By Hiranmay Karlekar
March 11, 2011
The ongoing upheaval in West Asia and North Africa should not relegate Afghanistan in the collective global consciousness. If Taliban and Al Qaeda win, it would spell disaster for all.
An offshoot of the continuing troubles in West Asia and North Africa has been a shift of global attention away from Afghanistan. Though understandable given the circumstances, it will be unwise to keep the spotlight away from that country for too long. The outcome of the war there will have a critical impact on developments in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and the two, in turn have a decisive influence on the course of world history.
Those inclined to dismiss such talk will do well to recall that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 had hugely boosted the self-confidence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and made them believe that they could defeat any power in the world, including the United States.
In an interview with Taysir Alluni, head of the Al Jazeera network in Kabul, Osama bin Laden had said on October 20, 2001, “At that time (the war in Afghanistan during 1980s), the Soviet Empire was a mighty power that scared the whole world.” Stating that the Soviet Empire had become “a figment of the imagination”, he had added, “So the one god, who sustained us with one of his helping hands and stabilised us to defeat the Soviet Empire, is capable of sustaining us again and allowing us to defeat America on the same land (Afghanistan)... So we believe that defeat of America is something achievable — with the permission of god — and it is easier for us — with the permission of god — than the defeat of the Soviet Empire previously.” (Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden edited and with an introduction by Bruce Lawrence; translated by James Howarth).
In a 53-minute-long audiotape, circulated on February 14, 2003, Osama bin Laden stated that the jihad was going well and, claiming that the Americans had “become embroiled in the Afghan quagmire”, he argued that the withdrawal of the Mujahideen from some cities, whose capture the Americans had considered to be their victory, was tactical and in keeping with Afghanistan’s long history of guerrilla warfare. Without a regular army to defend the cities, the Taliban had resorted to guerrilla warfare from the “depth of the rugged mountains”, the same tactic with which they had earlier conquered “the Army of USSR”.
Al Qaeda’s — and also the Taliban’s — confidence in their ability to defeat the United States will increase further if the latter and its allies retreat from Afghanistan in a manner which suggests that they have been defeated. It will also enhance Al Qaeda’s stock worldwide which, in turn, will lead to a massive rise in the number of its supporters. The appeal of a movement or organisation whose triumph appears inevitable and/or which seems to be the wave of the future has been witnessed too often to require elaboration.
More, control over Afghanistan’s very considerable mineral resources which have recently come to light, will enormously enhance Al Qaeda’s capacity to wage war should they come to control that country. Victory in Afghanistan will, therefore, significantly enhance its chances of playing an important role in the changes under way in North Africa and West Asia, and, eventually, even establish its sway over both.
Should Al Qaeda be able to do so, it will move close to a position from which it can become the dominant power in the world. That it will make a serious attempt to become such a power follows from the nature of the mission it, and specifically its supreme leader, Osama bins Laden, has set for itself. As Bruce Lawrence points out in his perceptive introduction to Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief’s jihad “is aimed not at an imperium, but a global ‘unbelief’.” He, according to Lawrence, repeatedly emphasises in his texts that it is a religious war that subsumes a political war, which he can wage with terms appropriate to it. “Yet the battle in the end is one of faith.”
In his message of December 16, 2004, a blistering attack on the regimes of the Arabian peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and of its religious establishment, Osama bin Laden said that what was under way was partly an internal struggle against Arab rulers but in other respects a struggle between “global unbelief, with the apostates today under the leadership of America on one side, and the Islamic Ummah and its brigades of Mujahideen, on the other.” Again, in his interview to Taysir Alluni cited above, he urged upon Muslims to “answer the call of god, and the order of His Prophet, with jihad against world unbelief.”
Victory in Afghanistan will not enable Al Qaeda to bring West Asia under its control overnight. Historical processes take years to unfold. The East Berlin bread riots of June 1953 constituted the first uprising against the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe. It was suppressed, as were the Hungarian revolt and the Poznan riots in Poland in 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s peaceful uprising in 1968 demanding “Communism with a human face”. Finally, the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Soviet Union’s domination over Eastern Europe, collapsed in November 1989. One does not know how long the tortuous events in West Asia will take to reach their logical end. One can, however, say with certainty that West Asia is set to witness major changes.
The fact that Al Qaeda has not been at the forefront of the current upheavals in the region does not indicate its absence from the scene. Its North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, has a substantial presence in the region, as has the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Formed in January 2009 through the merger of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda, it has been growing steadily in strength, particularly through the arrival of a large number of Saudi Arabian extremists fleeing a fierce crackdown on the organisations in their own country.
By all accounts, Al Qaeda is preserving its strength and biding its time. When it does make its move, the outcome will be determined by a number of factors. The result of the war in Afghanistan will be the most important of them all, as it will shape many of the forces at work.
The photograph accompanying this article shows Lance Corporal Liam Tasker with his Military Working Dog, Theo, during operations in Afghanistan. Lance Corporal Tasker, a dog handler with the British Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was killed in a firefight with Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province. Theo, a bomb-sniffing springier spaniel, suffered a fatal seizure hours later at a British Army base.
Source: The Pioneer