Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Afghanistan: a forgotten front comes alive

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 23rd May 2006

It's going to be a long, hot summer in Afghanistan. This is not a meteorological report.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, is the headquarters from where General John Abizaid directs America's war on terror. Just one of the sole superpower's five geographical commands, CENTCOM is fighting two separate wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Tampa centre probably has equally large maps of both theatres of conflict, it’s the Iraqi maps that have, for three years, hogged all the attention. But Afghanistan is set to get its due: with the induction this spring of close to 7,000 NATO soldiers and an increase in US numbers as well, there will soon be about 40,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan. That's more than any time since the Soviets withdrew in 1990.

It's not certain whether the Taliban have an operations room from where they control actions in Afghanistan, but if they do it's in Quetta, Pakistan. Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander, has claimed this month that 12,000 Taliban are already in the field against NATO and US troops. The announcement of a charismatic new Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani is bound to perk them up. While General Abizaid has commanded CENTCOM for almost three years and is probably feeling a little stale, Haqqani is fresh and raring to go. And his appointment has galvanized the Taliban into action. In pitched battles across southern Afghanistan over the last week, more than 200 people have been killed.

Jalaluddin Haqqani does not sport the Legion of Merit with five oak leaf clusters and the Bronze Star that General Abizaid wears on his chest. In terms of combat experience, though, Haqqani has few equals. His legendary bravery during the anti-Soviet jehad was followed by another decade of fighting against Najibullah's communist government and then the Northern Alliance factions. SINCE 9/11, Haqqani has been a thorn in the flesh of US forces in southern Afghanistan.

Unlike most veteran Taliban commanders, Haqqani has both hands, both legs and both eyes. He could have, too, a magnetic appeal for the uncommitted local commanders in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan who’ve been in watchful limbo since the US-backed Northern Alliance drove the Taliban out of Kabul.

Haqqani's potential to change the tide has everything to do with the Afghan way of war. In a country where life expectancy is already low, commanders rarely commit their fighters to glorious last stands in pitched battles. Instead, a few shots warm up the mood for negotiations with opposing commanders. Money, control over an area, a share of the opium trade or even escape from a militarily sticky situation form the currency that buys the other party’s allegiance. Faced with a choice between fighting the formidable Haqqani and joining him, many commanders will sign up with the Taliban.

In 2002, a year after Karzai was anointed in Kabul, I drove to a Pashtun village not far from Ghazni. As an Indian visitor, I was warmly received by Asadullah, the local commander. Sipping tea with me on a mud roof, among huts still riddled with bullets from Soviet gunships, Asadullah spoke of leading his band of thirty men through the Soviet jehad, then joining Hizb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in 1992, after the Russians had left. He switched to the Taliban and grew his beard when they swept up the valley three years later, but took to shaving again when Karzai replaced them in Kabul. When I met Asadullah, he was waiting for Karzai's allies to make him an offer, but Kabul never made a concerted attempt to expand its influence. In the last month, the Taliban has moved strongly into those areas. Asadullah has probably put away his razor already; if not, Jalaluddin Haqqani's appointment will surely induce him to.

Haqqani's appointment by Mullah Omar is a bitter pill to swallow both for Omar and the Pakistani establishment. Haqqani has a reputation for independence and has, more than once, declined to be a handmaiden to the ISI. But Pakistan has to countenance this arrogance; the stakes are rising fast. Despite the buildup of western troops in Afghanistan, Islamabad still clings to the hope of renewing Pakistani influence in Kabul. And India's consulate in Kandahar stokes fearful paranoia in Islamabad about Indian encirclement through Pakistan's former backyard.

The stakes are rising for Washington as well. With Iraq descending into civil war and Congressional elections just five months away, Bush desperately needs success in Afghanistan. But bringing in NATO forces lifts the veil off long-standing frustration with Pakistan's support to the Taliban. Washington's quid pro quo with Islamabad --- you fight Al Qaeda and we'll tone down the anti-Pakistan rhetoric --- does not wash with NATO, which will take over responsibility for southern Afghanistan from the US on 31st July. A British commander in Helmand, Colonel Chris Vernon, has already revealed that 25 mid-level Afghan commanders are controlled from Quetta. "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It's the major headquarters," he stated. "They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan." Pakistan has issued a furious rebuttal.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer in Afghanistan.

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