October 11, 2001


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B Raman

Enduring freedom or enduring terrorism

In launching Operation Enduring Freedom through sustained air strikes on the so-called Taleban infrastructure in Afghanistan, the USA and UK were acting under two pressures: The pressure of public opinion in the US, which wants quick and visible reprisal. And pressure of time, since the advent of winter and snow in Afghanistan next month is likely to make the operations difficult and messy till May next year.

Northward movement from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region towards Kabul should be possible even in winter, but southward movement from the Panjshir valley and other areas controlled by the Northern Alliance would be very difficult, if not impossible, once winter sets in.

The Taleban has been the initial target of the US and the UK. Since it does not allow the print and visual media to operate in the areas controlled by it, the only information of the impact of the air strikes has come from the US, UK, Northern Alliance and the Taleban itself. The Pakistani military junta has asked the local media not to give too much publicity to the US and UK claims of success lest public opinion be further inflamed. The accounts of the Northern Alliance have been exaggerated and those of the US and UK are misleading. The statements of the Taleban are difficult to verify.

The Taleban's air force has been practically grounded since the UN sanctions were imposed in 1999. The religious militia was not infrastructure-dependent and its command, control and communication systems were primitive by US standards. It was more dependent on couriers than on wireless. On the advice of Osama bin Laden, the Taleban leaders had cut down the use of modern means of communications lest American missiles zero in on them. Moreover, the militia units operating in different areas are highly autonomous and capable of operating independently without the need for frequent communications with their leadership.

Claims such as the 'destruction of the Taleban's command and control system', 'radar network', etc made by the US are meaningless. The Taleban-controlled Afghanistan is not like Iraq in 1991, where the US destruction of such infrastructure totally paralysed the field formations of the Iraqi Army and denied them the benefit of guidance and directions from their headquarters. The Taleban's field formations don't need such guidance and directions on a continuous basis.

Moreover, much of the infrastructure destroyed by the air strikes had actually been set up by the Pakistani Army and intelligence establishment for the benefit of its units serving in Afghanistan. After the Pakistani withdrawal of these units and their equipment, there was hardly anything left there.

The US claims of having destroyed many training camps of Al Qaeda have also to be treated with reservation. Terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda do not run their training institutions like one runs West Point, or the Indian Military Academy, with batches of trainees passing out one after the other at regular intervals. Al Qaeda's training camps were improvised set-ups made of tents or thatched huts, which were dismantled after each batch completed its training and set up again when the next batch reported for training. Claims of material damage to the training camps are, therefore, meaningless.

If the attacks on terrorist training camps are made in stealth without advance warning, one could kill a large number of trainees as happened during the cruise missile attacks ordered by President Bill Clinton in October 1998. This time, there was so much publicity surrounding the allied action and such a long delay in starting action that the trainees would have had sufficient time to go into hiding.

The only way of neutralising the Taleban and the International Islamic Front's brains trust in Afghanistan is, therefore, through sustained ground action. Successful ground action from either Pakistan or Uzbekistan would be difficult owing to the hostility to the US and UK of the local populations in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Thus, the US and UK would be ultimately left with no option but to depend on the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taleban groups to carry out the ground action. The only other group that appears to be inclined to assist the allied forces is that of Ismail Khan, the Shia leader of Herat. But he is dependent on Iran for finance and material supplies. It remains to be seen whether Teheran, which is afraid of the 'war' leading to a destabilising US presence in Afghanistan -- just as Beijing is -- would help him launch an operation against the Taleban from Herat.

No post-Taleban dispensation in Afghanistan could lead to stability without the support of the Pashtuns. At present, the only Pashtun leaders outside the Taleban fold capable of energetic action are Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-e-Islami, who has reportedly been living in Teheran since 1996, and Abdul Haq, who has been in touch with the Central Intelligence Agency and was reportedly in Washington, DC, before September 11.

