In a period of unprecedented financial upheaval, the recent surge in violence in South Asia is perhaps receiving less notice in the west than it deserves. The audacity of attacks by the Taleban and their Al-Qaeda allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan has implications for the region and beyond. The bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul in June 2008 and the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20 have been devastating. Large swathes of Pakistan’s frontier provide militant groups with sanctuaries, from where they launch attacks in both countries. The targets are chosen with precision and the campaign of violence has spread to India. A few days before the Islamabad bombing, a series of explosions in the Indian capital, Delhi, killed and maimed scores of shoppers at several locations. There have also been attacks in other Indian cities in recent months.
These events have caused tension between the Bush administration and Pakistan, America’s main ally in the ‘war on terror’. On more than one occasion, U.S. helicopters carrying troops have attempted to land inside Pakistani territory, without authorization. Pakistani troops have fired on them and the helicopters have had to retreat. The anti-U.S. sentiment has rarely been so strong in the region. The authorities in Pakistan cannot afford to allow American troops on their country’s soil. The authorities in India, with a Muslim minority nearly as large as the entire population of Pakistan, struggle to decide how far to move towards imposing draconian measures. How have things come to such a pass?
The origins of today’s crisis rest in the past. For almost half a century after the Second World War, the United States had been at the forefront in efforts to contain communism. By December 1991, the Soviet empire had collapsed and America was in search of a new role. America’s proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had ended. Billions of dollars worth of weaponry was left in the devastated country. The strategic importance of Afghanistan had diminished for the United States. The army of Islamic groups, financed and equipped by America, turned bitter. In their eyes, it was a deliberate act of abandonment.
The American economy had suffered years of decline, to which vast military expenditure on foreign wars had contributed. There were new opportunities to achieve economic renaissance at home and reshape the international order abroad. Bill Clinton, who won the presidency in November 1992, was keen to seize these opportunities.
However, there was a problem. Following the breakup of the Soviet state, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus had found themselves with almost all long-range nuclear weapons. Smaller tactical arms were scattered all over the territory of the defunct state. Every republic except Kyrgyzstan had inherited them. One nuclear state had suddenly become many. Unless these weapons were dismantled and Russia was helped to transform itself into a democracy in control of the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal, the world would be a dangerous place.
When Clinton assumed the presidency in January 1993, America had already liberated Kuwait after brief Iraqi occupation. Clinton moved on to his agenda to stabilize the former USSR and rebuild the American economy. He was aware that a conservative takeover in Russia could start a new arms race and sink his plan for American renaissance. Clinton told his advisers to help Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, in the transformation of his country. The focus of Clinton’s policy was to be investment in Russia.
One of its consequences was a move from Afghanistan, left in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ – war of all against all. The policy to rescue Russia continued until the end of the Clinton presidency. In the darkest period of Russia’s economic crisis, Yeltsin was forced to default on repayment of foreign debt and devalue the Russian currency in 1998. Clinton pushed the International Monetary Fund to support a recovery program. Within two years, Russia’s income from oil sales had risen substantially, helped by an increase in the world prices. The crisis had subsided.
It was in late1994 that a little-known Islamic militia, described as the Taleban, came to prominence in southern Afghanistan, amid the destruction of what was left of the Afghan state. The country was split into numerous fiefdoms run by rival warlords. Afghan and foreign Mujahideen had spent years fighting the Soviet Union and its client regime in Kabul. Now, they had nothing to do. Foreign money had dried up. Weapons were plentiful and America had walked away.
Murder, rape, looting and plundering became the way of life for these fighters, as Pakistan’s rival agencies tolerated or collaborated with the Taleban to impose a brutal regime in Afghanistan. The civilian government of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the most important U.S. ally in the region, were the staunchest supporters of the Taleban regime, which gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda. America had, in effect, handed over Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, which represents the most totalitarian brand of Sunni Islam. Its junior partner was Pakistan.
The 9/11 attacks prompted the United States to return to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taleban regime and destroy Al-Qaeda. Overthrowing the Taleban regime was the easy task. But the stabilization and reconstruction effort has suffered a calamitous failure. The Taleban and Al-Qaeda are regrouped and reinforced. Their top leaders continue to elude capture. Afghans at first welcomed their liberation from the Taleban. They are now very resentful of the Americans and their use of overwhelming force, resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties.
Afghanistan has been at the center of great power games for centuries. But outsiders have always failed to tame the spirit of resistance of its people. At the peak of their dominance, the British and Russian empires played the Great Game. In the Cold War, it was between America and the Soviet Union. Today, as the United States, the only hyperpower in the world, tries to reshape the Afghan state, it finds the new game as difficult as ever.
As the turbulent presidency of George W. Bush comes to a close, claims are heard about the ‘success’ of America’s military surge from the administration and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. There is talk of a similar surge in Afghanistan to suppress the violence by the Taleban and their allies. However, the reasons behind the decline in violence in Iraq are many, including the fact that tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen, erstwhile Al-Qaeda supporters, are now paid three hundred dollars a month each not to fight the occupation forces and the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad. Their alliance with America is tactical and temporary. Their long-term intentions are uncertain, especially if America withdraws or they are no longer paid. It all reminds me of the U.S.-Mujahideen alliance in Afghanistan, before it fell apart almost twenty years ago.
The American military presence in Afghanistan today is about a third of the size of the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s – a total of a-hundred-and-twenty-thousand soldiers. Many experts agree that the strength of the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan is woefully inadequate and reinforcements are needed. But in the unique conditions of Afghanistan, it is much less certain that a surge there will bring lasting success. The battlefield now extends from the Gulf all the way to India. The problem requires a different solution involving regional powers, Iran and Syria included – an idea loathed by the neo-conservatives who have been in power for eight years.