Hopes, fears & probabilities

By Anwar Syed

THE reverses the Taliban have suffered were expected, but hardly anyone thought they would come so precipitously. The expectation in certain quarters that their hardiness, and the depth of their commitment to their cause, will make America’s venture in Afghanistan as costly and futile as its war in Vietnam has not materialized. It is now almost certain that the Taliban will lose power everywhere in Afghanistan within the next few weeks. What will happen to them and, more important, what will happen to the country they were trying to remake in their own image?

As a fiercely zealous fighting force the Taliban may not have numbered more than fifty thousand. Unlike them the generality of Pakhtoons (reckoned by some as a large majority and by others only as a plurality of the Afghan population) are selectively practising Muslims, like folks in other Muslim lands, burdened with the concerns of every day living, and more pragmatic than ideological in dealing with them. They accepted the Taliban’s rule to the extent that it touched them (which was by no means intimate or far-reaching), but it is now apparent that they did not entertain any significant sense of commitment to that rule. The same holds for their local leaders or rulers (the tribal chiefs) as evidenced by their desertions from the Taliban and expedient switches of support to their rivals.

Such being the developing situation on the ground, what will the Taliban do? Not long ago, it was thought that in the event of having to surrender power they would retire to the mountains and wage a guerilla war against the regime that succeeded them. This was predicated upon the assumption that the Pakhtoon tribal chiefs would be supportive of their goals. But the tribal chiefs’ attitudes and conduct, suggest that the option of continuing the war is not viable. Tribal chiefs on both sides of the Durand Line have, more often than not, regarded political support as merchandise to be bought and sold and not as something involving issues of honour. They may give refuge to such Taliban as come to them, but they may not do much more. Consider also that the Taliban’s sources of essential supplies, located mostly in Pakistan, will close.

Some of the Taliban will be killed by the rival militias, disaffected local people, or by American bombs as they retreat to places of safety. Unless they have become fluent in Pushto, Arab Taliban will face even greater hazards since they have no place to go. Some of the Pakhtoon, and most of the Pakistani, Taliban will try to enter Pakistan and disappear in the Afghan refugee camps or in the local population. If any significant number of them is able to get into Pakistan and join hands with like-minded people in the country, they may direct their wrath at the Pakistani ruling establishment.

But it is possible also that they will need a breathing spell, time to ponder where they had gone wrong. This may then be the time for Pakistan to devise ways of dealing with extremism and the violence that accompanies it. Have the Taliban, as a political force, gone into the limbo of history? The name may change but the movement will probably persist as long as fundamentalism and extremism are alive and well.

Which way will Afghanistan go now? Much depends upon America’s conception of its mission and the amount of time and resources needed to accomplish it. The overthrow of the Taliban regime, which topped its agenda, is now within sight. Not all members of the al-Qaeda will be identified and captured, but it is likely that they will be dispersed and their organization demobilized. The hunt for Osama bin Laden will continue and, given the fact that he is trapped in a limited space, he will eventually be taken or killed. All of this could easily take a couple of years and possibly longer. .

The political restructuring of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s ouster appears to be a part of the American mission. That the Northern Alliance militias entered Kabul in spite of American reservations should not be taken to mean that their commanders can dictate the shape of things to come. Dependent upon American support, it is improbable that they can impose their political preferences upon others without American approval. Russian support, or that of the Central Asian republics, will not do, for each of them, on its own part, needs or covets American assistance. It follows that the United States, and such of its allies whose views on the subject it values, will most likely decide what can, and is, to be done.

Ideals can, and sometime do, change the “reality on the ground.” But in politics, as in other realms, it is foolish to ignore actualities while determining the rate of change. Many commentators have called for a democratic political order in post-Taliban Afghanistan to honour its people’s right to decide how they will be governed. These calls are doubtless noble but, upon reflection, one will find that they are fanciful. Levels of education, societal integration, governmental and administrative sophistication, and exposure to democratic ideas and institutions were considerably higher in Pakistan when it emerged as an independent state than they have ever been in Afghanistan.

Yet, after fifty-four years of looking around, Pakistanis have neither quite learned the art of democratic governance nor even settled the type of government that will suit their “genius.” Afghanistan, also a diverse society, has itself known only a most rudimentary form of democracy, and that too very briefly and spasmodically. No other country in its neighbourhood, with the partial and controversial exception of Iran, practises democracy. The expectation that foreign political engineers will convert Afghanistan into a functioning democracy, just by inserting relevant language in a document that the various Afghan warlords may be persuaded to sign, is extravagant.

