Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Brief Guide to the Crisis in South Asia

[A statement in draft that meets length limits of under 1200 words for a publisher.]

By fall, 2009, the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan has turned ominous. The Taliban are gaining ever more strength in communities around Afghanistan. General McChrystal, who heads ISAF, the coalition forces opposing the Taliban, believes that without changes the war could be lost within a year. In the mean time the countries providing troops for ISAF are losing resolve. The Italians have declared their desire to leave, and the Germans want out. Even the Americans, whose commitment is crucial, are dithering as they consider the proposals. The generals want lots more troops (as many as 40,000) while the Vice President wants less; prominent Senators demand a time-table for getting out, and some senators are ready to quit now. The British alone seem confident about staying -- they say so often, as if to keep up their resolve.

At the same time the legitimacy of the Afghanistan government for which these forces have been fighting has been deeply compromised by voting irregularities in the last election. Corruption seems to have percolated all the way down: local officials, underpaid and under protected, demand cash and special favors to perform merely elementary services. And there is the drug industry: uncounted numbers of folks, powerful and weak, rural and urban, are involved in an illicit economy that brings in nearly half the country’s income.

General McChrystal’s broadly published judgment of the situation cannot have helped the situation on the ground, for it re-affirms what the Taliban have been claiming all along: they will be there when the Americans have left; and ultimately they will prevail. What can the ordinary good people of Afghanistan do but re-consider their connections in such a climate? After so many years of war, they have learned how to survive. Dr. Monsutti reports that the Hazara families situate their relatives on both sides of a conflict in order to ensure viable options, whatever the outcome; similar strategies must be in practice elsewhere in the country. This society, after so many years of conflict, is now composed of fragile alliances and agreements that can be invoked or ignored as circumstances require. These are the means through which folks cope with the exigencies of internecine and intermittent war that grinds on for decades.

But when it comes to preferences, there is no doubt about the genuine wishes of the Afghanistan peoples: They want a government that responds to their circumstances, not one that provides no services or protection like the present one, and not one that limits simple pleasures – kite flying, music, television -- as the Taliban did when they were in power. Scarcely 6% admit to wanting the Taliban back. Rather, they would like a democracy that works. Thousands of people, women as well as men, of every ethnic stripe, participated in the first national election. At that time the voting booth inked finger was a mark of pride. It is largely frustration with the current administration and fear of the threats of the Taliban that reduced participation in the last election. The evident corruption of the process has deflated hope but reportedly few people want to go through the election again.

Most of the talk among Americans is about what to do about Afghanistan while little is being said about the source of the Taliban problem: Pakistan. It was the Pakistani military that in the mid-1990s made use of a group of sincere, zealous schoolboys led by their Quranic teacher, Mullah Muhammd Omar, to create an organized, trained, and equipped essentially Pashtun military force. After their defeat in 2001 the Taliban who escaped into Pakistan’s tribal areas found a supportive environment for reconstituting themselves, which reportedly they began to do as early as 2003. They could not have acquired their present sophistication without the help of Pakistan’s InterServices Intelligence Directorate, the agency that protected, trained, and provisioned the Afghan Taliban for the real agenda, the on-going war against India.

Because the real concern of the Pakistani military is the struggle with India over Kashmir, they consider radical fighting groups like the Taliban to be vital resources. As a Muslim state claiming the right to rule adjacent Muslim lands, the military has allowed radical Islamist groups to form so that they can be deployed in case of war (well, in the continued war) with India. The most notable of those which the ISI fostered and supplied were the Jaish-i Muhammad, the group that captured and murdered Daniel Pearl, and the Lashkar-I Taiba who produced suicide bombers for Kashmir and only last year masterminded the attacks in Mumbai in which 173 people were killed. Owing to the tolerance of the ISI, Mullah Muhammad Omar, head of the original Taliban, has long had his headquarters in Quetta despite official claims that he cannot be found.

This policy arises from Pakistan's need for a friendly Afghanistan. Ever since the 1980s the Pakistanis have recognized the importance of Central Asia in their future. For them Afghanistan must be a friendly state through which the resource-rich lands of the Central Asian republics can be accessed. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan- Pakistan gas pipeline, for example, which has been in the planning stage for years, is crucial to Pakistan’s future prosperity. For that, the Pakistanis have, with Chinese help, already invested over a billion dollars to build a new port on the Indian Ocean at Gwadar. Another reason for Pakistan’s desire for a friendly government in Kabul is the perceived need for “strategic depth” in case of war with India.

In truth, Pakistan is a conflicted state. It is fighting a war with India while it claims to be helping in the “War on terror” against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And while affirming friendship with the United States the Pakistan government regards Afghanistan as allied to India and thus an enemy regime. For this situation the Taliban, posed as they are against the Kabul government, are prized assets for the war with India. The contradiction of this policy came vividly to light in 2008 and 2009 when some of the Taliban began to push beyond the tribal zones where they had been based conveniently close to the Afghanistan border, and established themselves in neighboring sectors of Pakistan. After taking over Swat they announced their intention to impose their brand of “Islamic sharia” there. But what finally aroused the Pakistani military was a prominent Taliban leader’s announcement that they were ready to bring their brand of Islamic sharia to all of Pakistan. The Pakistan army responded by attacking the Taliban of Swat; friends only a few weeks before, now they were mortal enemies. The fighting in Swat forced a sudden migration: more than two and half million natives of Swat fled, creating a crisis for the government that was barely alleviated before the Swatis were allowed to return home.

So the picture in South Asia is convoluted: A fractured society (Afghanistan), a conflicted state (Pakistan), a resolute opposition that is faced in two directions (the Taliban), a looming neighbor (India), and a foreign military force (ISAF) that scarcely understands how to deal with this tangle of antagonistic forces.

And into this bundle of interlocked problems we must include a few other issues of vital importance to the region: the still-active Al Qaeda cells, the Nuclear worry about Iran, nuclear weaponry in the arsenals of both Pakistan and India, and the vulnerability of oil flows through the Indian Ocean. Now we have not a regional crisis but a world crisis -- no less than a situation perilous to the world order as we know it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Canfield,

This really helped me better understand the current situation in South Asia. Thanks! It really is much more complicated than I had thought, as you also explained in class. There are so many factors contributing to the crisis, and they are all inter-related. It leaves me with the feeling that, sadly, peace and safety in that region of the world are still far out of reach.

-Sida Yan

Bob said...

Hi Sida,
Thanks for your note. I am glad you appreciate the dilemmas involved. Even though I am still supportive of contributing more troops I have to admit that the situation even then seems perilous. RLC