The Afghan odyssey- Ikram Shegal

While rendering enormous sacrifices, Pakistan’s “war against terrorism” has been subject to major shortcomings. Other than deficiencies in the political and military fields, there has also been gross dereliction in failing to pursue practical economic initiatives. The root causes of poverty in the border areas of Pakistan adjoining Afghanistan is unemployment, enduring frustration at lack of opportunities has been used by religious extremists to foment violence in furtherance of their own particular agenda.

Because of extenuating circumstances, the tribal fabric had frayed considerably. By failing to reinforce the tribal system we denied the tribals a position of strength from which to negotiate with the militants. Before venturing into FATA militarily we should have not only war-gamed the consequences but trained our troops in the type of counter-insurgency being faced by Coalition troops across the border. Frontier warfare or guerrilla warfare as taught in Command and Staff College is outdated. Air mobility and electronic capability that the Coalition possesses is a critical necessity for us, this we have only partially. In this type of terrain it is virtually impossible to counter an insurgency without exploiting the heliborne potential.

Our intelligence agencies should have coordinated their initiatives to ensure they are not at cross-purposes in pursuing national objectives. They are professionals who should not be detracted for personal political objectives from their primary mission. Lack of democracy denied the campaign the necessary political support within FATA or in the adjoining Frontier Province. Stakeholders were not consulted but sidelined, even assaulted at times. One does not make friends by killing and injuring them or their kith and kin. Having violated the solemn word that the Quaid had given the tribals about the sanctity of their territory, we should have explained patiently that incursion was necessary but temporary.

In prosecuting the war against the Soviets in the 80s, religion was promoted over Afghan nationalism. When the Soviets left in 1992 they sowed the seeds of future violent dissension and between the Islamic forces and Afghan nationalism by facilitating the Northern Alliance to take power in Kabul. Atrocious governance by the Northern Alliance accentuated the polarisation and created conditions for the Taliban to emerge. With Pakistan in danger of being declared a terrorist state in 1992, the ISI was forced to clear out those from their ranks who had run the Afghan war. This was needed but should have been more discretionary. An enormous asset of experience and goodwill built up with the Afghans over a decade of blood, sweat and tears was lost.

The emergence of Taliban provided a brief window of opportunity for the ISI to re-build its “Afghan” potential, by 1997 its influence over the Taliban had waned to such an extent that when meetings with the Taliban hierarchy were requested, these were usually refused. The ISI was decimated with respect to both goodwill and effectiveness, particularly in the south of Afghanistan. The CIA similarly faced an exodus of Afghan experts with field experience in the region. By the time of 9/11, both the US and Pakistan were left with a good many intelligence operatives long on theory and short on actual hands-on field experience.

One needs a major economic effort to ensure livelihood for the population of the border region, Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) are at least a start. With 100 able-bodied men with families to feed having 5-6 jobs on offer, how do the rest survive? It is no surprise they are mostly guns for hire, doing service with tribal militias, with militants, with drug smugglers, etc! The Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) has existed at best as a scam meant to line the pockets of some Pakistani bureaucrats and Dubai-based businessmen, we need to stop ATT. FATA must become a free trade area (FTA) and let Afghanistan (and other Central Asian Centres) source all its requirements from this FTA. A constant source of income will give FATA tribals not only livelihood but reason to protect their means of livelihood.

A product of the “cocktail circuit”, Hamid Karzai had family in the US residing in and around Washington, wired into the corridors of power. The US surmised he had the right stuff to be the leader for Afghanistan for the present and the future. There is a world of difference between having a gift of the gab on the social circuit and dealing with ground realities in an ideological insurgency. A dubious move in the short term, in the longer term Karzai as head of state was a gross miscalculation, the Americans must now recognize it as an unmitigated disaster.

The Zirak and the Panjpai comprise the two main factions of the Durranis. The tribes among the Zirak are the Achakzai, Alikozai, Popalzai and Barakzai while the Panjpai have the Noorzai, Maku, Khogiani, Ishaqzai and Alizai tribes. The Karzais are Popalzai notables from the Ziraks, they do not command as much respect among the Pakhtuns as the Panjpai, and for good reason. The Ziraks are notorious among the Afghans for always lining up with whoever is the winner. During the Ranjit Singh period, the Ziraks were happy to be in bed (almost literally) with the Sikhs (almost all Sikh leaders had Durrani wives), later they were quite comfortable allied with the British. They did try lining up with the Soviets but were rebuffed or “monarchists” as opposed to the socialist model being put in place. Unlike the warring Panjpais, the Zirak did not show any great fervour in opposing them and mostly preferred to stay out of the Afghan war, living mostly in Quetta, Peshawar and Islamabad. A retired ISI officer vividly remembers Karzai among the list of 250 families given to him by the then home secretary of Balochistan Lt Col Agha Aman Shah in 1985 for doling out of ISI funds for their upkeep. When the ISI operative protested that none on the list were physically involved in the Afghan war, the home secretary told him that the Zirak Durranis had ruled Afghanistan historically, and would continue to do so. A regular recipient of ISI handouts for years, Karzai’s attacks on ISI and Pakistan are not unexpected.

The failure of leadership in such a critical environment can be fatal. Karzai is quick to blame all his failures on Pakistan, this shameless shifting of responsibility defines his bankruptcy as a leader. When the US decided they were not making headway politically in Iraq, they changed the leadership. Remember one of Clausewitz’s principles of war, “never reinforce failure”, the war cannot be won by supporting a puppet. Afghanistan’s foremost leader must be a Pakhtun respected by and acceptable to Afghan races, preferably someone who had participated in the war against the Soviets. What stops the Americans from tapping people like Professor Abdul Rasool Sayyaf and Engineer Ahmad Shah, among others?

A multi-pronged multi-dimensional strategy must include an on-going dialogue as well as continuing military operations and economic initiatives. While Pakistan must do all in its power to contain and eliminate terrorism within our borders, the US could help their cause and ours by choosing a more able Afghan leader across the border, if not acceptable to Pakistan, then at least to a vast majority of Afghans.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

Source: The Nation, 24/7/2008

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