"As usual, your guys are bombing the wrong country."
This is what I said to fellow Asia Times Online contributor Spengler in a
meeting a few weeks back, when the two of us were discussing Afghanistan,
Pakistan and the Taliban. For a while now, the two of us have had doubts about
the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strategy in
Afghanistan and in particular their ability to handle the tactical aspects of
the ongoing battle against the Taliban even as the larger goal of implementing
democracy in the country looms as a long-term strategic goal.
All that was before the most recent spate of attacks on Pakistani military and
police establishments apparently being orchestrated by the Taliban; the sheer
scale and audacity of which bring into question the very existence of the
Pakistani state. There must be a worried lot in the corridors of New Delhi,
London these days as the sheer scale of the collapse in Pakistani military
capabilities and morale relative to the resurgent Taliban finally takes center
The most likely course of action eerily appears like the only one available now
- a reinstatement of army rule in Pakistan in the guise of re-establishing
security and a set of new arrangements between the Army and the Taliban to
essentially relinquish Afghanistan and the Western parts of Pakistan to the
control of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his cohorts.
on its western flanks and ever watchful of its eastern border with India, the
Pakistani military has limited options. Cooperating with the US or NATO is
unlikely in the current political climate which ensures that increasing
resources are misspent on the lost war pursuing al-Qaeda. Quelling an internal
rebellion - no military man actually wants to die in combat, contrary to their
popular image - would take an assumption of political power once again in the
country with all the baggage this brings.
Taken to a logical extreme, the slippage of the Pakistani establishment to a
quasi-vassal relationship with al-Qaeda ideologues appears all the more likely.
Politicians will strike deals with extremist Islamic groups and seek to appease
their grievances; these range from the heavy handedness of Pakistani police
against the militant groups to the regrouping of madrassas across the
Meanwhile, the army is also likely to secure its own peace with the terrorist
groups by calling off intensive operations and allowing for a return of an
expanded Taliban state within Pakistani borders that calls the shots in
Afghanistan. I don't believe it will take more than year for the current Afghan
government to fall and make way for the Taliban when this happens.
The resulting theocratic state will be run essentially by today's al-Qaeda
reservists, with the added advantage of possessing nuclear weapons. As epitaphs
go, George W Bush could not wish for anything worse but sadly this does seem to
his most likely legacy.
Things have gotten worse in
Afghanistan. With the election-rigging essentially ruining whatever legitimacy
that the government of President Hamid Karzai had in the country, popular
resentment is all set to fuel the Taliban. Even the American media has finally
acknowledged that Mullah Omar is back as the head of the Taliban, driving the
insurgents and terrorists into the heart of the country as he appears ever more
likely to take over Kabul yet again.
The New York Times reported on October 11:
In late 2001, Mullah
Muhammad Omar's prospects seemed utterly bleak. The ill-educated, one-eyed
leader of the Taliban had fled on a motorbike after his fighters were swiftly
routed by the Americans invading Afghanistan ... Eight years later, Mullah Omar
leads an insurgency that has gained steady ground in much of Afghanistan
against much better equipped American and NATO forces. Far from a historical
footnote, he represents a vexing security challenge for the Obama
administration, one that has consumed the president's advisers, divided
Democrats and left many Americans frustrated.
Afghanistan is a lost cause. Stand by for a resumption of mass murders, ethnic
cleansing, large-scale crimes against women and children and an uninterrupted
rise in the value of illegal drugs sold by the country to the rest of the
About three years ago, in an article titled
Economics and Bamiyan (Asia Times Online, December 9, 2006), I wrote
the following incitement to more coordinated action on the part of the
The multinational approach to Afghanistan is flawed
on many counts, but mainly because different agencies assume they are dealing
with separate problems when in fact they are dealing with one. NATO forces are
dealing with a resurgent Taliban, while various agencies are dealing with the
mushrooming problems of opium cultivation, women's rights, health and education
and the preservation of culture.
What business can you provide for a people who make their money on opium
cultivation? The only alternative that carries sufficiently high margins is
tourism, which is particularly suited to the rugged landscape of Afghanistan
and its phenomenal history, even if many of the most interesting sites were
destroyed by a succession of invaders. In a situation where the tourist
industry assumes primacy, local populations have to protect their economic
interests, which they achieve by maintaining a more open society. This has
certainly been the experience in Turkey and Egypt, where radical Islamists are
kept at bay not so much by the "war on terror" as good old-fashioned
neighborhood policemen. Terrorists committing heinous acts at Luxor, were for
example prevented from re-enacting their methods due to the immediate negative
economic impact. Terrorists cannot operate without support from local
communities - and failing to recognize this factor makes the process of
reconstruction arduous if not impossible.
The primary strategy for the various multilateral agencies is thus to provide
suitable incentives for the locals to step in and protect their own heritage.
Convince the Afghans that a million tourists will visit any new Bamiyan site,
and new Buddha statues will not only spring up, but also be more majestic than
the ones destroyed. It might seem like an awfully long-term project, but the
idea presents the only proven method of aligning local interests with those of
the global community.
Looking at the Taliban, the key question
is frequently asked but never really addressed. What actually allows these
ramshackle fighters to stay fighting the US and NATO for over eight years now?
The normal answer is drug money but there is of course another source namely
donations from the Middle East. Drug money could account for half or more of
the Taliban's revenues, so the answer isn't completely wrong.
Selling opium to Europeans and Americans allows the Taliban to fund itself
wonderfully, attracting a lot of the local unemployed with promises of money as
long as they grow a beard. Things have gotten so bad that the Taliban can now
hire people who would otherwise have considered joining the Pakistani army,
with higher pay, better weapons and lower casualties.
We shouldn't forget how it is that the Taliban took and held on to power the
first time around. Having comprehensively destroyed the Afghan people through
their attempts at introducing the Wahhabi version of Islam, the Taliban
depended on sustenance provided by three countries: Pakistan, the United Arab
Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
The role of Pakistan is easy to discern, namely to sustain a feed pipeline for
irregular acts of terror (see
One man's terrorist ... Asia Times Online, October 3, 2009) ) besides
expanding the strategic depth against its Indian foes. Meanwhile, the UAE
(really it was all money from oil-rich Abu Dhabi) and Saudi Arabia provided
funding to the Taliban in the name of fraternal love with Muslim brethren.
Of course, the consideration that a fanatical Sunni country could be used
against the Shi'ite peoples of Iran never entered their calculation. This is
part of the "global oil equation", which I will examine in more detail in a