The Evolving Situation & Some Brass Tacks - I

Things are really quite serious, and getting worse each day in Afghanistan.

Updated: May 05, 2010, 21:11 PM IST

SS Sohoni

“How is the situation there?” is a question one is frequently asked about Afghanistan from outside. The situation being grim, the answer, “Quite serious”, often works to close out talks on the subject. But sometimes, depending on the locus standi of the questioner, there are further queries, and then, time and mood being suitable, a discussion could ensue -- involving geopolitics, regional and super power aims and policies, international narcotics trade, Afghanistan’s domestic politics, Islam, and more so radical militant Islam, NATO military strategy, tactics and operations, Taliban guerilla warfare and propaganda, et al.

The fact of the matter is, things are really quite serious, and getting worse each day, as seen from the viewpoint of someone interested in peace in Afghanistan -- not the icy peace of a morgue or a ‘peace’ enforced by the edge of the sword, but a meaningful peace engendering progress and human happiness.

Almost nine years since October 2001 when it expelled from Afghanistan the Taliban regime of Mullah Omer, the US, leading a 43-nation coalition, appears unable to suppress al Qaeda or Pakistan-based armed insurgency – funded by Saudis and the narcotics trade. Even as insurgency now actually has grown and menaces all of Afghanistan, more than ever, and is making inroads also into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan, public opinion in the countries forming the coalition is turning increasingly averse to continued military involvement in the Central Asian country.

As a possible further complication, nomad Kuchi-Hazara armed conflict is anticipated in the near future, over grazing rights in the central Hazarjat highland region of Afghanistan. This involves potential internal ethnic and sectarian strife, with Kuchis being nomad Pashtun Sunni Muslims, whose movement of sheep flocks to grazing areas in the highlands is resented and opposed by the Shia Hazaras.

With Kabul City itself being populated on tribal and ethnic lines, the possibility exists of consequent tension and ethnic conflict in the capital as well. Yet another complication in this connexion is that the Uzbek community, known for its ferocious fighters, is presently said to be aligned with the Hazaras. The situation lends itself to exploitation by the armed opposition and its sponsors; equally by elements in Iran supportive to Shias in Afghanistan.

Various factors are behind the worsening state of affairs. It is standard for Western media to carry critical reviews of the government about not eliciting enough popular local approbation and support to pit the people of the country against the armed opposition, and for being unable to implement the latter two components of the ‘Clear, Hold and Build’ approach of the iconic ISAF Commander, Gen McChrystal.

The Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and other security agencies are found at fault for lacking the necessary efficiency and commitment. Sub-national government authorities are pilloried for inadequacies in local administration.

But such reports do not pass muster as unbiased or adequate representation of the factual position.

Significant governmental achievements in Afghanistan, e.g. the fact that seven million children now go to school, including millions of girl child – who the Taliban would prefer being kept illiterate, sequestered and walled-in at home - are achievements claimed by foreign donor agencies and governments, not attributed to the Afghan government to which credit is in fairness due for executing the difficult task of such important social sector reform.

Similarly, given the constraints in the face of severe challenges, the Afghan security authorities have performed commendably to thwart and combat terrorism. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, and Director General of National Security Directorate Amrullah Saleh, are exceptionally capable leaders under whom no effort is spared by the security authorities to exercise utmost vigilance round the clock.

The sheer bravery, alacrity and fighting qualities of even the ordinary policemen, let alone special anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency commando units, is to be seen to be believed.

Indeed, there is much to be learned from Afghanistan in the matter of counter-terrorism and counter insurgency tactical operations.

However, scarcely is credit assigned by the international community to the yeoman services of Afghanistan’s security forces.

In contrast, the international media and visiting leaders of foreign governments routinely shower praise on the performance of the Coalition forces.

It is also not rare for these quarters, in the event of a breach of security, to be quick to blame Afghan security services, rather than admit any default on the part of the much better equipped international security forces deployed in the area.

Much hue and cry is raised about corruption in Afghanistan’s public administration, but few, if any, reports are carried by the international media of undeniable corruption in the working of international organizations and NGOs, which handle an estimated eighty per cent of expenditure on public works in Afghanistan. There is the case of an auditor of an international agency’s operations, whose services were terminated because he persisted in investigating a substantial fraud detected during inspection of accounts. Auditors of expenditure of international agencies are often staggered by the scale of irregularities.

It is a moot point whether observers in the Coalition remain unaware of stark realities or prefer to stay in denial. The operative policies concerning investment and use of military and developmental resources are only superficially effective in dealing with the challenges of insurgency and under-development in Afghanistan. This is because the measures merely treat the outward symptoms of the problems, rather than acting against underlying causes.