At best the Afghans may take a few small steps towards democratization from the stage where they were when Mr Taraki and his band of communist associates seized power. In other words, if all goes well, Afghanistan may have a small central government, with a limited functional jurisdiction, in which its various ethnic and religious groups have a say, while much of the country beyond towns and cities continues to be governed by tribal chiefs and councils according to their customary law.

It is to the formation of this limited central government that the Afghan and foreign builders of political systems must address themselves. All interested parties are agreed that this new government should be “broad based,” meaning that it should provide for the representation of all major ethnic groups and religious persuasions in the country. There is agreement also that the new system should have the Afghan people’s approval. Both of these goals are laudable. Difficulties will arise when those concerned begin to implement the second goal.

What will be the mechanics of obtaining popular approval, and who will operate the mechanism that is put in place? Elections are one way of proceeding and clearly the best if one may assume that they will be free and fair. But if that assumption cannot be made, it may be just as well to consult the real wielders of power in the country, that is, the tribal chiefs and notables. Or perhaps a combination of the two procedures: elections in towns, and consultation in the less accessible countryside. In selecting the means for accomplishing this work, it may be more productive to go by considerations of the possible than to be guided by formulations of democratic theory.

A transitional authority is doubtless needed to prevent the Northern Alliance warlords and their rivals from continuing the civil war, maintain a modicum of order, and provide the environment in which representatives or spokesmen of various Afghan groups can reason together, or negotiate, about their political future. Nothing is to be gained from talking about the United Nations, in the abstract, as the provider or even organizer of this transitional authority. The United Nations cannot do anything in a situation like the one under discussion here except through its members, notably the great powers, currently headed by the United States, that possess the requisite resources.

The transitional authority under reference will need a police force to proceed with its work. One proposal has it that this force should be provided by a group of Muslim countries from outside the Afghan neighbourhood: for instance, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan. Another proposal would include troops from a couple of uninvolved European countries such as Switzerland and Sweden. These ideas do not inspire confidence, because the proposed troops, unaided by American and British forces, may be wholly unequal to the task of controlling the Afghan warriors on their own terrain.

American political and military presence in Afghanistan would appear to be essential for the next several years if goals beyond the dismemberment of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that is, goals such as political and economic reconstruction and a measure of stability in the country are also on the agenda of the United States and its allies. That all of this will impose a huge burden on the American taxpayer need not detain us at this point.

Personal faith and state loyalty

By Kunwar Idris

THE Afghan crisis has violently exposed the religious and racial tensions which simmer round the world. More than its excessive violence which will subside sooner or later, the crisis has let loose a thought compelling the people of Pakistan, albeit not many, to make a choice between what they perceive as their religious duty on the one hand and their allegiance to their own country on the other.

Though Muslims came to fight in Afghanistan from many other parts of the world, defying the laws and policies of their own governments, Pakistan would be left alone to suffer the lasting effects of the war after warriors of other national origins have departed because of a long, unguarded frontier between the two countries and the tribes straddling it freely moving across it. And also because of a more recent phenomenon: the militant clerics on both sides have forged close links, overriding the traditional tribal relationships which had their turbulent phases but always amenable to negotiated settlements.

Under the rubric of UN resolutions, the Afghan conflict has now entered a new phase which may result in the creation of a squabbling national government or, worse still, in a patchwork of warring fiefdoms. In either case, it would be advisable for Pakistan to distance itself from the politics of Afghan war- mongering in which the dead hand of raw ambition and tribalism lies over the much touted Islamic fundamentalism.

Instead, Pakistan should now assert its identity as a nation-state which approves of neither the values nor the social crudities of the now vanishing Taliban administration. Its extreme intolerance of the other faiths was demonstrated when the workers of an international charity were threatened to be put to death on the charge of trying to convert to Christianity the people they were caring for.

Pakistan also needs to renew its assurance to the world community that it is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which binds it to respect every one’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including “freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” This right in its entirety is endorsed by Islam.

Well known in this context is the incident of Ikrmah, son of Abu Jehal who wanted to know whether by remaining an idol-worshipper he could continue to live in Makkah after its conquest by the Muslims. The reply of the Holy Prophet on that occasion is a guiding light for all times to come. Faith, he said, arises from conscience and conscience is free. Compelling or inducing any one to profess a belief other than what his conscience dictates would thus be contrary to the principles of Islam.

