“But the mountains are the same”

The subject is a quote from Mark Franchatti’s article in The Sunday Times of January 03 entitled Can the West avoid Russia’s fate in Afghanistan?

Mark recounts his experience of the operation launched by the US forces and the northern alliance in the Shomali Plains against the enemy 30 miles away from Kabul on October 07, 2001. Amid the overstuffed optimism of the attackers, he recalls: “I watched as ‘allied’ war planes and cruise missiles streaked beyond a high ridge separating us from the frontline. Loud explosions echoed into the night…” Having worked on the ongoing war for eight years he now, like all people with a sense of history, has grown cynical about the outcome in Afghanistan. The subject quote is the reply given by the deputy, who suggested caution in view of the discomfiture of the British forces there on three occasions, to the then Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, in 1980. The Boss had fumed: “Are you comparing our internationalist forces to those of the British imperialists?” Starting with “no sir” he ended up with this historic citation.

US President Barack Obama, who inherited the mess, has been haunted by the worsening situation which dates back to 2005. While Obama is fighting to make the US ‘secure’, he is being viciously attacked by the rightwing Republicans for an alleged softening of stance.

Obama being a statesman-like president, his lingo is polished and practical as against the bluster used by the naive. The US is currently plagued by the killing of seven CIA operatives in Khost along with two from the Xe Worldwide (Blackwater) by, reportedly, a “double/triple agent” developed by the US agencies. Many accounts have appeared in the media to decipher as to why should Dr Al-Balawi, the son of a Palestinian family forced to live in Jordan, have gone so desperate. A simple explanation appears to be that the US is paying for the sins of its ally, Israel, and due to domestic pressures the USA’s interest cannot prevail in defining the policy of the beleaguered superpower. It appears that the American good guys, generally, are made to look the other way to absorb the costs debited to the US a la ally’s atrocities.

The other grievous punch was the NW Flight 253 that has also provoked a controversy. While Secretary Napolitano thought “the system worked” by thwarting the offence, subsequent enquiries, virtually supervised by the president, revealed a “systemic” failure. Obama had to warn all concerned to put in their best for ensuring security of their country and people. However, the accused is a Somalian who allegedly was influenced by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. On Christmas Day, he tried to blow up the flight while carrying explosive material which luckily did not explode. The smart response of the crew and fellow passengers saved the day. As politics mars such serious stuff, the interests of genuine passengers get overshadowed. It has been projected that a database of more than half a million ‘suspects’ could have caused a slip which allowed the accused to board the flight, despite his controversial credentials. There are also question marks about the role of hops en route the destination.

Obama, like a great politician, had kept some elbow room for a settlement with the Afghans even as he announced his “surge”, recommended by his generals. While many signals to this effect have been coming from administration officials, Holbrooke of late has been speaking about it vociferously. The burden of argument sees the US at war with Al-Qaeda while the Taliban were only a tool thereof. Now a pattern is fast emerging whereby the Karzai regime would be supported in its efforts to woo those who are not diehard pro-Al-Qaeda. Such ‘fighters’ are considered to have joined the fight due to personal grievances, poverty or having been misled by the hardcore. Holbrooke is visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan this week to spring forward this strategy even while the US forces keep getting inflated.

General Barry McCaffrey in July 2008 after visiting the allied troops in Afghanistan opined that the US can “win the war if it keeps fighting for 25 years.” Insisting on NATO’s full-fledged cooperation for the revival of the Afghan state, he foresees the death toll soon mounting manifold among foreign forces in this “generational war.” Apparently very few in the US have the patience for following such a schedule due to the backbreaking economic meltdown inherited from the last administration.

Moreover the average American, generally, would not keep his focus on such long distance issues. This year would see important elections for the House of Representatives, 36 senators, and 36 governors which matters a lot to both the Democrats and the Republicans. Rants from Cheney are also prompted by the political agenda which gets boosted by the election schedule. The president as such faces all kinds of music on all counts and he has to show results which would win his party the necessary seats in the power structure to fulfil his manifesto.

Hamid Karzai’s moral dilemma appears to have been swept aside by the US for now. He is being treated as an “old donkey with a new saddle” as the Pashto proverb goes.

Meanwhile, drone attacks have swelled in the AfPak which provides the grist to the resentment mills. As civilians get killed, the Taliban turf expands. The same is true on the Pakistani side. One visible result of such tragic aerial bombing is that the US now finds hostility writ large even in the north of Afghanistan whose warlords were its partners since 2001. It appears that the US commanders have consistently used the remote control bombing, despite the damage done to their goodwill.

Recently the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, conceded before a Senate Committee that, “civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan.” Lately to show sympathy to the victims in Inzeri village in the Tagab valley of Kapisa province, Colonel Greg Julian and Lieutenant Colonel Steven Weir went to make, what the latter termed as “condolence payment.” Luckily, it was a dialogue of the deaf; otherwise the locals would have reacted badly to such an observation due to cultural divide between the two parties.

General Ruslan Aushev, a highly decorated Soviet veteran, emphasises: “Most Afghans loved us. That changed when we sent in the military because inevitably civilians get killed.” The Afghan mounds and traditions stand as invincible!


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