The roots of the insurgency in Afghanistan, now endemic and infecting countries to its immediate north as well as further afield, are to be found in the ambitions of those who promote, and cooperate to spread, extreme fundamentalist militant Islam, i.e. Wahhabism, and its incitement to violence and the aspiration for global Islamic conquest and a worldwide Islamic Emirate.

The generic causes of the situation in Afghanistan are: the strategic conviction and commitment of the regime in Saudi Arabia in nexus with Wahhabism to propagate and proliferate radical Islam; immense Saudi funding of the madrassa movement spawning Islamic fanatics in the entire region from Saudi Arabia across Pakistan and Afghanistan into Central Asia and the subcontinent of India; Pakistan-based jehadi recruitment, training, deployment, tactical guidance, and safe haven facility; all this supported by active collusion of the ruling military elite in Pakistan – the latter sustained by colossal military and financial aid from external sources and political cover from powerful capitals and chanceries.

This underlying reality is not targeted by the political doctrine, policy, and military operations of the US-led Coalition in Afghanistan. And thus, notwithstanding the stupendous scale of resources deployed in Afghanistan, the Coalition effort is proving to be futile, indeed counterproductive. It is indeed mystifying to see all this being allowed to happen.

Despite prolonged engagement in Afghanistan in the laudable avowed cause of upholding international law, peace and security, the NATO Coalition is far from being a popular entity in Afghanistan. There is palpable and increasing alienation on account of incidents of ‘collateral non-combatant casualties’, and perceived offense to deeply-held traditional cultural mores and sensibilities of the local populace.

Some instances of wrongful and excessive use of force that have come to light are shocking to a degree, and clearly merit specialized criminal investigation by the military authorities concerned. Such inflammatory cases provide violent incitement to Islamic radicalization and militancy.

With the background of years on end of futile Coalition operations, the US, to the detriment of its image in Afghanistan as a military power, is now widely perceived to be preparing to abandon the field in Afghanistan. This is seen as a public admission of failure by yet another super power in face of the indomitable Afghan fighting spirit.

Suspicions are rife in the Afghan public mind of the US intending to entrust to Pakistan’s military rulers, sway over the country. It is equally widely presumed that with the US withdrawing from the theater, other NATO partners will not lag behind in leaving too.

Such departure from the regional theater of operations will only embolden and boost the very forces of international terrorism that pose a threat to not just Afghanistan and the region but indeed to world civilization. The recent Times Square incident in New York shows that radical Islamic terrorism should never be underestimated.

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, the one Afghan leader with an inclusive ‘big tent’ approach with respect to Afghanistan’s myriad ethnicities, has initiated steps towards holding a ‘Jirga’ – Afghanistan’s traditional consultative process to decide important issues – to evolve a national consensus on interacting with the armed opposition with a view eventually to ending the insurgency and achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the war-torn country.

In many important respects the initiative serves a great cause – of peace in the region and the world. Interests that withhold support to or undermine this exercise appear poorly advised. The urge to meet, consult in the traditional way, and work to evolve a national consensus, is based on serious apprehensions about the trends underway.

This effort aimed at resolution of conflict through dialogue, and the security measures underway to combat the armed opposition, should be seen as mutually reinforcing and complementary.

Meanwhile, an international conference in Kabul, of donors and governments – as a follow up to the London Conference of January 2010 - is also on the cards.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled on September 18, 2010 – needing financial support from the international community. A distinguished personality, respected for his exceptional ability and impeccable integrity, Abdullah Ahmadzai, has been appointed by President Karzai to be the CEO of the Secretariat of the Independent Election Commission. The appointment will raise the credibility of this important institution - reviled endlessly in the Western press during the last elections.

Support of the US, the European Community, Japan, India, China, Pakistan, Central Asian States, the CIS, and the UN, is crucial to all these initiatives.

It is in such a context that the visit to the US of President Karzai is scheduled from May 10-14, 2010, for which energetic preparations are underway both in Washington and Kabul.

With the prospect of having largely to stand on its own in the event of any sizeable exit of the Coalition forces, Afghanistan will value what is offered by the US and friendly countries and power centers the world over, in terms of political and financial support to Afghanistan’s nation-building activity.

Meanwhile, the US-led Coalition will no doubt look to ensuring and insuring its long-term aims and interests in and around Afghanistan, whilst contemplating a strategic withdrawal from combat scenarios in Afghanistan.

(SS Sohoni is a retired IAS officer and is currently a Senior Advisor to the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)