It is unfortunate for Pakistan and the other Muslim communities not to have denounced the Taliban behaviour which was inconsistent with these principles.

Similarly, the decree of the Taliban and the view held by some of our own orthodox scholars on the status of non-Muslims in an Islamic state and, conversely, on the status of Muslims in a non-Muslim state call into question the sovereignty of a state and the loyalty that every citizen must owe to his or her country.

The view that non-Muslim citizens of a Muslim country can have no say in the making of laws or in administrating them, nor can they hold any public office runs wholly contrary to the modern concept of equality of all citizens irrespective of their faiths. It is not practised perhaps even in the most orthodox of the Muslim societies. More to the extreme and preposterous is the view that no Muslim citizen of a non-Muslim country can remain truly faithful to it when it is at war with a Muslim country.

In the present-day atmosphere of mistrust, the propagation of this view can cause enormous problems for the Muslim Diaspora which, ironically, escaping the poverty and oppression of its motherland, has found peace and prosperity in the Christian West. The behaviour of some British youth of Pakistan origin who went to fight in Afghanistan defying the law and discipline of the country of their adoption can cast doubt on the loyalty of all Muslims in similar situations. The host countries must feel assured that one can be a Muslim and a loyal British (or American) citizen at the same time. A general belief to the contrary might shut all doors to Muslim emigrants in the future.

The Taliban want the world to believe that an Islamic society need have no legislature as the law enunciated in the Holy Quran and Hadith is complete and immutable; it only requires elucidation or interpretation by men of learning where a doubt or difficulty in implementation arises. The Taliban submitted to the validity of this rule by investing all powers — legislative, executive and judicial — in the “Amir-ul-momineen” Mullah Omar who consulted an informally constituted council whenever he felt it necessary.

The ambiguity and contradiction in all these views — some described as edicts — need to be resolved for a billion Muslims world-wide, a full half of whom are believed to live in non-Muslim countries so that neither their belief in the universality of Islamic doctrines is impaired nor is their loyalty to the country of their residence called into question. It should be possible to reconcile the demands of the Muslim faith, or for that matter, of any faith, with the duties and obligations of a citizen.

President Bush has said time and again and is not tired of repeating it that his war against terrorism would not end in Afghanistan. He would chase the terrorists wherever they find shelter. Henceforth, it seems, only America would determine who a terrorist is; the others will have to follow. The national aspiration of a people would be irrelevant if the ruling regime causes no worry to America or its allies. Barring ETA of Basque country, all rebellious, or terrorist movements have their origin in Muslim societies.

The warning has a particularly ominous ring for Pakistan. Harkatul Mujahideen, Jihad-e-Islami, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i- Mohammad and Al-Badar with bases in Pakistan are all believed to be on the American terrorist lists.

After its key role in the Afghan war, Pakistan should be looking forward to a bigger, more profitable role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which might cost, according to varying estimates, up to $30 billion, including the pipelines of our dream bringing oil and gas from Turkemenistan overland through Afghanistan to our shores.

The flight of our clerics’ fancy and their pipedream of making Afghanistan ‘a graveyard of American imperialism’ might condemn Pakistan to a life of perpetual turbulence and dissipation.

Powell’s approach

SECRETARY of State Colin L. Powell’s speech Monday on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a welcome and tangible sign that the war on terrorism has forced the Bush administration to abandon its previous indifference to the spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The more the two sides battle, the harder it becomes for the United States to hold the anti-terror coalition together in the Arab world. Only the United States has the clout to exert a calming influence that might set the stage for renewed negotiations.

Powell rightly warned Israelis and Palestinians that they were caught “in the quicksand of hatred” and said that Israel should stop building new settlements in occupied territories. He announced that he was sending to the Mideast both retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who commanded U.S. forces in the area, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns. The administration continues to hope that the Mitchell plan, which calls for a truce and negotiations, can be put into effect immediately.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat could use a respite. Arafat’s limited moves to curb Palestinian terrorists have created a backlash. A new survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki shows that Hamas and Islamic Jihad combined enjoy more public support than Arafat.

Arafat must show real progress in prompting Israel to pull out of Palestinian territory. For his part, Sharon faces the prospect of being outflanked on the right by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should the state of siege continue.

