America in Afghanistan —Najmuddin A Shaikh


Legitimate questions can be asked about the US’ assistance in making Afghanistan a hub of international terrorism. It may not have been a deliberate policy, though many conspiracy theorists believe that the Pentagon needed terrorism to justify the maintenance and enhancement of the defence budget

On the 7th anniversary of 9/11, it is important to gauge the long-term objectives of the United States in Afghanistan. However, any such evaluation must first look at the US role in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and the disintegration of the Soviet empire for clues to current short- and long-term US objectives in that country.

When the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan ended, the country fell off Washington’s radar. The war had been won; the disintegration of the Soviet Union had been triggered. There were new opportunities in Europe and elsewhere to build alliances that would ensure America’s status as the world’s sole superpower. Afghanistan, and by extension Pakistan, had served its purpose and the region did not merit the kind of attention it had received in the 1980s. Of course, the squabbling Mujahideen could not get their act together, turning Afghanistan into a can of worms that was best left alone.

The newly independent Central Asian Republics and their fossil fuel resources were considered geopolitically significant. The Americans, however, felt that Turkey, rather than an Afghanistan-Pakistan combine, could help attenuate Russian, Iranian and Chinese influence in the region

Non-proliferation replaced the anti-Soviet Jihad as the determinant of American policy towards Pakistan and the region. Within 18 months of the completion of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan was subjected to sanctions under the Pressler Amendment. Many in Pakistan believed, perhaps with some justification, that the American sanctions were precipitated by the dismissal of the first Bhutto government and the blow it delivered to Pakistani hopes of becoming a genuine democracy and achieving peace and economic development.

Perhaps this was so. American support for democracy is more easily offered when there are no other national interests engaged, and at that point there were, in Washington’s perceptions, no such interests involved in Pakistan. In terms of American national interest, it did not help that our then-army chief at that time enunciated the doctrine of “strategic defiance”, calling for an alliance of regional countries to oppose the American-led effort to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The Americans were sickened, as was much of the world, by the devastation wrought in Afghanistan by the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal. And like much of the world, they were initially prepared to regard the Taliban’s rapid consolidation of power in Afghanistan as a positive development.

While the US did not assist the Taliban in any material way, it did not raise any objection to assistance coming to them from Saudi Arabia and others. They were prepared to provide strong diplomatic support to the efforts of an American company, UNOCAL, to displace the Argentine company, BRIDAS, which had secured from Turkmenistan the right to exploit the Daulatabad gas fields and to supply gas from this field through Afghanistan to the South Asian market. Many American experts on South Asia and Afghanistan became UNOCAL employees to lobby governments in Ashgabat, Kabul and Islamabad for this legally dubious venture. Pakistani reservations on this score only served to exacerbate matters.

Meanwhile, Taliban excesses with regard to human rights, particularly their treatment of women, created a climate in which UNOCAL felt it could not proceed with the project, particularly since it had also been determined by a US court that the BRIDAS’ contract with Turkmenistan could not be overturned.

Afghanistan then became a dead issue in Washington, and came alive only when there was an association with terrorism.

Terrorism had become an important foreign policy priority for the United States much before 9/11. The annual report on Global Patterns of Terrorism in 1996 said that “Terrorism by religious fanatics and groups manipulating religion, especially Islam, for political purposes continued to dominate international terrorism in 1996…freelance, transnational terrorists, many of whom were trained in Afghanistan and are backed by international terrorist financiers such as the Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, are a growing factor”.

Yet this was also the year in which bin Laden was expelled from the Sudan under American pressure, and was allowed to move to Afghanistan where, by implication, this report suggests transnational terrorists were living after having fought in the jihad against the Soviets.

In repeated conversations with American analysts and experts on the region, I have not been able to get any satisfactory explanation for this move being permitted. Surely if no other country was prepared to accept bin Laden, it was better to leave him in the Sudan rather than moving him to Afghanistan.

Equally mystifying has been the American refusal to take custody of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar — now the leader of the second largest anti-American force in Afghanistan — when the Iranians, in the afterglow of US-Iran cooperation at the Bonn Conference, offered to hand him over. The recent attack on Jalaluddin Haqqani’s seminary in the tribal areas serves as a reminder that, according to some reports, Jalaluddin Haqqani was prepared in meetings with the Americans after 9/11 to join the anti-Taliban coalition. But the Americans rejected his terms.

Since then, what have the Americans done in Afghanistan?

The egregious errors with regard to allowing bin Laden to move to Afghanistan etc were compounded by their failure to deploy their own troops in Tora Bora, allowing Osama and his Arab brigade to escape. They turned a blind eye to the displacement and slaughter of Pashtuns in the Northern Alliance-dominated north of the country. They scorned nation building, and to gain allies against Al Qaeda, resurrected the warlord culture that the Taliban had eliminated. They did nothing to maintain the ban on opium cultivation that had been so successfully implemented by the Taliban. All this in the name of tracking down and eliminating the Al Qaeda.

Next door, dangerous political developments in Pakistan such as the 2002 elections, the temporising and prevarications on the question of madrassa reform were conveniently ignored so long as impressive figures on the capture of Al Qaeda adherents were being generated by the military government’s crackdown.

There are legitimate questions that can be asked about the United States’ apparent assistance in making Afghanistan a hub of international terrorism. It may not have been a deliberate policy, though many conspiracy theorists believe that the Pentagon needed terrorism or some other such foe to justify the maintenance and enhancement of the defence budget. It is, however, right to wonder why the anti-terrorism doctrine enunciated by the Americans is not being followed in Afghanistan.

This doctrine says that 15 percent of the effort should be military, 20 percent should be diplomatic while 65 percent should be political and economic. What we see in Afghanistan is an exact reversal. Going by the current financial and political efforts, it would seem that some 65 percent is military, 20 percent (persuading Pakistan to do more) is diplomatic and less than 15 percent is political and economic.

Even this political and economic effort now seems focused not on the economic development to win “hearts and minds” but on the development of the Afghan National Army to a strength of 134,000 to combat the militancy. The Americans have said that “We fully support the Government of Afghanistan’s efforts to assume the lead for security operations in the country”.

Is this indicative of future American plans? Does it suggest that the Afghan army build-up is an exit strategy, or is it something else?

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Source: Daily Times, 12/9/2008

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