It took the Soviets 10 years and the loss of 15,000 troops before they admitted they admitted defeat in Afghanistan. For the West, it will not take so long for the slow bleed to become a hemorrhage. It will be only a matter of one or two years, at the most before, Afghanistan falls and the country collapses again into fragmentation and internal civil war. It may indeed come sooner.
The Soviets were prepared to fight to the death in Afghanistan because they knew the edge of their empire was crumbling and a domino effect on its other republics would follow. The Soviet bureaucracy was fighting for its life. In Cold War terms it would have been the equivalent of the US loosing Mexico to communism. The US and NATO forces don’t have anything like the same motivation, determination and commitment to fight to the end in Afghanistan.
The nature of catastrophy and abysmal defeat in Iraq fundamentally undermines the psychological foundations of any successful defence of the Kabul regime. The failure of new “surge” will embolden the Taliban and undermine confidence in the West among the Afghan people and among the warlord Mujahedin, who dominate its government. Collapse in Iraq will intensify the sense of hopelessness and pointlessness among Western forces and hasten demoralization and defeat.
They are low on adequate resources and relegated in importance. The former British Commander of NATO forces admitted that last year they came close to losing Kandahar, the second city. It is not ruled out that much of the south and east could fall into Taliban hands this year, paving the way for the fall of Kabul, the year after.
The Taliban are ferocious fighters, with a messianic fervour to fight to the death. They bring with them the experience of veterans of the brutal Soviet war and the civil war which followed. Now regrouped, rearmed, their forces are prepared both for unfavourable open combat of almost suicidal proportions. Furthermore they are opportunistically changing tactics, both in order to create maximum urban destabilization and to win local support in the countryside. Boasting of more than 1,000 suicide volunteer bombers, they have also renounced their former policy against heroin cultivation, thus allowing them to win support among the rural population and gain support from local tribes, warlords and criminal gangs, who have been alienated by NATO policies of poppy field destruction.
Although disliked and despised in many quarters, the Taliban could not advance without the support or acquiescence of parts of the population, especially in the south. In particular, the Taliban is drawing on backing from the Pashtun tribes from whom they originate. The southern and eastern areas have been totally out of government control since 2001. Moreover, not only have they not benefited at all from the Allied occupation, but it is increasingly clear that with a few small centres of exception, all of the country outside Kabul has seen little improvement in its circumstances. The conditions for unrest are ripe and the Taliban is filling the vacuum.
The Break-Up of Afghanistan?
However, the Taliban is unlikely to win much support outside of the powerful Pashtun tribes. Although they make up a majority of the nation, they are concentrated in the south and east. Among the other key minorities, such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, who control the north they have no chance of making new inroads. They will fight the Taliban and fight hard, but their loyalty to the NATO and US forces is tenuous to say the least.
The Northern Alliance originally liberated Kabul from the Taliban without Allied ground support. The Northern Alliance are fierce fighters, veterans of the war of liberation against the Soviets and the Afghanistan civil war. Mobilized they count for a much stronger adversary than the NATO and US forces. It is possible that, while they won’t fight for the current government or coalition forces, they will certainly resist any new Taliban rule. They may decide to withdraw to their areas in the north and west of the country.
This would leave the Allied forces with few social reserves, excepting a frightened and unstable urban population in Kabul, much like what happened to the Soviets. Squeezed by facing fierce fighting in Helmund and other provinces, and, at the same time, harried by a complementary tactic of Al Qaeda-style urban terrorism in Kabul, sooner or later, a “Saigon-style” evacuation of US and Allied forces could be on the cards. The net result could be the break-up and partition of Afghanistan into a northern and western area and a southern and eastern area, which would include the two key cities of Kandahar and, the capital Kabul.
The Taliban themselves, however may decide not to take on the Northern Alliance and fighting may concentrate on creating a border between the two areas, about which the two sides may reach an agreement regardless of US and Allied plans or preferences. The Taliban may claim the name Afghanistan or might opt for “Pashtunistan” – a long-standing, though intermittent demand of the Pashtuns, within Afghanistan and especially along the ungovernable border regions inside Pakistan. It could not be ruled out that the Taliban could be aiming to lead a break away of the Pakistani Pashtuns to form a 30 million strong greater Pashtun state, encompassing some 18 million Pakistani Pashtuns and 12 Afghan Pashtuns.
Although the Pashtuns are more closely linked to tribal and clan loyalty, there exists a strong latent embryo of a Pashtun national consciousness and the idea of an independent Pashtunistan state has been raised regularly in the past with regard to the disputed territories common to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The area was cut in two by the “Durand Line”, a totally artificial border between created by British Imperialism in the 19th century. It has been a question bedevilling relations between the Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout their history, and with India before Partition. It has been an untreated, festering wound which has lead to sporadic wars and border clashes between the two countries and occasional upsurges in movements for Pashtun independence.
