WAR IN THE HINDU KUSH: IN SEARCH OF HONORABLE EXIT
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
The U.S. Government and its military leadership were convinced that that the al-Qaida under the leadership of Osama bin Laden had orchestrated and implemented the deadly offensive on the soil of the United States on 9 September 2001. Osama was enjoying the hospitality in the court of the Taliban in Afghanistan for some time. The U.S. government demanded that the Taliban should hand over Osama and other al-Qaida leaders to their custody. Sensing the grave danger on the horizon the Pakistan government tried to exert its good offices on the Taliban leadership in support of the U.S. demand but the Taliban administration in Kabul refused to expel their guests. Backed by worldwide sympathy the United States won the support of the United Nations and established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in December 2001. Forty two countries from the North America, Europe, Australia and Asia contributed troops to the ISAF. NATO assumed the leadership of the multi- national coalition of the military force.
In November 2001, the NATO launched massive air strikes on Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and other suspected sites where Taliban had concentrated. Taliban had neither the weapons nor the skills to withstand the onslaught of the sophisticated weaponry applied by the NATO forces. Within two months the Taliban vacated their posts in Kabul and other places and took refuge in the hills and mountains of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance led by Burhanuddin Rabbani which had always opposed Taliban administration marched towards Kabul and formed an interim government. Lakdher Ibrahimi, the United Nations special envoy convened a meeting of all fractions of Afghan society including the non-government organizations in Bonn, Germany to hammer out a framework for a government in Kabul. Following protracted negotiations lasting for weeks it was agreed to set up a transitional government. A large number of the delegates were in favor of reinstalling King Zaher Shah as the monarch of the country but at the end they settled with Hamid Karzai as the President of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai traveled to Rome where King Zaher Shah was living in exile and brought him back to Kabul. Zaher Shah had large followings amongst the elders but had little appeal to the younger generation. Zaher Shah was restored as an elderly statesman but denied of any official portfolio.
The U.S. military and the NATO continued to chase the Taliban militia in the remote areas. It was suspected that the Taliban had regrouped in the hills of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and the U.S. military launched massive air strikes on the Tora Bora. The bombs had the unique capability to penetrate deep inside the layers of rocks and earth. The ferocity of the bombardment was such that President Parvez Musharraf went on to suggest that the Taliban leadership including the fugitive Osama bin Laden might have been killed. Donald Rumsfeld, the then U.S. Defense Secretary had claimed in October 2002 that “the Taliban are gone, the Al-Qaida are gone.” The U.S. military leadership truly believed that the Taliban and Al-Qaida have been destroyed and lost the strength to regroup and pose any challenge in future. The U.S. administration therefore turned their attention to Iraq, gradually withdrew troops from Afghanistan and redeployed on the borders of Iraq as prelude to Iraq invasion.
The Taliban surfaced in the political arena of Afghanistan due to the vacuum resulted from the intrigue and internal fighting of different fractions of the government installed after the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation army. The militia loyal to Hekmatiyar fought a fierce battle with the forces loyal to Ahmad Shah Masud during 1993-94 which killed around 23,000 people and destroyed the buildings and infrastructure in Kabul to a scale never happened before. At this juncture, youth mostly from the Madrasas in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan under the scrutiny of the Pakistan Intelligent Services, commonly known as ISI, formed the Taliban fighting force. Its leaders were associated with mosques and madrasas but were not students. They were elderly persons and filled the leadership of the Taliban movement. Taliban, with the support of the ISI, first took control of the southern city of Kandahar in 1994. Gradually it took control of north eastern areas of the country and in 1996 it marched towards Kabul. They met with very little resistance and captured Kabul. Najibullah, the last President during the Soviet era was dragged from the guest house, brutally killed and his dead body was kept tied with a light post for several hours. By 1999 the rest of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Ahmad shah Masud was able to keep Punjsheer out of the reach of the Taliban. In mid 2001, assassins in disguise of foreign television crews killed Ahmad Shah Masud at his residence in Punjsheer. With the elimination of Masud the Taliban saw no more obstacles in extending their writ over the rest of Afghanistan. The attack on the twin tower in New York however frustrated Taliban’s grand design to bring the entire country under its rule.
