In the grip of turmoil

By Tariq Fatemi

THE warning issued by Lt-Gen David Richards, head of Nato forces in Afghanistan, that the situation in the country was “close to anarchy” caught many observers by surprise. This was in sharp contrast to the impression that, with Nato-member states having increased their presence in Afghanistan, the remnants of the Taliban would soon be wiped out and the country returned to normalcy.

In fact, General Richards’ warning was not an off-the-cuff remark, but a well thought out assessment of the situation currently prevailing in this turbulent land. He did not spare even Nato’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams, accusing them of sending conflicting reports that were confusing western governments.

The issues identified by him have also been included in the “worry zones” of other independent observers, who have cited many factors, including lack of unity among different agencies, poorly regulated private security companies, tribal disputes, especially on the border with Pakistan, and divisions between religious and secular factions, cynically manipulated by narco warlords, as responsible for the current turmoil. His assessment contrasted sharply with the optimistic picture painted by Nato ministers, when they agreed in June to send reinforcements to southern Afghanistan, at the request of the British commander there.

As if the country did not have enough problems, international agencies have said that Afghanistan is likely to have a bumper poppy crop this year, increasing opium production to unprecedented levels. The UN has said that opium production is set to pass the 4,100 tons produced in 2003. The UN secretary-general’s special representative in Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, warned this week that “if we start eradicating the whole surface of poppy cultivation in Helmand, we will increase the number of insurgents. It is just not possible for security agencies and especially for foreign troops to march into villages and destroy the opium poppies”. Kim Howells, the British foreign office minister responsible for Afghanistan, recently told the Guardian newspaper that the strategy should be “to go for the fat cats”, but feared that poppy eradication would create tremendous dissatisfaction in the rural areas and further fuel the insurgency.

While Afghanistan has registered progress on some fronts, the Karzai government, by failing to overcome lingering problems, has not won the people’s confidence. Admittedly, the country has a new constitution and has held elections to the presidency and parliament. Yet, many international observers are expressing the fear that the country is entering its most challenging year since the ouster of the Taliban. Increasing insecurity, expansion in opium production, weakening central authority and the growing inability of NGOs and foreign governments to operate safely have contributed to damaging the government’s image.

While a large share of the criticism focuses on President Karzai’s inability to deliver on many of his promises, the most serious is the perception that he lacks the resolve to combat massive corruption. A UN diplomat was quoted a couple of weeks ago as expressing the fear that “the failure of the entire process was a possibility”.

In the meanwhile, the Americans have made it clear that they will be reducing their troops in Afghanistan. Instead, Nato will be expanding its presence in the southern and eastern provinces, where it will assume a larger role in support of Afghan forces that will be responsible for eradicating the opium crop. When the expansion is completed, Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will comprise 21,000 military personnel from 36 states.

The Karzai government and the Taliban, however, do not view these soldiers as among the best trained and committed. This is encouraging the Taliban to initiate new operations in the hope that Nato losses will strengthen anti-deployment sentiments in countries contributing these troops. Moreover, the troops deployed are too few to provide the “number of boots on the ground” needed to make a difference, with regard to both, military operations and reconstruction and rehabilitation.

There is no doubt that President Hamid Karzai is losing the backing of many of his traditional supporters who believe that he has failed to curb the power of the warlords and that inefficiency and corruption have become major problems. While Afghanistan’s foreign friends continue to regard him as the only alternative to chaos, public confidence in his leadership is weakening.

Karzai’s response has been to lash out at his government’s foreign allies, accusing them of not doing enough. This has also encouraged his government to hold Pakistan responsible for the Taliban resurgence. The fact, however, is that Pakistan has repeatedly affirmed its unqualified support for the Karzai government and has not shown any interest in reviving support for the Taliban or in the earlier policy of using Afghanistan as a “strategic depth” in the event of a conflict with India. It has also taken major steps to demonstrate its commitment to this policy. The western leaders do acknowledge this, but at the same time, they fear that there may be elements in the intelligence and security services who continue to lament the loss of the strategic linkages they had forged in Afghanistan.

All this is deeply worrying, especially when viewed against claims by the leadership in both countries that they remain committed to removing not only existing differences, but also on identifying new initiatives to reinforce their ties. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Islamabad and Kabul in early July, specifically to remove tensions between America’s two key allies.

While Ms Rice appeared to indicate that she was satisfied not only by Pakistan’s assurance but, more importantly, by what Pakistan was doing, the new Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who had travelled to Washington in early July, declared that Kabul was still “waiting to see the results” of the Rice visit to “our neighbour”. In a speech in Washington, the Afghan foreign minister accused Pakistan of not doing an adequate job of countering terrorism. He said that Pakistani troops should be more vigilant, adding that while “terrorists were infiltrating from Pakistan, we do not have the strength to go after the sources.”

That Pak-Afghan relations should be going through another rough patch is not a new development, for Pakistan’s relations with its northern neighbour have always been difficult. While it is not the purpose here to go over the history of these ties, suffice it to say that since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, we appear to have become linked inextricably with developments in that country. With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear that our decision to become a front-line state in the global campaign against the Soviet presence in that country may not have been as advantageous to us as was then claimed. In fact, many of Pakistan’s current problems can be traced to that policy.

It may sound strange, but it is true that relations with Afghanistan have never been treated as a purely foreign policy issue in Pakistan. Given the historic religious, cultural, tribal, ethnic and linguistic linkages between large groups of peoples in the two countries, this is understandable to some degree. But for many in the foreign policy establishment, it has always been somewhat of a mystery why we should have permitted our foreign policy towards Afghanistan to be hijacked by considerations that were, in large measure, domestic ones. Even economic and commercial relations with that country have occasionally been influenced by these considerations.

However, there is no denying that India’s increasing presence in Afghanistan is a worrying factor for Pakistan. New Delhi has opened up consulates in virtually all major cities of Afghanistan and according to some reports has managed to bring in nearly 2,000 commandos to protect these missions. It has also provided huge grants and loans to the Karzai government and is also working on the 213-kilometre road from Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan.

This “new silk road” is the result of a project planned by India, Iran and Afghanistan that is likely to increase trade with Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This route will utilise the Chahbahar port in Iran to send goods to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries. In fact, no country is spending in Afghanistan as much as India, except for the US. This policy, which Indian officials explain results from their determination to ensure that the political dispensation in Kabul remains pro-India, reportedly enjoys the support of both the US and Russia.

We have to avoid publicly putting pressure on Kabul to reduce the Indian presence. Instead, we need to assure them of our genuine friendship. Finally, if we are to exorcise the ghost of the Taliban from our country, we have to help Afghanistan rid itself of this menace as well.

A disturbed Afghanistan cannot play the vital role that Pakistan envisages for it as a safe transit route for South Asian import of Central Asian energy and the growth of Central Asia’s trade with Pakistan and the region. It is therefore, to Pakistan’s advantage, both political and economic, as well as domestic and foreign, that the Karzai government be extended full support and assistance in its efforts to bring order and stability to Afghanistan. Moreover, a stable and peaceful Afghanistan can provide us with greater security on our western border than one that is weak and chaotic.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Mediocrity dominates South Asia

By Kuldip Nayar

PAKISTAN and India will be completing 59 years of independence this month. I am reminded of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s warning when the transfer of power was taking place. He said that the leaders who would head the freed countries were “men of straw of whom no trace will be found after a few years.” How wrong he was.

The founders of independent countries will always stay in the mind of their nations: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin were the guiding spirit during the liberation struggle; their names will remain in the annals of Bangladesh. Time will not erase B.P. Koirala’s fight against the monarch of Nepal. Similarly, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike will be remembered whenever Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is discussed.

They were all tall men, the product of freedom struggles. As the days go by, their names will shine more resplendently. It is the new crop of leaders which is proving Churchill right. They are either Zeroes or Neros. With mediocre qualities and unbounded greed, they have made their country pay for their poor performance. They have no commitment, no value system, no sensitivity. They are men of straw, going with the wind in whichever direction it blows.

It was a Karachi-based bureaucrat-turned-politician, then the governor-general of Pakistan, who handed over power to the army which, like Sinbad the sailor, is still riding on the nation’s shoulders. Its 30-year-long governance is there for all to see. Like every military junta, the present one is determined to pull down even the small edifice of normalcy which has been coming up with India. The mess at the diplomatic level is Islamabad’s first onslaught after two years.

No doubt, India has its democracy intact but the increasing say of religion and caste in the country’s affairs is reducing the system to a farce. The country has more temples and mosques than schools and hospitals put together. Electoral politics is ousting every bit of decency from public life. Even parliament has been made a subject of ridicule. Pakistan is a convenient whipping boy for all that fails in India.

The story of Bangladesh is far more tragic. A child born of a liberation struggle is being enslaved by jingoistic nationalists and religious fundamentalists. Their hobby horse is hatred towards India and they want to outdo the Pakistan of the sixties when the hate campaign against New Delhi was at its peak. Realistically speaking, South Asia is littered with small men whose vision ends where power begins. They are arrogant, having no substance. Look at the Indian scene. Most of the attention is focused on two former Union ministers, Jaswant Singh and Natwar Singh.

Self-righteous as they are in their tone and tenor, they are telling lies to cover up the truth coming out against them. One is talking about a non-existent mole in the prime minister’s office and the other about the oil-for-food report indicting him and his son. In this category comes LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. He is more dangerous because he has no scruples.

The reason why such people have come into prominence is the devaluation of norms. Men with values have been pushed into the background or their number has dwindled. Probably, the region is paying the price of tall leaders not allowing the young to come into their own because of the rulers’ dynastic considerations.

Today in South Asia, it is not the survival of the fittest but of the filthiest. No method is considered bad enough to get what one wants. There is no segment of activity which does not reek of corruption, crime or callousness. Where does “the good of all” figure when practically all eyes are focused on how to grab office or assignment?

India, an apostle of democracy, beats other countries when it legislates that MPs and MLAs can also occupy any public office without inviting disqualification. We talk of our spiritual heritage but what we mean is fundamentalism. A subcontinent divided on the basis of religion is once again facing the resurgence of religious identity.

Besides these drawbacks, South Asia started its journey with a disadvantage. It was nowhere near industrially advanced countries of the West because the latter had enjoyed continuous and steady economic development. It had spread — though in varying degrees — to all classes. Another problem in the region was that independence came before industrialisation, unlike the West where the industrial revolution had taken place long before. In addition, South Asia suffered from undemocratic traditions and a communal divide.

The church helped the West unite. But our temples and mosques have built a wall which we find difficult to demolish. This has been extended to nations. Because of religious and ethnic differences, they waste their resources on building war machines. Thus there is very little left for the poor whose number is increasing at an alarming pace.

The fact is that we have failed to find a solution to our problems because we have gone the wrong way to solve them. We still have not learnt any lesson. On the one hand, we have mixed religion with politics and, on the other, we have not put confidence in one another. Whatever name we may give to our disputes, they are essentially the fallout of age-old suspicions and religious bias which even partition has not resolved.

India was initially a well-knit pluralistic state. But then the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was making no headway until it began raising the Hindutva slogan. Pakistani rulers could not rationalise their anti-India stance without raising the cry of jihad. The LTTE has found itself stuck without creating a hiatus between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The region has never been able to overcome its feuds. They have stayed in one form or the other.

To think that by sorting out Kashmir the whole region can sit pretty is to delude ourselves. Some other issue would become a Kashmir. The real problem is how to build trust between India and Pakistan.

Wider people-to-people contact may break the misunderstanding. But the hawkish bureaucracy and prejudiced intelligence services have their own agenda. The military junta at Islamabad has yet another consideration: how to heighten the fear of India before the 2007 election so that Pakistanis see the military as their saviour.

It is a tragedy that nations in South Asia have not sunk their differences, even superficially. If they want progress, they have to hurry, for the time at their disposal is limited. Their pace of development depends on how soon they can become an economic union. People will remain true Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalese. But they will also become South Asians and world citizens.

The writer is a leading columnist based at New Delhi.

Iraq: a reality check

IS Iraq in the midst of a civil war or, as Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior US commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, only in danger of moving toward one? For purposes of US military and political planning, that may be a distinction without a difference.

What matters is that sectarian violence, especially in Baghdad, is, in Abizaid’s words, “as bad as I’ve seen it” and getting worse. That is a reality that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki essentially ignored last month when, in a speech to Congress, he portrayed the carnage in his country as a struggle between a new democratic government and an alliance of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists. That simplistic narrative cried out for a reality check, and Abizaid has provided it.

It isn’t just American observers who are worried. In a memo to Prime Minister Tony Blair, a British diplomat in Baghdad recently warned that “the prospect of a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy.”

Some in the US military take comfort in the fact that the Iraqi army has not yet broken down into sectarian fighting forces, a textbook precursor to civil war seen everywhere from the Balkans to the Mason-Dixon line.

Yet Iraqi police forces already are taking sides, with some joining the deadly militias responsible for Iraqi-on-Iraqi killings.

That violence has forced a change in US military tactics, resulting in the deployment of 3,700 troops in the Iraqi capital a move that Sen. John McCain fears might undermine pacification efforts elsewhere. In the longer term, generals concede that tying up so many US resources in Iraq makes it more difficult for the military to confront extremist terrorism around the globe.

And the escalating civil strife will force the White House to confront the implications of Bush’s June statement that “success in Iraq depends upon the Iraqis.”

The corollary of that assertion seems to be that, if the Iraqis fail to unite their country, the US at some point will have to acknowledge that fact and consider alternatives to a continuing military presence such as a partition of Iraq or the introduction of an international peacekeeping force.

With more than 2,500 US soldiers killed in Iraq, Americans are going to be increasingly reluctant to shed more of their countrymen’s blood for a multiethnic nation that is unsure about how or even whether it should continue to coexist.

Abizaid’s testimony should be ringing in the ears not only of Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld but also in those of Prime Minister Maliki. None of them has the luxury of being able to tolerate even a “low-intensity” civil war in Iraq.

—Los Angeles Times


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