On Oct. 12, The New York Times reported what could potentially be the biggest challenge to U.S. foreign policy makers in this “new war” on terrorism. A week into the air-strikes, the U.S./U.K. bombing campaign of Taliban strongholds and alleged terrorist training camps was showing signs of being mitigated, even neutralized, by the thoroughly complicated political rivalries enmeshed in Afghanistan and beyond. The U.S.-led campaign was being held hostage, it was reported, and the failure of allied planes and missiles to attack front-line Taliban troops was proof of such. Then, in the afternoon of Oct. 20, the first “real” offensive against Taliban front-lines was launched. Why the delay? What quandary made the U.S. military ignore the Taliban troop buildup so far into the campaign?

Paul Wong
Waj Syed

The problem lay in the breakdown of yet another American dream. This time, the dream involved the Northern Alliance, a loosely formed military coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others ethnic minorities pitted in defiance against the largely Pushtun Taliban. Until recently, the Alliance was being envisioned as the natural successor of the Taliban by U.S. strategy pundits. Surgically precise and relentless bombing, mixed with some special forces incursions by the U.S. and Britain, followed by the decimation of the Taliban military muscle, followed by a political and military vacuum in the region, followed by the Northern Alliance replacing the Taliban to fill that vacuum. That was the plan emanating from the Pentagon and State Department”s policy-kitchens until a few weeks ago. Simple and straightforward, set forth to deliver the goods, so to say. But now a new geopolitical tryst in the power equation has emerged as a complicating corollary.

A Problem Besides Osama

The U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan is now in a regional cross-fire. On the one hand are the unrelenting complications and enmities within the Afghan political paradigm over the question of who is going to rule Afghanistan once the bombs stop dropping. On the other is a risk of the multi-national coalition being thwarted if extra-Afghan concerns, like those of Pakistan, are not met, all leading to the possible stagnation and eventual inadequacy of the delicately engineered military campaign.

Until Oct. 20, Taliban forces outside Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif were still mounting against the Alliance, which has been hoping to charge through the broken lines of a Taliban army destroyed by U.S. and British bombing. The bombing, however, hadn”t materialized. So far, the U.S. had opted not to attack the Taliban front lines around Kabul so as not to create a vacuum to be filled by the Northern Alliance (the campaign so far had targeted fixed and mobile weapons systems and communication centers in major Taliban-held cities). The reasoning lay in what the Times called a “grim strategic reality”: Pakistan, probably the pivotal state in the U.S.-led coalition, has threatened to withdraw from the merger and withdraw permission of airspace, logistical and intelligence support if such a vacuum is created to facilitate a takeover by the Northern Alliance. The Pakistanis clearly don”t want the minority Northern Alliance to enter Kabul, and are in favor of a more broad government in Afghanistan.

The new equation now finds the U.S. bombing campaign to be “regulated” and aimed at more than just destroying the Taliban and the terrorist bases they sponsor, as well as flushing out Osama bin Laden. Creating a broadly-based government in an otherwise anarchic Afghanistan acceptable to other regional players as well as the Afghans themselves is now a further goal which must be met to stabilize the region. The Bush administration thus finds itself in a nation-building campaign, besides a militarized one.

The Pakistan Factor

This is hardly surprising. Pakistan has a natural propensity to desire a friendly government in Afghanistan. Pakistan”s nemesis, a largely Hindu India, lies to the east, while in the west is Shi”ite Iran which has always had plans for regional hegemony. Pakistan is thus anxious about the possible formation of a new government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance, whose constituent Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara elements have received economic and military assistance from both Iran and India and even Russia, a former Cold War foe. The domestic backlash Pakistan is risking now due to its support for the U.S.-led coalition also justifies its concerns for relative stability within Afghanistan, whose 10 million Pushtuns share communal ties with Pakistan”s own 20 million plus Pathans.

A recent Daily column blamed Pakistan for the birth of the Taliban. Denying the U.S. an active role in that equation which is a surprising error, considering that the U.S. was the major benefactor of the Mujahideen, the Taliban”s predecessors in the Afghan war against the Soviets the column”s commentary did not cover the intricacies of the Pak-Taliban diad. How and why has Pakistan been involved with the Taliban?