The Taliban leadership were poorly educated and that too from the madrasas. They had very little knowledge on international relations, science and technology. They believed in the system of governance introduced in the early days of Islam. Banking, insurance, education for girls, employment of women, songs and music were outlawed. Women were allowed to go out only being fully covered from head to toe. A slight violation would invite lashing by the religious police patrolling the streets. Amputation of hands as punishment of theft, stoning to death for adultery and beheading for murder were introduced which drew worldwide condemnation. Taliban had a very poor handling of the economy. In the year 2000, there was a threatened famine in many parts of the country. The Regional Manager of the United Nations World Food Program was due to visit Herat, the western region of Afghanistan. I went a few days ahead to make necessary arrangement. On the second day of the visit of the Regional Manager we drove about fifty miles away from Herat city to see for ourselves the situation in the countryside. Accompanied by village representatives we interviewed, amongst others, a woman who had recently given birth to twins. One of the twins died, the other one survived. There were complications during the child birth and the mother got very little medical support. Consequently she lost her eyesight. In a touching tune she told us that “day and night does no longer matter to her.” Her husband married another woman to support her and the children. This is one of the sad stories still remain stored in my memory. Bamiyan, mostly a habitation of the Shia Muslims was put under seize by the Taliban because of the religious affinity of the population with neighboring Iran. In order to save the lives of the population under seize World Food Program made local purchase of potato and arranged its distribution together with the wheat airlifted from Pakistani city of Peshawar. In absence of this intervention it was feared a few thousand people in Bamiyan province could have died of starvation. The one eyed policy of the Taliban alienated the people and those wanted to allow their children to have access to education began migrating to Pakistan. The first quarter of 2001 witnessed another exodus of economic migrants from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Pakistan government was not very sympathetic to the refugees this time as it was already hosting around three million Afghans in different parts of the country.
Given the repressive policy of the Taliban the military offensive of the U.S. and the NATO was welcomed by the people. They were happy to see Taliban ousted from power. The refugees living in Iran and Pakistan began to return home. The international community generously supported the reconstruction program. Large number of Afghans lived and educated in the west returned home to participate in the nation building activities. Schools, colleges, hospitals, clinics and other institutions were rehabilitated and people began taking advantages of the opportunities. They began to dream of a new peaceful Afghanistan.
It was around October 2002 the United States began withdrawing troops and equipment from Afghanistan for redeployment to Iraq border as Pentagon was convinced that the Taliban and Al-Qaida have been destroyed. The decision of the U.S. to invade Iraq marked a split in the international community. France and Germany vehemently opposed the invasion. China and Russia were in favor of giving more time to the U.N. weapons inspection. U.K., Spain, Italy and Australia fell in line with the U.S. The division in the international community cast a shadow in the reconstruction program in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile President Hamid Karzai began consolidating his grip on the power and in the process he made truce with many of the war lords. The war lords did not have records of public service rather they were deeply involved in the coercion and drug trafficking in the past. In the new environment they regained power. The funds meant for the reconstruction program was also channeled through the war lords and there were rumors about the leakage of funds. Many of the governors appointed had lived abroad for a long period and were not best suited to the new responsibility. They resorted to a luxurious life style and became indifferent to the needs of the population. Mathew Hue, a diplomat in the State Department resigned in January 2011 protesting against the decision of the Obama administration to send more troops to Afghanistan. In the resignation letter Mathew Hue accused the government of Hamid Karzai as highly corrupt which and drifted from the constitutional path by making alliance with the corrupt war lords. Mathew blamed Karzai administration for being disconnect with the people. According to Mathew, “it is impossible to drive the Taliban out of the country. They belong to Afghanistan; they were in the country before the U.S. invasion and will remain in Afghanistan in future as well”.
