One Guy Who Got it Right

November 14, 2001

Comment: #430

Attached References:

[1] Kim Sengupta, "Retreating Taliban commanders vow to fight another day,"  Independent, 14 November 2001. (Attached)

The stunning events of the last five days in Afghanistan have surprised everyone in Washington, including me - well almost everyone. One exception is my friend Professor Harold Gould.

Three weeks ago, when the situation in Afghanistan looked so much darker, Professor Gould, an anthropologist who specializes in South Asia, published the following Op-Ed in The Hindu, one of India's largest and most respected newspapers. He argued that supporting the Northern Alliance is the key to victory in Afghanistan and that Washington's timidity and half measures in this regard were setting up a Pakistani-brokered solution that would perpetuate instability in the region.

That timidity, he said, was based on beliefs that exaggerated the social homogeneity of the Pashtun tribes. This exaggeration lead to the conclusion that a victory by the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras making up the Northern Alliance would inevitably create a power vacuum in Afghanistan. Gould argued that an inflated fear of a power vacuum could result in a stalemate leading to an armistice brokered by Pakistan. Such an armistice could well keep elements of Pakistan's surrogates—the Taliban—in power (the so-called moderate Taliban).

In Gould's view, such an outcome would impede the natural consensual-based processes by which the different Afghan ethnic groups have traditionally resolved their internecine conflicts. Moreover, the imposition of such a solution from the outside would again reflect a neo-colonialist presumption that the "We know best" about another country's internal problems. Gould, in effect, argues that the propensity to impose our assumptions, values, and political compromises on foreign countries—what I call the "Great Nanny State Syndrome"—is seen as a form of neo-colonialism, and it works to widen the divide between the United States and the countries it wants to "help."

The retreat from their home base of Kandahar is a strong indicator that the Taliban and their Arab henchmen are being abandoned by some Pashtun tribal leaders. As Kim Segupta reports today's issue of The Independent [Ref 1], the Taliban and the Afghan Arabs are headed for the central highlands to wage a guerrilla war. But guerrillas are fish that swim in a sea made up of the local population—and the Arabs are particularly despised by the indigent Afghans. Without some local support, it is impossible to launch a successful guerrilla war. Guerrillas also need safe sanctuaries to rest, recuperate, recruit, and re-supply. They need a legitimate cause based on grievances of the local population, but many of those grievances are the result of the Taliban's repressive policies.

The Taliban's retreat from Kandahar seems to vindicate Gould's belief that local Pashtun tribal chiefs would turn on the Taliban, given the opportunity. If local support dries up, the mountain sanctuary will become a prison, but to complete the job, the Pakistani border must be sealed. A friendly—or at least cooperative—national government in Afghanistan might provide the necessary conditions to isolate Osama and the Taliban from their supporters in Pakistan.

Once they are isolated in an unfriendly sea, the Afghans can take care of the Taliban, and our task of digging out Osama and that part of Al Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan will become much easier. After all, getting Osama and al-Qa'ida are the real objectives of this war, neutralizing the Taliban is only a means to those ends.

But as Gould argues, the question of Pakistan is at the center of the Aghan morass, which, by the way, is also intimately connected to the festering terrorist crisis in Kashmir. How the United States addresses Pakistan's role in the next phase of Afghan conflict will affect our success in reaching the ultimate objectives, as well as the extent to which we ameliorate the general effects of terrorism emanating from the region.

I urge you to read the following essay carefully:

Lessons from the Gulf War

By Harold A Gould, The Hindu, October 23, 2001

Descriptions of the Afghan operation suggest that the US may be on the brink of making the same mistakes that doomed the war against Iraq to eventual failure. Let it be remembered that the Iraq campaign failed in the end because it did not result in the removal of Saddam Hussein. Tactical victory on the battlefield was squandered when strategic wisdom did not follow in its wake. An alternative government was not established which addressed the consensual needs of the various ethnic communities—Sunnis, Shias, Kurds—encompassed by the Iraqi state. The result was and is that Saddam Hussein's hijacking of the Ba'athist Party remains in place and his capacity to threaten the Middle East and mankind with war, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction continues. America's unwillingness to "finish the job" is the reason why. Not with massive weaponry, mind you, but with sensible diplomacy that proceeded on the assumption that a politically pluralized Iraq was a far more desirable long-term regional solution than was the continuation of a ruthless Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

The strongest indication that the same scenario may be developing in Afghanistan emanates from the exasperation being expressed by the leaders of the Northern Alliance (and privately by Russia and other moderate governments in the region) that nothing concrete is being done to help their forces on the ground who, in the end, will determine whether the Taliban and all they represent can be driven from power. A Washington Post story (October 12) documented this growing frustration and disillusionment in the ranks of the Northern Alliance. They complain that no program of close coordination has yet been developed between NA and American forces. So far there have at the most only been token gestures in this direction. What is needed most now is the application of American air power to their tactical requirements; that is, to attacking the Taliban infantry formations facing them on the front lines. Major General Babajan, a NA commander, is quoted as saying, "If there aren't any [air] strikes on the front line, then the bombing will be in vain." Hitting Kabul and "empty military buildings" just won't do it.

