Afghanistan: the nasty north

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by I M Mohsin:

So far the main headache for the foreign forces has been the ‘insurgency’ in the Pashtun areas of the south. Hence, a COIN strategy was devised by the General Staff and adopted only after its approval by the President. This resulted in a surge of forces. as against all kinds of advice and suggestions ranging from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry to Mikhail Gorbachev. If history of the country was any guide this would be tantamount to putting your good money with bad money, which seldom works in the field of economics.

However, for some reason known to the US, a military operation was launched in Marjah, a small town in Helm-and Province, with a force of 15,000 troops, mostly US but some Afghan too. As usual the media went abuzz projecting the Operation Moshtarik, which is the biggest joint venture between the foreign troops and their Afghan counterparts during the Afghan war.

As it always happens in a war between a very powerful force and a ragtag entity, but one with a commitment to a cause, howsoever debatable, the Taliban launched daring attacks against their enemy for about two months. But later they reduced their attention to the operation in Marjah. The foreign troops started telling the media that they had scored a great victory against their enemy, which may have sold in the US. Soon the Taliban went on upping the ante in other provinces and they also made sure that Marjah would not look like an abandoned cause. The result is that even now it stays a bad bet for the US forces which feel, somewhat, comfortable by the liberal distribution of goodwill money among the local people.

The northern Afghanistan, unlike in the south, had sided with the US coalition since 9/11. As the Taliban were an authoritarian regime, they wanted to bring everything under their control ignoring even ethnic divisions which have always played a role in the Afghan history. Moreover, the Afghan culture of autonomy could not tolerate micro-management from Kabul. That is why the institution of warlords prevailed more often than not, as it does most ferociously under Karzai.

A school of thought believes that in defying the Taliban, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik Commander and the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ against the Soviet onslaught of 80’s, was planning to seek the creation of greater Tajikistan with alleged Russian help, perhaps out of disgust with his fellow Afghans.

Once he was killed in early September 2001 in a bombing-incident planned by the Taliban, the other leaders still holding out in the north had no option but to join the invading forces. A lot of evidence is now emerging about the role of the powerful US oil lobby in the attacks on Afghanistan following 9/11.

As Enron and UNOCAL had invested billions in ventures whose success depended on the passage of a pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and onwards through India, the Taliban trying a tough bargain angered the ‘lobby’. As George Bush and many of the neocon stalwarts were obliged to support the lobby due to their inherent commonality of interest, the American policy got reduced to “you are either with us or against us.”

What happened is recent history. According to one estimate, the US used the aerial bombing atrociously although their enemy had no air force, which cost America $2 billion initially. The Taliban, despite being only a ragtag militia, kept up the honourable Afghan tradition and fought valiantly. However, seeing no openings they retreated to the mountains, which again was like history repeating itself in the new century.

The north remained fully involved with the US and the concerned warlords took their pound of flesh from the US, which needed their help to keep their acolyte in Kabul going. In addition to getting all kinds of benefits from the status quo, they started trading in heroin by growing large tracts of opium. This was more than a goldmine, as it met the demand in the US and Russia for the drugs. As was natural, the Pashtuns in the south, who have far bigger cultivable area, followed suit to benefit from the bounty offered by drug trade; more so, after the threat of a famine appeared on the horizon in 2004/5 to stave off starvation.

Seeing a breakthrough becoming available, the Taliban started offering security to the local cultivators so that their business flourished to everybody’s benefit, as the chances of any other kind of employment had become virtually non-existent under Karzai’s set up. Soon the drug traders felt obliged to pay a part of their earnings to the Taliban for their services and support to the southern drug enterprise. Helped by such shared interest, the Taliban re-emerged on the scene to challenge the foreign forces.

Apparently, their appeal also increased due to the incidents involving civilians, who were treated as ‘’collateral damage” by the foreign troops, which provoked even more anger among the Afghans. No wonder, the Taliban started getting stronger and also swelled in the south.

As the promised reconstruction failed to take off, a reaction started against the US forces even in the north. This was aggravated by the most unfortunate incidents of the killing of civilians out of fear or miscalculations. Kunduz experienced the most harrowing of such incidents when an oil tanker trying to cross a small river got stuck in the mud and the area was deliberately bombed by the US and NATO forces. This ended up with the killing of 150 people and wounding of twice that number. Two more similar incidents turned the tide in the north. The Taliban cashed in on such resentment and now the north is becoming a real sore point like the south.

Lately, a commander of the NATO forces advocated that an operation, like the one projected for Kandahar in June, should also be held in the north. This is seen as a must to stem the tide of attacks which is going up. If that is so, the supply line for foreign troops, which was considered safe, would also be blocked like the one in the south. Moreover, the Kyrgyzstan crisis could create more bottlenecks in the airlift of troops. The US must do some hard thinking or follow Karzai’s approach despite the outbursts of Hillary Clinton, which were also matched by similar expressions from her guest from Kabul. Only the USA’s advantage of asymmetrical power may not work. It’s Afghanistan!

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One Response to Afghanistan: the nasty north

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