The absence of good governance, reemergence of former war lords and incompetency of provincial governors disappointed the people. This paved the way for the Taliban to quietly return and assimilate with the local population. They began to regroup and infiltrate into the national army and the police force. Multiple attempts on the life of the President Hamid Karzai obliged him to seek the services of the U.S. special force for his own protection. Over the years the Taliban has gained sufficient capability that it can strike a target at a time of its own choice. Only a few months ago it was able to attack the NATO headquarter in Kabul and inflicted huge casualty. Pentagon has recently admitted that in the past ten years 1,851 U.S. soldiers were killed and 15,000 wounded in Afghanistan. The casualty of other NATO countries is about 1,000 killed and 8,000 injured. The Afghan Security forces suffered a loss of 10,000 personnel. The Washington Post in its issue of January 8, 2012 reported that around 100,000 Afghans have been killed as a consequence of armed actions since 2001.
The cost of the U.S. government has soared from US$ 4.4 billion to US$ 6.6 billion per month after another 30,000 troops were added to the combat forces in 2010. Since 2001 the total expenditure of United States for the war efforts in Afghanistan has reached to US$ 468 billion. The growing casualty and the economic toll have turned the people of the United States against the war in Afghanistan. At present over 66 percent of the population are in favor of total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Even the war mongers Republican Presidential candidates favor complete withdrawal by 2014. Earlier President Obama has declared that by 2014 the U.S. troops will be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan. But the U.S. government has not spelt out the exit strategy.
The U.S. government and her allies have realized that a military victory in Afghanistan would not be possible. NATO tried very hard to get more troops from its member countries but no one was found willing. The Soviet Union despite being located next door could not bring Afghanistan under its control. After ten years it had to leave with a heavy casualty. This realization seems to have ringed the bell in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden has recently said that United States does no longer consider Afghan Taliban as its enemy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has welcomed the comments of the Vice President and voiced his support for dialogue with the Taliban. The Pakistan government is already in secret talks with the Taliban and a recent report suggests that the Taliban has agreed to set up an office in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, in order to continue the dialogue. CNN has reported this week that the Obama administration is prepared to hold talks with the Taliban but it would prefer the talks to be led by the Afghan government.
It would be pertinent to point out that a peace settlement in Afghanistan can be achieved only if it has full participation of Pakistan. Though Taliban owes its creation to Pakistan it ceased to remain loyal to its founder. Taliban fought violent battles with the Pakistan army and Pakistan suffered considerable loss both in terms of human lives as well as in property. Pakistan has genuine concerns in Afghanistan. It does not like to see political or economic domination of India on its next door with whom it has long historical bonds. U.S. and Afghan governments cannot ignore this reality. Pakistan does realize that there would be huge dividend once peace is restored in its turbulent neighborhood. Millions of refugees would be willing to return home and there would be a potential of trade and commerce worth billions of dollars between the two countries. Afghanistan by its sheer geographical location would depend on the friendly relation with Islamabad in order to promote trade and commerce. People of the tribal areas on both sides of Afghan-Pakistan border share common culture, language and religion and friendly relation between Kabul and Islamabad would only strengthen this bond.
The people of Afghanistan have not experienced peace ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979. The people of Pakistan shared the pains of their neighbor, opened the border and welcomed millions of refugees. Pakistan government provided all support to the refugee population for years and helped them in their struggle against the invader. Pakistan joined the international community to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan. In the process it earned the wrath of the Taliban and became a victim of insurgency. Hina Khar, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, told CNN in September that her country has been experiencing “9/11 like carnage” almost every day. There can be no better articulation of the prevailing situation in Pakistan.
It will be interesting to know the range of demands the Taliban would place at the negotiation table. They might ask for power sharing in the provincial administration, if not in the central government in Kabul. As long as they commit to respect human rights including the education of girls, employment of women and agree to abandon corporal punishment a reasonable peace deal could be worked out. Patience and mutual trust would be prerequisite for the peace deal. United States and Vietnam discussed for years to end the war in South Vietnam. However after some time the negotiation lost momentum and in mid 1975 the U.S. army had to flee from Saigon while peace talks were still going on in Paris. Washington, Kabul and Islamabad should not lose sight of the urgency of a lasting solution. People of Afghanistan and Pakistan are tired of continued war and eagerly look forward to a peace deal that would bring the war to an end. Late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had rightly said people have not smiled ever since the Mohenjo-Daro was built.
· The author is a former official of the United Nations