If this were merely attributable to "growing pains" during the early stages of a tactical deployment plan, it could be understandable, even forgivable. Indeed, this is what one must hope to be the case. But it appears to be much more ominous than this. There are signs that the United States is succumbing to the Gulf War syndrome of limiting its goals to political half-measures. The reasons being given by Bush administration officials for not enabling the NA to go onto the offensive are alleged fears of the political repercussions. It is said that using air power and other assets to pave the way for a rapid NA advance into Kabul would result in a "dangerous political vacuum." The US purportedly wants the lineaments of a provisional government, or at least a government-making body (a loya jiriga), in place before committing its ground and air forces to the fray at the grass-roots. Otherwise, they fear that the NA, consisting of Afghanistan's principal ethnic minorities (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras) will somehow gain the political upper hand in the post-Taliban period and foment an ensuing civil war between them and the majority Pashtuns.

The trouble with this thinking is that it will prevent the only viable military force on the ground, the NA, to strike while the iron is hot, while the Taliban are in disarray and uncertain of their ability to stem the tide of counterforce now mounting against them, and when a whiff of American tactical air power would stand the best chance of turning the tide. There are signs that this propitious moment is already starting to melt away; that the Taliban forces are beginning to recover from the initial shocks of the American assault and are hunkering down in their hideaways to ride out the storm.

Another, and perhaps the most important, problem with this thinking is that it exaggerates the socio-political homogeneity of the Pashtuns. They are by no means a monolith. In fact the evidence is that the Taliban are now perceived by a large segment of Pashtun society to be political hijackers (not unlike Saddam in Iraq) who would welcome a real opportunity to opt out of the religio-cultural dungeon into which these rustic, medieval-minded Islamist fanatics have incarcerated them.

The final problem is that it perpetuates the lingering colonialist presupposition that big-brother-global-superpower knows best.

Much lip-service is paid by American leaders to the principle of political self-determination as long as it does not eventuate in genocide or other forms of abject destruction of human rights. Here is a golden opportunity to put up or shut up. All the ingredients are in place for the Afghan factions to work out a political consensus on their own, provided the United States gives them the tools and the space to carry out their own visions of nation-building. Presumably, ex-King Muhammad Zahir Shah is willing to make himself the focal point of such an endeavor. There are no credible indications that the NA factions or the politically sane segments of the Pashtun population would refuse to participate in a nation-building enterprise under such auspices. George W Bush made US refusal to engage in nation-building a cornerstone of his promised administration should he be elected President. The present crossroad in Afghani politics offer him a golden opportunity to carry out his proclaimed mandate, provided American military power is employed to tip the balance, which was not done in the Gulf to everyone's dismay

The alternative threatens to be a stalemate brought on by some kind of armistice, brokered by Pakistan, based on a promised elimination of al-Qa'ida from Afghanistan, which allows the Taliban either to remain in power, or participate in it, under the tutelage of the bankrupt Pakistanis, and to go on destroying the lives of the country's women and children, and ethno-religious minorities, in the name of a perverted Islam that even Muhammad would not recognize.

The signs that the Pakistan hand is behind such a sell-out of the Afghan people are becoming increasingly evident. They originate with the price that Pakistan is demanding of the US for their participating in the anti-terrorist crusade, and which alarmingly the US seems increasingly inclined to pay for that support. The main price tag is renewed military assistance to the Pakistan army whose eventual consequences would be, as was the case during the Cold War, when Pakistan signed onto an American-led crusade, another round of war with India.

These are the lineaments of the Gulf War Syndrome applied both to South and Inner Asia. The United States must decide whether it wants to ineluctably sink back into a new version of the swamp into which its past failed Pakistan policies wrought, while allegedly, as it puts it, draining the al-Qa'ida/Taliban swamp, or whether it will apply a thus far unapparent measure of fresh and imaginative thinking to the new global threat which the disasters in New York and Washington revealed in all its garish ugliness.

In this instance, the need is for quick action unadulterated by the encumbrances which General Musharraf and the ISI are, for obvious reasons, attempting to place upon American diplomatic vision.

Oh, by the way, I must enjoyably eat a big piece of crow. Gould and I have been engaged in a friendly argument over whether over whether or not Pashtun tribal leaders would turn on the Taliban, and whether or not a victory by the Northern Alliance might end in an ethnic partition that created even greater problems over the long term. The retreat from Kandahar shows that he was right.

Perhaps we ought to listen to his warnings about the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Retreating Taliban commanders vow to fight another day

By Kim Sengupta, Independent, 14 November 2001

As they retreated from city after city, from the capital Kabul, and their supposed stronghold of Kandahar, Taliban leaders were insisting that they are regrouping to fight another day.

The new war, they said, will be a guerrilla one—a form of fighting they did not experience when they swept through the country in the 1990s. Then it was the opposition that fell apart as commanders were bought off or defected to it. Now the same thing is happening in reverse.


The fighters of the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies, said to number around 40,000, will head into the hills to carry out hit-and-run attacks. This, however, will take them northwards from Kandahar, towards the enemy. South of the city there is nothing but open desert, in which it is impossible to find cover.


As the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida's arms and equipment deteriorated, those of the opposition Northern Alliance improved. The Russians, with the backing of the US and Britain, supplied 50 T55 and T62 tanks to supplement the 30 they had. In the west, the Shia Muslim commander Ismail Khan received fresh supplies from the Iranians.

Now, Mr bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida leadership may attempt to head for another country. German troops were yesterday said to be in position in Somalia, in case they head there, and security has been similarly tightened in Yemen, the bin Laden home before they found their wealth in Saudi Arabia.

If such avenues are cut off, Mr bin Laden and his closest followers are likely to attempt to cross the Pakistani border, where they are likely to find refuge among Pashtun sympathisers and may get protection from members of Pakistan's military intelligence service, the ISI.