The Bush administration already appears to have persuaded Israel to give up on its precondition of seven days of “absolute quiet,” as Sharon put it, before it will deal with the Palestinians. For further progress, Powell himself, not just his lieutenants, will also have to play a key role. His speech was a first significant step.—Los Angeles Times

The rise and fall of graphs

By M. J. Akbar

PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF’s graph was rising in Washington at precisely the same time that Mullah Muhammad Omar’s graph was collapsing in Kabul and Kandahar. Are the two related? Were the cynics of the western world being especially nice to President Musharraf on his world tour while they took over his backyard?

The thought is not purely provocative. In the elegant environment of New York’s Waldorf Astoria President George Bush made it a point to please his guest by saying that the Northern Alliance, which has repeatedly expressed its hostility to Islamabad, should restrict its victories to Mazar-i-Sharif and perhaps move down south bypassing Kabul. When the commanders of the Alliance bypassed the White House and went straight for the jugular, the same President Bush, now in the company of Vladimir Putin, could barely restrain his delight. Matching glee has not been forthcoming from Islamabad. This is understandable. No matter who forms the next government in Kabul, Pakistan will never have the kind of influence and even authority it possessed, as long as the Taliban was in power, over a nation vital to its strategic interests.

On the day that President Bush was supporting President Musharraf’s hands-off-Kabul policy, maybe at that very moment, James Clark and Adam Nathan, on board USS Theodore Roosevelt, were reporting for The Sunday Times that the Northern Alliance had been “urged by Britain and America last night to mount a swift offensive towards the capital, Kabul, driving home their advantage after a string of successes in the north”. Either President Bush was fooling President Musharraf or he was fooling The Sunday Times. The game was rather given away by Geoff Hoon, Britain’s defence minister, who told The Sunday Times: “I would be quite happy to see the Northern Alliance steam across northern Afghanistan and take Kabul.”

Now that Kabul has fallen like a house of cards, we have to search for winners and losers in this high-stakes poker game that began on such an explosive note on September 11. It might be stating the obvious to describe the Taliban as losers. But that depends on the definition of the Taliban. If the Taliban is a movement then it will re-space itself and wait for history to give it another opportunity. If it has acquired vested interests and become a government, then it will fragment and disappear. There could be a third option: those of the Taliban who became a government and used power to achieve personal or political purposes might disintegrate, while a new ideological core could reinvent a movement from the shreds of this moment. In all cases, the burden will fall on Pakistan; for the Taliban, in any manifestation, has nowhere else to go except to return from where it started. The situation is similar for Al Qaeda, which had charismatic leadership, fidayeen followers and, thus far, a safe base from where to operate. Theoretically, those of its members who were not from Pakistan could hope to return to their original Arab countries or Bangladesh, or wherever. But they will not be welcome. Their governments do not want their ideas at home, and in any case will be reluctant to confront the United States on their behalf. A ticket to Bangladesh would be equivalent to a ticket to trial in the United States as Washington continues its war on terrorism.

It is probably safe to suggest that Osama bin Laden will not surrender or leave his camp in Afghanistan; he will die fighting, or be killed by incendiary bombardment as has happened to some of his companions. But most of his followers will walk through the passes to Pakistan, as will the Taliban (the latter have already begun to do so). Will Mullah Omar seek refuge in Peshawar? He, unlike Osama, has not been accused personally of masterminding the attack of September 11. What about the ministers of the Taliban government? Will they be picked up by the Pakistan authorities and handed over for war trials? Then there will be Osama’s family, an emotional resource for those who want to continue the war against the United States. Each one of these issues is a time bomb ticking at the heart of the Pakistan establishment.

In strategic terms, a decade of Pakistan policy has been decimated by the defeat of the Taliban. Civilians like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were as responsible as the army for the presence of the Taliban in Kabul, and why not? Foreign policy and national interest should be non-partisan. One of the more remarkable facts (and one that might make the West uncomfortable) is that the government of President Musharraf had persuaded the West to accept the Taliban government as a reality without an alternative. This was an extraordinary success of Pakistani diplomacy. The process of legitimization of a government in Kabul that was in total harmony with Islamabad’s interests had gone a long way forward when, literally out of the blue, September 11 destroyed so many years of patience. No Afghan government in the foreseeable future will have anything but a formal relationship with Islamabad.

