Afghanistan – Great Game without Rules

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 “Her eyes have captivated the world,” noted National Geographic about Sharbat Gula, an Afghan girl. Photographer Steve McCurry met her by accident in Pakistan in a refugee camp, and the picture of the mysterious girl with the piercing green eyes appeared on the cover of the magazine in 1985.

McCurry and Gula met each other once again 17 years later. National Geographic sent journalists to Pakistan to find out about Gula. They found that the woman had returned to Afghanistan, in the rugged Tora Bora region, after the Russians had left the country.

“The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice,” said Gula’s brother to the famous magazine. “The Russian invasion destroyed our lives.” One could read the 17 years of hell etched into Gula’s face like a book.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, approximately one million civilians were killed, and about five million became refugees and went to Pakistan and Iran. For example, the population of Kandahar shrunk from a height of 200,000 to 25,000. As has become the Russian hallmark in Georgia and Eurasia, Soviet troops leveraged and exacerbated ethnic tensions in Afghanistan to win the upper hand. Even though Soviet forces eventually retreated from Afghanistan, Russia was successful in pitting ethnic groups against one another. By the time Russian forces had left, Afghanistan was thrown into a civil war based on ethnicity, which continues in various forms even today.

One of the poorest countries in the world, it’s no surprise that Afghanistan’s farmers have turned to the relatively high-profit, if seedy, practice of cultivating narcotics – particularly poppies for opium. About 90 percent of the world’s supply of opium comes from Afghanistan. Recently, the Pentagon released information estimating that Afghanistan has several trillion dollars worth of rare earth metals in deposits around the country. With its rich reserves of rare earth metals, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium, Afghanistan could conceivable play the role as the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of these important and high-value resources. However, with little infrastructure and a war-torn landscape, it could be some time before anyone could get to these resources for extraction.

Ethnically, Gula is a Pashtun. There is a saying that the Pashtun people feel at ease only when they fight. The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan; according to 2009 UN statistics, they compose about 42 percent of the country’s population and are considered the founders of contemporary Afghanistan. Indeed, ‘Pashtun’ in Farsi means Afghan. The second largest ethnic group is the Tajiks (27 percent). Turkmen, Uzbeks, Khazars, and other groups also have significant populations in the country.

Afghanistan, which is located on the Silk Road, has always been considered to be a strategic region. Among its conquerors are Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. It’s worth noting that Georgians have also played a role in the region, and were known for their cruelty. When Shah Abbas I of Persia sent the Giorgi XI of Kartli, with 4000 troops to suppress a revolt in Afghanistan, Georgian forces successfully destroyed the opposition and then proceeded humiliate the population of Kandahar.

In the 19th century, Afghanistan became the subject of confrontation between Russia and the British Empire. This rivalry in is known as The Great Game. The British, seeking to mitigate Russian expansion into Central Asia, collided with the ambitious Russians. It wasn’t until the third revolt in 1919 that Afghanistan was granted independence by the British.

After becoming independent, Afghanistan sent diplomatic missions to Europe and the Soviet Union. German and French schools opened in Kabul, the capital, and bilateral agreements with Turkey, Iran, the UK, and the USSR were signed. With the help of Turkish and French experts, Afghans began reforms in administration, justice, the military, and in finance. However, these reforms were mostly restricted to the relatively cosmopolitan Kabul. Reforms did not catch on in the provinces which resisted the reforms. This led to Afghanistan’s ruler, Amanullah Khan, to temporarily leave the country. After returning seven months later, he began a new round of reforms to forbid polygamy, to fight corruption, and to create a more robust civil society – but they did not succeed. Khan was accused of being anti-Islamic and was quickly overthrown. He first moved to India, and then Italy, where he died in relative obscurity.

After this, Afghanistan saw a brief moment of relative calm. The tempo of reforms slowed down as the Cold War was beginning to heat up. Afghanistan sought neutrality and neither aligned with the Washington nor Moscow.

In 1978, the communist party of Afghanistan overthrew the monarchy and created the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which was effectively a communist satellite. To support their rule, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Anti-communist forces, many of them Islamists, were supported by the US. Afghanistan became a focal point of the Cold War.

Those who declared a jihad (holy war) against the enemies of Islam were called the mujahideen (freedom fighters). They began active resistance against Soviet forces and were supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. American support began with US President Jimmy Carter and was increased by President Ronald Reagan. The movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, is based on these events and tells how Afghanistan became a part of Reagan’s foreign policy strategy.

According to the official version of events, the Americans began supporting the mujahideen shortly after the Soviet intervention. However, in a 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, it was revealed that Americans may have even begun supporting anti-communist forces before Soviet forces entered Afghanistan. The questioner asked Brzezinski if he regretted supporting the mujahideen – many of whom would later turn on the US – a question which the former advisor dismissed.

“Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea,” countered Brzezinski. “It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire”. Brzezinski would later deny the veracity of the interview, and the transcripts could not be found.

