November 30, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

What happened in Kunduz? Are the Americans all singing from the same hymn book?

Something mysterious has just taken place in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The bare facts seem to be as follows:

  • A large number of Taleban were surrounded by Northern Alliance forces. This included both Afghan Taleban and several thousand "Arab, Pakistani and Chechen" fighters.
  • Several Pakistani planes (and helicopters) were observed by eyewitnesses landing at night and ferrying away several hundred of the 10,000 or so besieged Taleban.
  • After a long siege, the remaining Taleban surrendered.
  • Some of the Taleban prisoners (mostly Pakistani) were taken to a fort named Qala-i-Jhangi near Mazar-e-Sharif. Fierce fighting ensued with heavy US aerial bombardment; several hundred Taleban were killed; some 50 Alliance soldiers also perished.

This raises intriguing questions, mostly because the Americans have complete control of the skies over Afghanistan. Who were the people evacuated by Pakistan? Were these hardcore Al Qaeda members, whom everyone is allegedly searching for? Have they been allowed to discreetly melt into Pakistani society? Why did the Americans allow Pakistan to remove these people? Are there interests in the American team that are working at apparent cross-purposes with the overall objectives of the war on terrorism?

The Wall Street Journal's Tunku Varadarajan raised these issues in a piece on November 28. I think a lot of this is due to the natural hostility between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. We are seeing, yet again, the deleterious effects of political interference in the prosecution of military objectives. I think it's Powell vs Rumsfeld in a bizarre drama.

This is not new; ever since the announcement of Operation Enduring Freedom (nee Infinite Justice), there have been discordant notes coming from the US secretaries of state and defence. Maybe this is deliberate, the old good cop-bad cop scenario intended to confuse observers. But they have been doing things that are seemingly at odds with each other.

People get confused because Colin Powell retired as a highly regarded US general. But in his current incarnation, he is a diplomat, with the usual mealy-mouthed outlook of that tribe. Diplomats and politicians never say what they mean, and are always looking to deal with ambiguity. Soldiers, on the other hand, if given unambiguous orders, will focus single-mindedly. It appears as though Powell and Donald Rumsfeld are playing these roles to the hilt.

We have seen this dichotomy time and again in India: the soldier wins a war at a terrible cost to the armed forces; the politician turns around and gives it away for nothing. This happened in the 1965 and 1971 wars. India, fortunately, has a defence minister today who is prone to call a spade a spade, to the extent of entertaining the idea of military cooperation with the US. For George Fernandes, a former Socialist, this must be a hard choice indeed, but he has to consider it in the national interest.

I welcome recent reports in India Today that talk of US overtures towards a possible American naval presence in the Indian ports of Kochi and Visakhapatnam to help control the flow of Persian Gulf oil across the Indian Ocean: I have suggested this before, and I expect India will extract a substantial quid pro quo for such a move. Unfortunately, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, compelled no doubt by other factors, rejects any such: a shame. The threat of Indo-US joint naval patrols in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal should have a salutary effect on China. It could mean a complete cut-off of West Asian oil to China if need be, bringing it to its knees.

Back to the US secretary of state. Early on in the Afghanistan campaign, Powell confused everybody, and possibly himself, by conflating the two stated objectives of the American action: the destruction of the Osama bin Laden-Al Qaeda terrorist network and its Taleban sponsors; and the reconstruction of Afghan society. These are strictly sequential actions: you cannot proceed to the second without finishing the first.

But Powell, perhaps influenced too much by General Musharraf's propaganda, started talking about the post-Taleban government of Afghanistan far too early in my opinion. This was not America's first priority, really -- that nation often uses others in the pursuit of its national interests, and then discards them like a soiled tissue. Pakistani-Briton Tariq Ali, in a vivid metaphor, called Pakistan the "international condom": he said America used it to enter Afghanistan (in the 1980s) and then "flushed it down the toilet".

Powell hesitated instead of moving purposefully and came up with that famous but baffling phrase, wherein he advised the Northern Alliance to "invest" Kabul, that is to surround it and wait instead of capturing it. Musharraf's fingerprints were all over this one: for he correctly identified the fact that once the Northern Alliance, bitterly opposed to Pakistan, was ensconced in Kabul, it would be rather difficult to dislodge it.

Powell's hesitation led to a tepid American aerial campaign against Taleban forces; the Northern Alliance complained, with justification, that they were getting hardly any support from the air. This tactic could have led to a stalemate, with the entrenched Taleban awaiting the arrival of winter to preclude much movement on the ground.

Fortunately, the Pentagon and Rumsfeld woke up to this fact; it was the forceful prosecution of the air war that led to early Alliance breakthroughs, and then the headlong 'tactical withdrawal' of the Taleban, leading to their losing control over half the country in a few days. This was a revelation to most of us, and I admit to me too: I never expected the Taleban, whom we had heard much about as tough warriors, to be routed in a week's time.