It all started with “strategic depth,” an idea articulated on the contingent prediction that in the event of a conventional war with India, a much feared scenario in Pakistani defense planning due to India”s larger conventional force, Afghanistan”s friendly soil could serve as a safe-haven for the Pakistani military to strategically withdraw to. That flawed approach has now proven to be a grave one on the part of the Pakistani military planners starting in 1994, Pakistan”s cultivating close relations with the Taliban has finally culminated in the present reality of animosity between them. Little did the Pakistanis perceive at the time that narrow minds would make shallow friends. However, the fervent search for a neighboring client state by the Pakistanis has precedent in the past.

The quandary in the Pak-Afghan relation stretches beyond the events of Sept.11 when Pakistan was forced to finally give up on the Taliban by the new international reality instead the present situation is predicated on years of interventionism in Kabul by Islamabad. Handpicking favorable Pashtun leaders since the Soviet withdrawal, militarily speaking, and the U.S. departure, diplomatically speaking, had not only made Afghanistan a political laboratory for a praetorian Pakistani intelligence regime, but also ensured the alienation of the Afghan ethnic minorities. The Indians, wanting to recreate a Kashmir for Pakistan in Afghanistan, and the Iranians, weary of the militancy of the Sunni Taliban, became the natural benefactors of these minorities. Even the Russians pitched in with military assistance, anxious about the spill-over effects in the former central Asian Soviet republics that was being exported by Taliban orthodoxy. If some comparisons are drawn out, it wouldn”t be too much to say that a multi-polar “mini-Cold War” has been going on in South and Central Asia for the last decade.

Still, some obvious warning signals were missed by the Pakistanis, the first among them being Pakistan”s own ethnic make-up. A strong Taliban-led state in Afghanistan, which practiced ultra-orthodox Sunni Islam and was severely ethnocentric was never going to be compatible with a multi-ethnic Pakistan that was 20 percent Shi”ite. The bargain was both territorially and politically risky, for it would amalgamate ethnic strife with religious sectarianism, something particularly onerous for a barely democratic Pakistan.

But the signs were ignored. Instead, when the Taliban stepped into the political equation in 1994 and even garnered some public opinion in their favor, bringing law, harsh as it was but still a much needed change in the prevalent anarchy of Afghanistan, Pakistan almost zealously supported the new movement. A politically unstable Bonnie had met a militant and indoctrinated Clyde.

As the clich goes, the rest is history. The Taliban”s military achievements, successful thanks to Pakistani backing, made them even more severe and unyielding as far as diplomacy went. Recent Pakistani efforts to negotiate a deal with the Taliban over bin Laden were an embarrassing failure to the Pak-military top brass which was fancying itself as a potential peace-maker. Whatever leverage Pakistan had with the Taliban has evaporated. But now that the fate of the Taliban seems sealed due to the offensive launched against them, what sort of future lies ahead for Afghanistan?

Past, Present and Past?

The question, probably the biggest one in the political fray right now if you overlook bin Laden, is frustrating even to the experts. A recent Jane”s Sentinel article stated, rather bleakly, that while calls for a Marshall Plan-like program for Afghanistan were not out of the question, the failure to establish an administration that was not representative of the ethnic groupings would “merely fragment Afghanistan beyond repair and stymie reconstruction efforts.”

Ominous here is the probability of recreating the same conditions that brought the Taliban into power. This is the creation of a Northern Ireland-style scenario in the Sunni/Muslim sphere instead of the Catholic/Protestant one which predicates Northern Ireland”s tensions. Punctuating such tensions is the possibility of factions that would be willing to put to test their ethnic and religious differences with new weapons brought with the international aid that is likely to flow in the economy, for there is a thriving black market of arms in the region.

Undoubtedly, a contingency plan is required in the case of the Northern Alliance gaining power, for that is a possibility, whether Pakistan and the U.S. like it or not (the U.S. has asked the Northern Alliance to not enter Kabul once it breaches the Taliban lines). Representatives from India, Iran and Russia met in New Delhi on Oct. 16 when Colin Powell was in Islamabad, and reports indicate that the talks were aimed to discuss the further reinforcement of the Northern Alliance.

