himself has decided, according to authoritative assessments, to cultivate his own fiefdom in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – currently Afghanistan’s most fertile breeding grounds for illicit opium. A loss of image in the west, the risk that he may be seen as a patron of the lethal trade in narcotics, is for Karzai, clearly a lesser danger than being overwhelmed by the confederacy of warlords that the western military intervention in his country has created.

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