A replay of Bunker Hill

Afghan fighters

By I. M. Mohsin

The operation code named ‘Mushtarak’, launched by the huge foreign forces along with some Afghan complement in Helmand has run into serious problems. Its projected aim was to provide security to the local people while dismantling ‘enemy’ strongholds in the same area. A tempestuous publicity campaign heralded the start of hostilities by the ISAF. Such media hype was considered necessary to warn the local people of the impending attacks. Many people, as such, migrated to other areas which would have caused great resentment among the afflicted Afghans. Subsequently, the foreign forces felt obliged to forbid any help to the Taliban by any resident. All such moves indicate that in nine years, the US army has not understood anything of the local culture which rules the roost, particularly when fighting the foreigners. If the Americans had heeded Gorbachev’s advice or that of their own ambassador in Kabul’s foreboding, they may have been better off. The real lesson that history teaches, as the Russians learnt the hard way after losing their Soviet Empire, is that atrocities by an awful power do not, generally, make the Afghans bend.

History also proves that despite the odds, they have always emerged successful. Licking its wounds caused by the exercise of vicious power, the aggrieved party waits to hit back. No wonder the Taliban, deriving strength from their history, took a serious dig at the foreign troops by saying that “the current occupiers of Afghanistan, like the Red Army will face defeat” on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal of the defeated Russian troops.

In choosing the subject, I was influenced by the history of the American War of Independence. The ragtag force under George Washington conquered the Bunker Hill outpost of the British troops. Feeling outraged, the British commander rushed a strong contingent which drove the Americans away after some fighting. However, thereafter the US militia turned into Taliban. As the British forces started a withdrawal exercise, the Americans would waylay/ambush repeatedly with consequences for the then British ‘occupation’ force. This stands as a landmark development which finally led to the American Independence. It is difficult to make out how asymmetrical was the power between the parties then as compared with the AfPak tragedy. The strategy of the Afghans has always been a repeat of Bunker Hill. In fact, their battling prowess covers distinctly about 12 hundred years. The underlying hallmark of the same is that they have infinite patience in avenging the wrong that has been done to them more so by a foreigner.

As the combat was started by the foreign forces, the Taliban, as per their promise, fought ferociously, which caused casualties on both sides. The Taliban treat their dead as a ‘martyr’ so no casualty figures are ever issued. The US has evolved a long procedure to verify their dead; hence they take time in announcing their losses. It appears that, perhaps out of desperation and no regard for human life pertaining to the ‘enemy’, vicious weapons are being used in abundance. Thus, BBC/AP reported that two wrongly fired missiles hit a house killing 12 persons including children. In this backdrop, President Hamid Karzai was quick to condemn this tragic loss of life which shows how bad others would be feeling. Such aberrations do the greatest harm to the pro-Afghan pronouncements of General Stanley McChrystal.

Furthermore, the Helmand operation is facing tough opposition from Taliban. All media reports underline the fact that Marja is littered with landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which demoralise the foreign forces. In addition, the Taliban treasure of weapons appears to have improved which enables them to fire with more sophisticated arms. This again forces the foreign army to tread carefully which bars any quick progress. While Admiral Mullen held that the operation had got “off to a good start”, he had a good sense to realise that it is safe not to count one’s chickens before the same are roosted. However, another officer claimed that when they tried such vicious bombing in Fallujah, Iraq, the local resistance collapsed like the proverbial nine pins. It is naïve to compare the two situations. Iraqis may have fought bravely but there were three basic differences between the two situations. First, the Afghan topography is daunting for any aggressor; more so a foreign one. Second, the way the Afghans keep on fighting may not be possible for many people in the world. Third, the tradition of defeating the foreign forces without any consideration for time and losses is a distinct characteristic of the area. As tradition dies hard, one finds a repeat of what may have been done during the middle ages or even earlier.

The confusing approach makes it a doubtful proposition. It has been drummed during the last two months that Karzai would try to mollify his ‘estranged brothers’ while the US would keep its fight against Al-Qaeda. If reconciliation is pursued and backed up by genuine reconstruction projects to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghans, then such adventurism has little relevance. Currently, the whole of Helmand must be seething with the urge for revenge against the killing of their own people, as well as their sufferings. This could easily prove to be a way to hell charted by good intentions.

Nevertheless, the US is waging a war with no rational goals. It appears to be hangover of the Bush-Cheney obsessions which, certain vested interests at home, are keeping alive by demeaning their president on the slightest pretext. This way US appears to be killing a huge number of Muslims which will be difficult to wash out. Even subterfuges like the ‘clash of civilisations’ do not make much sense. The current US policy appears to be inciting radicalism among Muslim countries that even in a country like Pakistan, which has considerable goodwill for the US, is dithering under various pressures. The Pakistani people are starting to believe that the policy of their governments since 9/11 has been a failure. No wonder Secretary Robert Gates was amazed at the criticism levelled against his country during the course of interaction with some representative societal institutions.

The US has to realise that their stakes vis-à-vis AfPak have become colossal following their involvement in the area since the 70s. Repeating a mistake is never considered a sign of wisdom in the worldly affairs.

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