As for the ISI’s role in Kabul’s decision-making; that is now effectively dead. Exclusive investigations published in Dawn and Herald prove that without the help of ISI operatives and Pakistan’s military specialists in the last five years, the Taliban’s successes against the Northern Alliance would have been less spectacular than they have been. M. Ilyas Khan reports, with convincing detail, in the November issue of the Herald that the ISI supplied massive quantities of arms to the Taliban and that these supplies continued even in October this year. He reports: “In the dead of the night on October 13, a convoy of 12 ‘tarpaulin-covered’ trucks entered Afghanistan via the old Kurram Agency route, apparently escorted by military personnel. One wonders what the US spy satellites made of them.”

No particular need to wonder; the information is almost certainly in some safe deposit, gathering interest, waiting to be sprung upon Islamabad when the West’s operational forces and the Northern Alliance have completed their military operations. It is possible that Islamabad believed Mullah Muhammad Omar’s claims that the Taliban could fight another ten years or a hundred years or whatever; intelligence agencies all over the world end up being gulled by their protegees. The shock in Islamabad when the Taliban punctured in Kabul was apparent. Not too long ago President Musharraf was asking America not to continue bombing during Ramazan. He did not estimate then that there might be very little left to bomb by Ramazan. As the holy month began, American bombing is targeted at the homes or hideouts of specific Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders. There is not much left to protest about. Pakistan goes back to worrying about two borders rather than one.

And there are a few things to worry about on the eastern border as well. I do not know if President Musharraf picked up a signal beeping, softly, from more than one transmitter in the West during his tour. The debate on the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is nearly over. There is a new consensus that you cannot really redraw the maps of nations anymore, irrespective of past rights and wrongs. It is simply too dangerous to do so. Vladimir Putin, for instance, has picked up this signal. Washington, which used to have a few things to say about repression against the Chechens, is now happy to leave it off the agenda of either bilateral discussions or multilateral concern. When definitions were being formulated from the debris of September 11, Sri Lanka, quite naturally, asked whether the LTTE would be considered terrorists or freedom fighters. The answer has come. Terrorists. The freeze has started with bank accounts.

This does not mean a blank cheque for Delhi in Kashmir; but it does mean something that could be unacceptable to Islamabad. Nothing would make the rest of the world happier than to see a settlement of the Kashmir dispute along the Line of Control, with marginal adjustments. Similarly, there will be pressure on Israel and Palestine to accept a partition of Jerusalem and get on with the rest of life. This is no assurance that India and Pakistan, or for that matter Israel and Palestine, will submit to lines drawn to their west; but any arguments against what seems reasonable, or against rational compromise, will not find too large an audience. This, by the way, is the good news. Don’t ask me what the bad news could be.

The relief in Washington at the collapse of Kabul is visible; it will take longer to reassure the rest of America. In one sense the whole of America has become Ground Zero, as it remains haunted by the possibility of what could happen even more than by what did happen. The American Airlines accident renewed an ebbing nightmare. At the top, the pecking order has changed. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was once called the real president, is at the receiving end of the joke now. Each time there is any hint of a crisis, they haul him off to some “safe destination” and smile thinly as they do so. (On September 11 George Bush was sent to a “safe destination” by Cheney.) More recent is the victory of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld over secretary of state Colin Powell. Powell has been pessimistic about the military strategy; he too overestimated the Taliban. It could be that the state department’s intelligence analysis was influenced by Islamabad.

It is a Bush-Rumsfeld war now. Suits Texas.

As for Kabul itself: there used to be a joke when military operations started that the time to buy stock in razor blades had come. A whole new market was opening up.


No Eid for Sachal
16 May 2021

No Eid for Sachal

All this pain has been inflicted on man by man. When reason fails, this is what man resorts to. Naked barbarity.
US exit: security implications
16 May 2021

US exit: security implications

All indications are that transnational terrorist groups are gearing up to increase their operations in the region.


16 May 2021

Riyadh-Tehran thaw

SEVERAL official pronouncements over the last few days have confirmed that efforts are underway behind the scenes to...
16 May 2021

Ruthless evictions

FOR a state to deprive residents of their homes without providing for alternative housing for them is a dereliction...
16 May 2021

Wheat concerns

THE new official projections for provisional wheat output suggest that Punjab may harvest around 20.5m tonnes of...
Eid during Covid
Updated 13 May 2021

Eid during Covid

It is indisputable that our actions now will prevent matters from becoming far worse.
Updated 14 May 2021

Foreign policy gaffes

MIXED messages, retractions and clarifications from the government have become an all-too-common occurrence when it...
Zimbabwe series win
Updated 15 May 2021

Zimbabwe series win

For millions of Pakistani fans, it was a thrilling experience to see their team returning to its winning ways.