However, US defense secretary Robert Gates, who was a CIA analyst in 1979, discusses some of these operations in his memoir, From the Shadows.

After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, the US lost interest. The conflict, which was provoked by the Soviet Union, did not remain the primary focus of the US’ attention. America did not spend any time or energy to help rebuild what the Soviet invasion had destroyed, and the subsequent civil war brought about the establishment of extremist Taliban rule.

The Taliban is made up of Sunni Muslims and are known for their extremely strict interpretation of the Quran and Islamic laws. Though they came to power in 1996, the Taliban were only recognized as a legitimate government by only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Taliban rule included prohibiting television, music, alcohol and computers. Women were subjected to extremely sequestered lifestyles – they could not even applause during sports competitions. Men were obligated to grow beards and wear hats.

Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group were given sanctuary by the Taliban, even after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Two days before the September 11 attack, a prominent Taliban opponent, Ahmad Shah Masud, the leader of Afghanistan’s Tajik community and known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ was assassinated in Afghanistan. After the Taliban refused the extradition of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group to America, the US began an attack on Afghanistan. The Afghanistan war would later become known as the first instance of Article Five of the NATO Charter being invoked, in which an attack on a NATO member is considered an attack on all.

The war quickly drove the Taliban from power. A combination of air power, alliances with anti-Taliban forces, and special operations troops pushed the Taliban from most of Afghanistan’s urban centers. Hamid Karzai, an ally of the Americans, became president of Afghanistan. However, Taliban and Al Qaeda found sanctuary in the rough, craggy mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they regrouped to fight a prolonged guerilla war.

In August 2009, US General Stanley McChrystal, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan, declared that the war could be lost if NATO and the US did not establish a better counterinsurgency strategy supported by about 80,000 US troops. McChrystal requested an additional 40,000 troops to start and declared that the war was still winnable, but only if enough resources were available and the strategy was revamped. Were the war to be lost in Afghanistan, many experts believe that the instability could be once again a haven for terrorists and could trigger unrest in neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million.

Significantly, the question of Pakistan has factored greatly into the US strategy in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took Pakistan’s Swat valley in 2008, the Pakistani army was sent to fight them. Though the territory was retaken, the danger from Taliban influence continues to linger. US President Barack Obama’s administration sees Afghanistan and Pakistan within the same frame.

“So while we pursue the battle against the Taliban, we must recognise that the heart of the threat comes from the people in western Pakistan”, said Richard Holbrook, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “So the starting point for the new administration's approach to the region is going to be to treat it as an integrated whole, a single theatre of war, with very different rules on each side of the border”

Many admit that McChrystal’s new strategy has no alternatives. It stresses the protection of the population, supporting good governance, and disrupting Taliban power centers.

Three months after McChrystal’s request for more troops, Obama agreed to send 30,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan, but declared that they would begin to be brought back within 18 months.

“We shall fight in the air, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the hills - for 18 months,” he said. “Then we start packing for home.… because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

For his decision, the president faced a double barrel of criticism. On one hand, some took issue with the very idea of escalating the war, particularly after Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and said that the US had no business being in Afghanistan.

Others found the qualifiers of an exit strategy in Obama’s decision to be more troubling.

“Obama's surge speech wasn't that of a commander in chief but of a politician,” wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “Remarkable. Go and fight, he tells his cadets -- some of whom may not return alive -- but I may have to cut your mission short because my real priorities are domestic”.”

Many people were afraid that by declaring the term of deployment, Obama revealed that his priority was not necessarily success in Afghanistan. Some worry that Al Qaeda and the Taliban will just hold out until the planned withdrawal date, sensing that victory is just a matter of time. Unsurprisingly, Karzai is hedging his bets and is seeking negotiations with the Taliban.

It is widely believed that in 2011, Afghanistan’s government and its military will simply not be up to the task of taking over security and properly administering the country. As Time noted, “Nine out of 10 Afghan enlisted recruits can't read a rifle-instruction manual or drive a car. The officers' corps is fractured by rivalries: Soviet-era veterans vs. the former mujahedin rebels, Tajiks vs. Uzbeks, Khazars and Pashtuns. Commanders routinely steal their enlisted men's salaries”.

This is further complicated by the fact that many European countries have been firm in their unwillingness to boost troop contributions in Afghanistan. And even for troops that are operating in Afghanistan, many are hamstrung by ‘operational caveats’ that prevents certain countries’ forces from participating in combat operations or being deployed to certain areas of the country.

Because of NATO’s now-intimate involvement and large stake in the outcome of the Afghanistan war, NATO stands to be affected greatly by how things turn out. If NATO allies do not become more active in fighting in Afghanistan, the growing voices of doubt in the US over NATO’s usefulness could become a chorus, and transatlantic ties could further atrophy.

To fight against global threats is a global problem. Those who want to have peace should be ready to fight for that peace.

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