Re-reading the future
By Swagato Ganguly
9 Jun 2009
History is bunk, said Henry Ford. To which another aphorism could be added: literature is literature, and shouldn't be mistaken for reality.
Historical and literary precedent is freely and mistakenly being bandied about in a good deal of international commentary on Afghanistan, whose thrust is that modernity is fated to fail in that country (even if the rest of the world has embraced it). Putting material and human resources at Afghanistan's disposal, such 'liberal' opinion claims, is a futile attempt on the part of the international community.
US president Barack Obama's Cairo address touched on the hot-button issues between the US and Muslim countries Iraq, Palestine, torture, Iran and offered substantive shifts from Bush administration policies on each of these. Most promisingly, by distinguishing between Iraq as "a war of choice" and Afghanistan as "a war of necessity", he's also corrected a West Asia-centric bias that dogged previous American policy. An extreme example of that bias is the manner in which the Bush administration barely focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al-Qaeda's forces really were, while turning Saddam Hussein into a fall guy in order to be able to concentrate resources on Iraq.
West Asia has oil, so it's sexy and glamorous in a way that South Asia isn't. But a lot of transnational jihadist activity is centred in South Asia. This part of the world being un-sexy for western analysts is perfect cover for al-Qaeda. It also enables those who still dream of 'strategic depth' within the Pakistani establishment to hope that the West will give up on Afghanistan and hand over Kabul's keys to Islamabad as it withdraws. The latest salvo in that regard has been fired by a Pakistani ex-intelligence officer known as Colonel Imam, who has worked with the Taliban and with Mullah Omar. According to him the Taliban can never be defeated on the battlefield because their losses only help them to expand.
Such mythmaking is reinforced by those 'liberal' western commentators who, as a backlash to the excesses of the Bush administration, now recommend withdrawal from Afghanistan. The historical precedents they cite, of the failure of earlier British and Soviet efforts to tame Afghanistan, are shallow. In a 21st century, post-Cold War framework it's no longer a question of bringing Afghanistan to heel, but enabling it to become a modern nation with the backing of the international community. Not doing that would leave a vacuum for the Taliban and for petrodollars looking for jihadist causes to fill. That would provide the conditions for Colonel Imam's prophecies to come true.
The idea that non-western countries are incapable of attaining modernity, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has by now been decisively put to rest. That kind of thinking, however, resurfaces in the idea that Afghans are quintessential warriors who would be unhappy to send their children to school, but are otherwise content cultivating poppy or fighting for warlords engaged in interminable scraps with each other. The literary bard of those who push this line of thinking is Rudyard Kipling, who romanticised the Afghan warrior-figure. Before going back to Kipling as a source of timeless wisdom, however, let's also remember him as the writer who penned such lines as "take up the white man's burden" or "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet".
There's actually a great deal in common between George Bush's views and those who now counsel withdrawal from Afghanistan. From the very beginning the Bush administration, under the influence of neo-conservative thinking, made it clear that it wasn't interested in "nation-building" in Afghanistan. Even as far as the war to dislodge the Taliban went it was fought chiefly by the Northern Alliance, aided by US air cover, some special forces operatives, CIA paramilitary units and money. There was no significant commitment of US ground troops, with fateful consequences for how the war turned out.
Over-reliance on air operations by the US inflicted heavy civilian casualties on the Afghan population, while Northern Alliance troops committed some atrocities on Taliban prisoners and Pashtun populations. All of this had the effect of alienating local people, particularly in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan. Lack of 'boots on the ground' allowed senior al-Qaeda and Taliban figures who had been surrounded to get away, once at Kunduz then again at Tora Bora. To round off this history of incompetence more money has poured into the Pakistani military's coffers ostensibly to fight terror but in real life diverted to equipping itself against India than has been spent on rebuilding Afghanistan. No wonder then that Afghanistan seems intractable as the Taliban undergoes a resurgence, making everyone reach for his Kipling primer.
Obama's Af-Pak strategy, however, brings about a shift of focus that could reverse some of the damage done. What's needed is patient and open-ended engagement with the people of the region, whether in Afghanistan or in Pakistan's tribal areas. They must be provided security, along with help in building roads, schools, hospitals and modern state institutions. That's what it will take to turn the tide against transnational jihadis operating out of the region. Leaving South Asia at peace, while Kipling's ghost could finally be laid to rest.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi