The curse of Afghanistan

By By Prem Shankar Jha | 11 Jan 2008


Last Sunday The New York Times reported that US vice-president Dick Cheney, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, defence secretary Robert Gates, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and other senior officials had met in Washington to debate whether or not to expand the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to conduct far more aggressive covert operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The logic behind this proposal is seductive: the Pakistani state is in a crisis; the jihadis are winning; the US must therefore intervene. But it is also monumentally flawed. Were the US to do this, it would be the crowning folly, in a string of follies, that would complete the undoing of the Pakistani state.

If the connection between the crisis in Pakistan and the Afghan war is not immediately obvious, it is only because the 'international' media juggernaut has obscured it.  With rare exceptions, every analysis of the brewing crisis in Pakistan has heaped the blame squarely on Musharraf.

Desperate to stay in power, and rendered increasingly insecure by the approach of the elections,  he began to violate the spirit, and then the letter, of the constitution. The anger this aroused in the public destroyed the tacit alliance he had built between the democratic elements in Pakistani society and the national security establishment that he headed. This increased his insecurity and drove him to the next violation.

Benazir Bhutto's assassination has completed his delegitimisation.  Literally no one believes that she hit her head and died. And almost everyone believes that Musharraf, or rogue elements in the Inter Services Intelligence, had some hand in it. 

This has completed the rupture between the democratic parties and the security establishment, and suddenly turned Musharraf into a liability in the so-called 'war against terror'. The International Crisis Group put it bluntly: "If Pakistan is to be stable in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's murder, President Pervez Musharraf must resign, and a quick transition follow to a democratically elected civilian government."

There can be no doubt that in recent years Musharraf had become increasingly arrogant and increasingly isolated from public sentiment. And there is equally little doubt that, beginning with the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in August 2006, he has made one mistake another. But it is altogether too easy to ascribe all this to a mere attack of nerves and a lust for power. The entire argument laid out above fails to pose, let alone answer, one question: why did Musharraf lose his popularity to start with, and that too so quickly?

The answer to both questions is the Afghan war, and this is a war into which the US dragged Pakistan by forcing Musharraf to choose between joining the attack on the Taliban and seeing the destruction of his country's vital security installations. The US did so in the full knowledge that Pashtoons, from whom the Taliban emerged, made up more than a tenth  of Pakistan's population, and more than a fifth of its army and officer corps. But it expected to score an easy victory, capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and make a quick exit. It succeeded in doing the first but not the second or third. That is where Pakistan's disintegration began.

As the Taliban took shelter in the Tora Bora mountains, and Bin Laden, Mullah Omar,  and Ayman al Zawahiri continued to evade capture, the US deployed its entire arsenal of horrific weapons in a bid to destroy the first and kill the second. These included fuel-air explosives that killed through incineration and suffocation, daisy cutters (monster bombs designed to explode in a sudarshana chakra pattern and kill every living thing within a quarter-mile radius), Predator drones and Hellfire missiles. The distinguishing feature of these weapons was their total lack of discrimination between civilians and combatants. Thus as the civilian death count mounted, anger grew not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan.

As early as 2003, the Pew Research Group's opinion polls showed that while anti-American sentiment was running high all around the world in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, it was highest in Pakistan, where 90 per cent of the people were hostile to the US. 

Speaking at a conference of the South Asia Free Media association (SAFMA) in July 2003 in Islamabad, Maulana Fazlur-Rehman, the spiritual leader of the original Taliban,  said: "All  those being killed in Afghanistan are Pashtoons; most of them are old men, women and children, and among them I doubt if even one in ten had even  heard of Al Qaeda".

The remorseless bombing of the Tora Bora and other Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan sent the Taliban into the neighbouring Pashtoon areas of Pakistan in search of sanctuary. When under US pressure, Musharraf sent in his army to flush them out. He pitted the Pakistani state against the honour code of the Pashtoon tribes. Pakistan lost.

In the ensuing months the Taliban fought the Pakistan Army to a standstill, and established control over an expanding area of FATA - the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. In these areas it drove out the administration, and killed more than 150 of the maliks - traditional elders - of the tribes, replacing them with younger, angry men of their choosing.

How different these were from the original Taliban was revealed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman to Nicholas Schmidle, a Pakistan-based  scholar, "even we are now afraid of the young men fighting" he told him. "The Taliban see him (Rahman) as a hurdle to their ambitions", a close associate of his elaborated. (Schmidle: 'Islamist Old Guard Struggles With New' International Herald Tribune, January 5-6).

As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, as European NATO forces joined the US, and as the killing of civilians continued, the Taliban found an inexhaustible supply of young men willing to take up arms not only against the invaders but also against the Pakistan government.

By the end of 2007, insurgency had spread not only to the whole of FATA but also to most of the  NWFP. At least 1,190 persons, including 459 civilians, 538 militants and 193 security force personnel were killed in the NWFP in 2007. Significantly, 27 of the 56 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007 also occurred in the region. With Baluchistan also in the grip of an insurgency, almost two thirds of Pakistan was partly or wholly outside the grip of the central government. 

From 2003 till July 2007 Musharraf dithered, alternately sending the army to drive out the Taliban and then seeking an accommodation with them. This ended on 1 July last year with the Lal Masjid shootout.

Days later the Tehriq-e-Taliban declared war on the Pakistani state. Since then 2,760 people have lost their lives in the civil war that now rages - four times as many as in the first half of the year - and the ratio of security forces killed to terrorists has gone up from 1 : 5 to 1 : 2.2.
Despite his steady loss of control, the only thing that Musharraf has not done is ask the US to set a date for pulling out of Pakistan. This may be because he knew that it would never agree: by its own admission it was sending more than half of its war materials to Afghanistan through Pakistan. But this has put him squarely in the line of fire from all sides.

While  the populace has turned against him because of his readiness to  cooperate with the Americans, the democratic and modern elements in Pakistan cannot  forgive him for having destroyed the hope that he had himself kindled in them between 1999 and 2002, of steering Pakistan away from Talibanisation and creating a modern, thriving society.

Musharraf has been pushed into the mistakes he has made by his impotence and consequently growing desperation. Removing him and installing a democratically elected government will change nothing so long as the deadly curse of Afghanistan is not lifted. 

That is what Fazlur Rehman told the American ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, last September when she asked him to join a coalition government led by Benazir Bhutto after the election. Last week's meeting in Washington shows that Washington seems not to have heard him.

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