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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Neighbourhood Bully


Neighbourhood Bully

Tuesday 24 June 2008, by Mahir Ali

THE likelihood is minuscule, but what if Hamid Karzai were indeed to follow up his threat of military operations on Pakistani territory with some sort of action? The Afghan president has argued over the years - particularly since 2006, when a surge in violence attributed to the Taliban made it progressively harder for the western intervention in Afghanistan to be portrayed as the "good war", in contrast with Iraq - that the insurgents in his country rely on sustenance and supplies from militant redoubts and training facilities across the border.

The charge is not without foundation, but it also serves as a convenient excuse for the deplorable state of Afghanistan more than six years after the Taliban were overthrown. Karzai’s weaknesses are commonly acknowledged by western officials in private. They include a remarkably conciliatory attitude towards corruption, as a consequence of which the billions of dollars of aid flowing into the country has chiefly benefited a tiny elite, whereas the majority of Afghans continue to languish in poverty and want.

Karzai isn’t, of course, the only culprit in this context: the Nato presence that maintains him in power has frequently proved equally clueless. As the International Crisis Group’s Nick Grono said in a speech in April, the invaders were keen on a "quick, cheap war", followed by a "quick, cheap peace". He went on: "When something doesn’t go right, straight away we say it won’t work ... so we need a new strategy. I’m beginning to lose count of the ‘last chances’." The result? "Festering grievances and an alienated population that turns against those believed responsible for the abuse - be they warlords turned governors, the government in Kabul, or the international forces who support them."

The alienation inevitably feeds into sympathy or support for the available forms of resistance, which has hitherto meant the Taliban - although that appellation is no longer restricted to the group that governed the country until October 2001. As one would expect, there isn’t much nostalgia for the singularly unattractive misrule of the Taliban, although there is occasionally the wistful acknowledgement of a superior level of security in those days. Which is an indictment as much of the Karzai regime as of the North American and European troops deployed in the country.

Pakistan has invariably been able to assert that if the combined Nato and Afghan forces are unable to police the long and traditionally porous border between the two countries, Pakistani troops can hardly be expected to ward off infiltration. That argument does not, however, offer a credible defence against claims that Pakistani paramilitary and military outfits are sometimes complicit in militant operations. In the wake of the US airstrike that killed 11 members of the Frontier Corps, reports at the weekend suggested that this particular force - which is scheduled to indirectly receive counterinsuregency training from US experts - "has been heavily infiltrated and influenced by Taliban militants".

Independent verification of such charges is obviously improbable, but allegations of this nature are not implausible. There is little question that forces inimical to modernity and enlightenment have established formidable strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and efforts by the army to dislodge them have proved not just unsuccessful but counterproductive. The new government has been attempting to strike peace deals somewhat different from those that failed so spectacularly under the aegis of Pervez Musharraf, and it has evidently been doing so in the face of strong pressure from the US, which has little time for anything other than military solutions.

At the same time, concerns that ceasefires on Pakistani territory facilitate militant activities on the other side of the border are not exactly groundless, irrespective of clauses in the pacts that specifically prohibit military involvement in Afghanistan. Nor is the problem restricted to tribes whose members and alliances straddle the two countries. Last month, a report from Garmser by The Guardian’s Declan Walsh quoted British officers and Afghan officials as saying that the majority of would-be jihadis crossing into Afghanistan were Pakistanis, hailing not just from Waziristan and Swat, but also from the Punjab.

That makes it seem just like the "good" old days. The author of a Rand Corporation report on Pakistan-Taliban collaboration says, "If you go back a decade to the Clinton administration when the US targeted militant camps [after attacks on US embassies in East Africa], members of the Pakistani intelligence services were killed along with militants." That might be true enough, but if you go back another decade or so, chances are that missiles aimed at militant training facilities would have claimed not just Pakistani lives, but also those of agents and trainers deployed by the US and British intelligence agencies.

Echoes of the not-so-distant past abound. A couple of years ago, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, formerly a mujahideen commander particularly favoured by the CIA as well as the ISI, provided particular cause for angst. Nowadays attention is focused on Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose ability to attract finances and personnel from Arab countries - ostensibly in an effort to combat the occupation of Afghanistan - is, for some reason, no longer appreciated.

Meanwhile, an even more profound irony lies in store for those who have never quite ceased crowing about the role of the Afghan "bear trap" in facilitating the demise of the Soviet Union. A report in The Independent last April dwelt on how one steady source of weaponry for the Taliban is the Russian mafia, which is behind a deadly barter conducted just inside the Tajikistan border. One kilogramme of heroin is evidently worth six Kalashnikovs. "The drugs," wrote Jerome Starkey, "are destined for Britain’s streets. The guns go straight to the Taliban frontline." The smugglers on the Afghan side, he suggested, are protected by cabinet-level officials in the Karzai regime.

Beyond that, it’s barely necessary to reiterate the undeniable fact that in various respects the aims of Afghanistan’s western occupiers are not all that different from one-time Soviet aspirations. It is difficult to discern any strings of logic in the contention that the Soviet intervention was a crime against humanity but Nato’s occupation is somehow a humanitarian endeavour. The 8000 lives lost, according to the official count, in 2007 alone testify to the contrary.

Were Karzai to make good on his bluster, the consequences would be singularly disastrous for Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. Cooperation between the two countries in remedying the circumstances that give rise to militancy would be an ideal way ahead. But that hope will remain chimerical for as long as one one country is occupied and the other faces the threat of similar transgression.