In fact, is this what lies behind the current policy of appeasement President Musharraf of Pakistan towards the Pashtun tribes in along the Frontiers and his armistice with North Waziristan last year? Is he attempting to avoid further alienating Pashtun tribes there and head-off a potential separatist movement in Pakistan, which could develop from the Taliban’s offensive across the border in Afghanistan?
Trying to subdue the frontier lands has proven costly and unpopular for Musharraf. In effect, he faces exactly the same problems as the US and Allies in Afghanistan or Iraq. Indeed, fighting Pashtun tribes has cost him double the number of troops as the US has lost in Iraq. Evidently, he could not win and has settled instead for an attempted political solution.
When he agreed the policy of appeasement and virtual self-rule for North Waziristan last year, President Musharraf stated clearly that he is acting first and foremost to protect the interests of Pakistan. While there was outrageous in Kabul, his deal with the Pashtuns is essentially an effort to firewall his country against civil war and disintegration. In his own words, what he fears most is, the « Talibanistation » of the whole Pashtun people, which he warns could inflame the already fierce fundamentalist and other separatist movement across his entire country. He does not want to open the door for any backdraft from the Afghan war to engulf Pakistan.
Musharraf faces the nationalist struggle in Kashmir, an insurgency in Balochistan, unrest in the Sindh, and growing terrorist bombings in the main cities. There is also a large Shiite population and clashes between Sunnis and Shias are regular. Moreover, fundamentalist support in his own Armed Forces and Intelligence Services is extremely strong. So much so that analyst consider it likely that the Army and Secret Service is protecting, not only top Taliban leaders, but Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda central leadership thought to be entrenched in the same Pakistani borderlands.
For the same reasons, he has not captured or killed Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership. Returning from the frontier provinces with Bin Laden’s severed head would be a trophy that would cost him his own head in Pakistan. At best he takes the occasional risk of giving a nod and a wink to a US incursion, but even then at the peril of the chagrin of the people and his own military and secret service.
The Break-Up of Pakistan?
Musharraf probably hopes that by giving de facto autonomy to the Taliban and Pashtun leaders now with a virtual free hand for cross border operations into Afghanistan, he will undercut any future upsurge in support for a break-away independent Pashtunistan state or a “Peoples’ War” of the Pashtun populace as a whole, as he himself described it.
However events may prove him sorely wrong. Indeed, his policy could completely backfire upon him. As the war intensifies, he has no guarantees that the current autonomy may yet burgeon into a separatist movement. Appetite comes with eating, as they say. Moreover, should the Taliban fail to re-conquer al of Afghanistan, as looks likely, but captures at least half of the country, then a Taliban Pashtun caliphate could be established which would act as a magnet to separatist Pashtuns in Pakistan. Then, the likely break up of Afghanistan along ethnic lines, could, indeed, lead the way to the break up of Pakistan, as well.
Strong centrifugal forces have always bedevilled the stability and unity of Pakistan, and, in the context of the new world situation, the country could be faced with civil wars and popular fundamentalist uprisings, probably including a military-fundamentalist coup d’état.
Fundamentalism is deeply rooted in Pakistan society. The fact that in the year following 9/11, the most popular name given to male children born that year was “Osama” (not a Pakistani name) is a small indication of the mood. Given the weakening base of the traditional, secular opposition parties, conditions would be ripe for a coup d’état by the fundamentalist wing of the Army and ISI, leaning on the radicalised masses to take power. Some form of radical, military Islamic regime, where legal powers would shift to Islamic courts and forms of shira law would be likely. Although, even then, this might not take place outside of a protracted crisis of upheaval and civil war conditions, mixing fundamentalist movements with nationalist uprisings and sectarian violence between the Sunni and minority Shia populations.
The nightmare that is now Iraq would take on gothic proportions across the continent. The prophesy of an arc of civil war over Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq would spread to south Asia, stretching from Pakistan to Palestine, through Afghanistan into Iraq and up to the Mediterranean coast.
Undoubtedly, this would also spill over into India both with regards to the Muslim community and Kashmir. Border clashes, terrorist attacks, sectarian pogroms and insurgency would break out. A new war, and possibly nuclear war, between Pakistan and India could not be ruled out.
Atomic Al Qaeda
Should Pakistan break down completely, a Taliban-style government with strong Al Qaeda influence is a real possibility. Such deep chaos would, of course, open a “Pandora’s box” for the region and the world. With the possibility of unstable clerical and military fundamentalist elements being in control of the Pakistan nuclear arsenal, not only their use against India, but Israel becomes a possibility, as well as the acquisition of nuclear and other deadly weapons secrets by Al Qaeda.
Invading Pakistan would not be an option for America. Therefore a nuclear war would now again become a real strategic possibility. This would bring a shift in the tectonic plates of global relations. It could usher in a new Cold War with China and Russia pitted against the US.
What is at stake in “the half-forgotten war” in Afghanistan is far greater than that in Iraq. But America’s capacities for controlling the situation are extremely restricted. Might it be, in the end, they are also forced to accept President Musharraf’s unspoken slogan of “Better another Taliban Afghanistan, than a Taliban NUCLEAR Pakistan!”