So the plot thickens, for even if the U.S. reigns in its campaign against front-line Taliban troops (as it did until recently) so as not to act as the Northern Alliance”s air-force, the Alliance could gain control of Afghanistan anyway. And now that the offensive against Taliban ground troops has started, what guarantee does the U.S. have from the Northern Alliance that it will resist the option of controlling the capital? Furthermore, how would the U.S. explain that to its Pakistani allies, who would then find themselves in a potential confrontation with the Northern Alliance, for the Pakistanis have been supporting the war effort against the Alliance all these years? Furthermore, what of the majority Pashtuns? While marginalising 40 percent of the country is not an option, the failure to do so will consolidate isolation from the north of the country and vulnerability to a second chapter of “Talibanesque mobilization,” while Pakistani Pushuns (Pathans), who will by no means watch silently from across the border, might find themselves crossing over for yet another jihad.

Those are not the only possibilities. Growing ethnic tensions might further complicate the task of forming any stable and broadly representative government in Kabul. The Jane”s Sentinel reports that “the bleak alternative may be a de facto partition of the country between a southern “Pashtunistan” and a northern minority confederation punctuated by continuing low-level war.” By no means a far stretch, this is reminiscent of the Baltics, and ominous here is the implication that there is a clear risk of recreating a Talibanized Afghanistan once the bombing stops, this time in fractions. Unless the involved foreign administrations are willing to militarily intervene in the already shambled country every now and then and also be responsible for displacing millions of civilians and killing on a continuum, a new approach for the future is in order.

Much Ado About Nothing

Clearly, Mr. Bush”s dichotomizing rhetoric of good and evil, terrorists and victims, is not written by his speechwriters for handling such complicated notions. But the aims of the White House have been clear from the outset: Destroy the operational effectiveness of the Taliban, so as to facilitate the special forces that will be deployed to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and his merry mullahs. Simple, yes, but clearly not enough for Afghanistan”s woes. The Jane”s Sentinel report suggests that “if Afghanistan is to stand even the slightest chance of being anything other than a failed state, the leaders of those states keen to remove the Taliban will be required to demonstrate a level of prescience thus far absent from their strategy.” It is now obvious that such a shift to “remove” the Taliban, at least the one envisioned by the Bushies, is going to create other geo-political and ethnic disasters in the region. That”s the first problem.

The second problem is the potential instability of the entire region. Nuclear Pakistan, America”s newly allied sweetheart, is apprehensive about anything that involves power in the hands of the Northern Alliance. President Parvez Musharraf has ardently stressed that he doesn”t want to see the Alliance “draw mileage” from a deposed Taliban regime. Musharraf”s fears are justified. Pakistan does not want to face-off with an unfriendly regime in Afghanistan while it has domestic as well as foreign concerns like India to deal with. Also, considering the domestic violence and economic costs Musharraf is putting up with on the home front for facilitating this coalition, his demands need hearing. Meanwhile, India, Iran and Russia are conferencing to try to make happen the opposite of what the Pakistanis want, each for its own reason. With the Northern Alliance, the Indians would like to flank Pakistan with an Afghan regime that is aggressive towards that country, while Iran and Russia would want a more complacent Afghan government that is not “exporting” a Sunni jihad.

The third problem, and probably the greatest one, is the lack of consensus on the envisioned future of Afghanistan. It would be optimal for the U.S. to barge in, capture and present Osama”s head on a platter (like Cheney was quoted demanding) to the American public, and then get out, just like it did after the Soviets left in 1989. Clearly, that is not an option now the White House and the State Department have confirmed that. So what”s it going to be?

The U.S. cannot, and will not, be allowed to unilaterally dictate the terms of the new government in power, and that is compounded by the Bush administration”s weak resolve for nation-building. Britain is silent on the issue. Turkey wants to get involved, but only as a security presence once the fighting stops. That leaves the bulk of the nation-building to the United Nations, which has dispatched its number one negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, as the envoy for the region. But who ever is in charge of such an operation has a daunting task ahead: working with the Northern Alliance minorities, other disenfranchised factions of Afghanistan, and the majority Pashtuns to satisfy their needs, as well as addressing the regional worries of Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and maybe even China, which is troubled by its own Islamic militants in its western Xinjiang region. To say that meeting those concerns to the mutual satisfaction of all the involved actors is going to be difficult is a naive understatement, not to mention that the failure to do so would make this “war” much ado about nothing.

Waj Syed can be reached via e-mail at wajsyed@umich.edu.”Under the Flak” is a series focused on the geo-political implications of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. The purpose of the series is to introduce readers to an interactive editorial format. Readers are encouraged to participate via e-mail with responses that will shape future commentaries.To read Syed”s series, go to www.michigandaily.com/syed.

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