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Paper No. 853                                 05.12.2003

Guest Column-by Gaurang Bhatt

(The views expressed are author's own and not of South Asia Analysis Group -Director)

The never truly unified country of Afghanistan has been a failed state for centuries.  This dismal outcome is not unexpected as the only unifying force Afghans have is Islam.  It is a diverse hodgepodge of Pashtuns, Hazaras, Turkmen, Uzbeks and Tajiks with divisive ethnic and even worse local tribal loyalties, ruled in the past by Persia, Khanates of Central Asia, Mongols and Sikhs.  Repeated British failures to subjugate it and the satiety of the rapacious Czars afraid of colliding with its opposing behemoth the British

  Empire, led to a patched up make believe country sustained by British subsidies.  Most of the time a powerless monarchy in Kabul (The Iron Emir excepted) was unable to exercise control over the periphery.  The condition is the same today except that America has replaced Britain and instead of the King, there is an equally impotent President. 


The history of Afghanistan is rife with tribal factions and fluctuating allegiance.  Nearly 150 years ago, the British installed Shah Shuja, their puppet on the throne, after dislodging Dost Mohammed.  They had to buy off some tribes, coerce others and eventually allegiances shifted and only Dr. Bryden returned from Kabul to Jalalabad as the solitary survivor of a total of 17000 men, women and children. Dost Mohammed was eventually restored to the throne and his words are still quotable and applicable to Britain then, Russia earlier and USA now.  "I have been struck with the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals; but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of an empire so vast and flourishing should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country". Repeated British Afghan wars led to one still recurring nightmare.  When Afghanistan was occupied by Western non-Islamic powers the Afghans united and drove them out and once foreign occupiers had left, the Afghans resumed their internecine warfare and petty power struggles. 

A generation of war, factional fighting and internal terror in a country leads to decimation or migration of the educated, intelligent, well off and rational thinking populations. The relentless, senseless violence is self-selective and leaves behind only three categories of persons.  The first and the largest are the helpless poor and unskilled, the second are the diehard fanatics, blinded by causes or beliefs and the third are cunning and unprincipled opportunists.  This is what has happened to Afghanistan.  The communists murdered the rightists and the Mujahedin killed the leftists.  The moderates, educated, skilled, rich and rational, emigrated and we are left with the three categories mentioned earlier. 

Overlaying this background Pakistan mid-wifed the birth of Taliban, primarily at the behest of the drug and transport Mafias and the dream of strategic depth of the military junta. After Sept. 11, when America suffered a major Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on its own territory, it chose the military option for Afghanistan. The real cause of the present dismal picture lies in the history of Vietnam and the lessons of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. America has a notorious intolerance for casualties and every President knows that his popularity and chances of re-election depend on avoiding the returning body bags.  This necessity of pleasing a fickle electorate addicted to cheap energy and consumer goods and the memory of Soviet rout and implosion, led the administration to provide air and special forces support to the beleaguered and recently decapitated (by Ahmed Shah Massood’s assassination) Northern Alliance.  They were to do the fighting and suffer casualties.  The President and his team indulged in unrealistic wishful thinking that their puppet regime would bring peace and unity to the war wearied Afghans. They are ignorant of the first fundamental of military strategy, that you cannot occupy or rule a country by air superiority. Their second folly was to seek the help of Pakistan, which had nursed the Taliban to power, and their failure to perceive that the ISI was clandestinely still doing so.  Their belief that a known rogue is better than an unknown stranger and the military logistics, led to an alliance with Musharraf, whom they are now compelled to praise publicly while having serious misgivings in private. There is also the morbid fear of transference of Pakistan’s unsafe and loose nukes to fellow Islamic terrorists.  

So we are now left with an Afghanistan ruled by bickering regional warlords trafficking in narcotics and a puppet Pashtun Karzai at the center in Kabul, wielding no real power.  This generates anger and resentment in the majority Pashtuns, who straddle the contentious, disputed and porous Afghan-Pakistan border.  They find moral, material support and sanctuary in Pakistan, the publicly praised American ally and team up with Al-Qaeda and the radical Islamist, American hating Hekmetyar. The Cambodia solution is not possible because the UN and NGOs have been driven out by terrorism and lack of security. The Kosovo solution is not possible because no one wishes to commit enough military or police power that could lead to casualties.  An economic stabilization is not possible because of donor fatigue and the poor fiscal state of America, Japan and the EU countries.  A true democratic government is impossible due to illiteracy and the rigid tenets of Islam. 

Finally there is a generally prevalent misconception that America wishes to promote democracy in the Middle East or the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Its record in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Philippines, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Zaire and more recently the Central Asian-states, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Gulf states clearly shows a preference for right wing dictatorships amenable to American hegemony and economic interests.  That is its aim in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Currently it wants American bases, a pliant local leadership willing to provide cheap energy or consumer goods by exploiting its own poor or selling the state’s natural resources below true value.  

Russia has neither military nor economic strength to figure in the future of Afghanistan and its only interest is to contain Islamic extremism so that the contagion does not spread to Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian republic that matters to Russia. As to India’s interest in Afghanistan, the demarche or rebuke given by America for the opening up of consulates by India in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif etc. should be enough evidence of the importance America gives to it.  

The situation in Iraq has taken unexpected turns because of foolhardy assumptions by the US administration.  Contrary to all public statements, the top priority is to reduce American presence and casualties before the election season and leave behind a puppet government willing to keep oil cheap and half a dozen strategic bases to intimidate neighboring countries. If America wanted a democracy it would hold elections.  It cannot do this because it knows that elections would result in a Shia dominated theocracy, more friendly to Iran. The Pentagon was hoping for her own Vichy government headed by the convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi. The whole Iraqi Governing council plot has failed and they will find a general or strongman and an elected Majlis without power and have them sign a treaty to provide bases for an extended American presence and cheap abundant oil and withdraw the bulk of the troops before elections, if the insurgency and casualties continue. Ayatollah Sistani is more accommodating than his Iranian counterparts and does not want an executive or legislative dominance by the clergy, but insists on a judicial monopoly.  He is taking a leaf out of the American system and falling back on Marbury vs. Madison.  The difference is instead of the Constitution, he wants Islam and thus he will hold the power by declaring that any unwanted executive decree or legislative fiat is incompatible with an Islamic constitution or Islam. 

The same unacceptability of body bags and fiscal constraints will hamstring America’s options.  Once again India’s concerns should be to prevent infiltration from Pakistan by increased technology and manpower and strengthening its armed forces to be capable of fighting wars simultaneously on the Pakistani and Chinese fronts, while having a navy capable of policing from the Persian Gulf to the Sunda and Malacca straits, at the same time building up a nuclear triad.  With the American misadventures, Islamic radicalism is bound to increase and India would do well to consolidate joint weapons research and production with Russia, Israel and France.  The first is a former great power in severe economic straits, threatened by American encroachment on the Baltics and eastern Europe since the implosion of the Soviet Union and more recently the American influence in Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  The second is justifiably worried like India about Islamic threats.  The third has a history and desire to be nobody’s vassal.  All three have superior technology comparable if not superior to America and that is what India needs badly.

(The author is a retired neuro physician and an occasional writer. Email-  .)