Pakistan might like Hekmatyar to occupy an important position in any future set-up. He dislikes India and has had a long history of contacts with Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment since the days of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, when Major General Nasirullah Babar, then head of the Afghan division of the Inter-Services Intelligence, was his handling officer.

But Hekmatyar had always been anti-Zahir Shah and has been angry with Pakistan and the US for ditching him in 1994 and creating the Taleban to use it as an operational asset against Iran and to facilitate the gas and oil pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan in which UNOCAL, the politically influential US company, was interested. Also, Hekmatyar has recently been critical of the US action against the Taleban and Laden.

The anti-Laden and anti-Taleban rhetoric of the Bush and Blair administrations is going to come in the way of a successful execution of their operational plans. By personalising the campaign around the personage of Laden, Bush and Blair have given him the halo of a religious leader, which he did not have before September 11. Large sections of the Muslim Ummah, including in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, have come to look upon him as a courageous protector of their religion. Moreover, he has become a hero in the entire Pashtun belt. The 'war' is no longer looked upon as one against international terrorism. Instead, it has come to be perceived as a 'war' against Islam and, more particularly, a 'war' against the Pashtuns.

Bush and Blair have committed the same mistake as Indira Gandhi did before November 1984, by personalising the counter-terrorism campaign in Punjab around the personage of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. India had to pay a heavy price for it during the next 12 years through the tragic assassinations of Mrs Gandhi and General Arunkumar Vaidya and the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of terrorists.

In the present circumstances, it is doubtful whether the Pashtun leaders, even if they dislike the Taleban, would cooperate wholeheartedly with the allied forces. The US hopes of a revolt inside the Taleban itself. At present, the US and UK's plans seem to revolve around:

  • a quick commando action by their special forces in Kabul to free the eight Western humanitarian workers of Shelter Now International, who are detained there;
  • the capture of Kabul and holding it under allied control till winter sets in. This will split the Taleban forces fighting against the Northern Alliance from those in the south and enable the US and UK to provide air cover to the Northern Alliance to facilitate its advance to Kabul without having to use any Pakistani or Uzbek airport for this purpose;
  • withdrawal from Kabul after the Northern Alliance troops reach there by mid-November;
  • similar assistance to the forces of Ismail Khan, Abdul Haq and Hekmatyar (if he is willing to cooperate under Pakistani pressure) to occupy Herat, Kandahar, Khost and Jalalabad;
  • helping ex-king Zahir Shah to bring all these groups together and form a government of national unity, which could go after Laden and his dregs, if they are still around at that time.
The successful materialisation of this scenario would depend on the following:
  • General Pervez Musharraf being able to control the growing anti-US and anti-UK feelings in the North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and the Frontier Autonomous Tribal Areas and in the lower and middle ranks of the Pakistani armed forces. The longer the action lasts without decisive results, the weaker his position will become. He is in the unenviable position of being damned if the US-UK operations against Laden and the Taleban succeed and being damned if they don't.
  • The governments of other Islamic states being able to tightly control the similar surge of anti-Western feelings. If they do not succeed, there would be serious dangers of instability in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan. If the Bush administration is unwise enough to extend the present operations to cover Iraq, it could prove suicidal.
Ultimately, Laden, alive or dead, will continue to haunt the world in general and the US and UK in particular for years to come, just as Bhindranwale haunted Punjab for nearly 12 years. But Bhindranwale was a purely local phenomenon with very little following outside India. India suffered from the depredations of his followers, but not the rest of the world, except for isolated incidents such as the blowing up of Air-India's Kanishka aircraft in June 1985.

The present 'war' being waged by the US and UK is unlikely to see the end of international terrorism fed by religious fanaticism. It will, most probably, be the beginning of a new and more virulent form of punishment terrorism of the kind witnessed on September 11. No country having a sizeable Muslim population and no economy will be safe from its debilitating impact.

The writer was additional secretary at the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external espionage agency. He is now director of the Institute for Topical Studies, Madras.

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