Of course, the Taleban may emerge victors again in protracted guerilla warfare, but somehow I doubt that. And so do their former cheerleaders. The large crowds that used to demonstrate in favour of the Taleban in Pakistan have disappeared. (Indeed, it is possible that these were stage-managed crowds: the irrepressible Musharraf attempting to impress upon the Americans the great risk he took in allying with them against the wishes of 83 per cent of his countrymen. And thereby magnifying the reward the grateful Americans should rightfully give him.)

Osama T-shirts are now going abegging in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The world loves a winner, whether or not he's a holy warrior: and Osama does not really appear to be winning. Remember the large numbers of would-be holy warriors who triumphantly marched into Afghanistan from Pakistan's many Islamic seminaries? Many of them have been killed or captured. Apparently one mullah who drove triumphantly into Afghanistan a few weeks ago with 1,000 acolytes returned shamefacedly with just 37 survivors!

A large number of these volunteers, irregulars, seem to have ended up in Kunduz. Early estimates suggested that there were 10,000 Taleban warriors there, with about 5,000 of them being "Arab, Chechen and Pakistani". This is where things started getting interesting. Among the surrounded foreigners, it appears there were many serving and retired Pakistani Army regulars. This is no surprise to me, as I have consistently asserted that any command and control that the Taleban had must have come from Pakistani armymen and military intelligence.

Given the track record of past brutality by the Taleban (for instance, their massacres of ethnic-minority Afghans in Mazar-e-Sharif when they captured it a couple of years ago), the Northern Alliance to whom they were to surrender in Kunduz were unlikely to show much mercy to the 'foreigners' among them. I am no expert on the Geneva Convention, but a quick perusal of it on the Web seemed to indicate that foreign militiamen are not covered by its provisions. Not that the Alliance was going to be particularly bothered with niceties anyway.

This got the hyperactive Musharraf once again into the act, demanding that all foreigners be given safe passage from Kunduz. This is understandable: the rumour-mill suggested that a lot of the Pakistanis trapped in Kunduz were embarrassingly high up in the Pakistani Army, or were the scions of prominent families, or relatives of highly visible fundamentalist preachers.

Musharraf's many loud demands have been treated with scant respect by the Americans: for instance, for a short war, or for suspension of hostilities during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. But it looks like they took this particular demand seriously. Hence it appears they allowed the Pakistanis to ferry out several hundred people from besieged Kunduz.

That brings us back to the question: why? What is the Faustian bargain struck by Powell that has him so much in thrall to Musharraf? For, after all, Rumsfeld said something rather startling: he indicated that, as far as he was concerned, it would be just fine if every one of the foreigners in Kunduz was slaughtered. This was a very undiplomatic statement, and for that reason it was probably a truthful statement as well.

Here is my fear as to what happened: the Americans were duped into letting go significant numbers of Pakistani military intelligence (ISI) men, including the brigadiers, who are the real brains behind Al Qaeda. After all, despite all the disinformation about "Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis" among the foreigners in Kunduz, it appears that most were Pakistanis. The 'strategic assets' among them, the hardcore Islamists in the ISI and the army, have been saved. The cannon fodder among them fought to the death at the Qala-i-Janghi near Mazar-e-Sharif, unwept, unhonoured, unsung, expendable. After all, there's plenty more madrassa products where they came from: a million or so, by last count, waiting for martyrdom.

So my question is: which team is Foggy Bottom playing for? The good guys or the bad guys? Whose benefit is the war for: America's or Al Qaeda's?


Finally, a Pakistani articulates an obvious truth. Benazir Bhutto, in an interview with the Indian newspaper "Greater Kashmir", agreed that the Pakistanis and other foreigners, including outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, were terrorists. She conveniently omitted to point out her own role, and that of her interior minister Nasirullah Babar, in creating these fundamentalist groups.

In an episode betraying their true feelings, China's official propaganda outlets Xinhua and Beijing Television (as well as private firms) have been busy producing videos of the World Trade Centre bombings, according to a report in the UK Telegraph. Here are some extracts from the report, first about the state-sanctioned video and then about others.

As rescue workers pick through the rubble of the twin towers, the commentator proclaims that the city had reaped the consequences of decades of American bullying of weaker nations.

He said: "This is the America the whole world has wanted to see. Blood debts have been repaid in blood. America has bombed other countries and used its hegemony to deny the natural rights of others without paying the price. Who until now has dared to avenge the hurts inflicted by unaccountable Americans?"

... The many shops that stock pirated DVDs compiled in China and Hong Kong report that their most popular products are similar productions that use video graphics to show the United States suffering other damaging attacks on its tallest buildings and military installations.

On the unofficial films the commentary is even more callous: "Look at the panic in their faces as they wipe off the dust and crawl out of their strong buildings -- now just a heap of rubble. We will never fear these people again, they have been shown to be soft-bellied paper tigers."

Such is one of America's self-proclaimed friends.

Speaking of other 'friends', the conservative American think tank, the Cato Institute, correctly, if belatedly, identifies the main sponsors of worldwide terrorism as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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