News 09/26/01

News analysis: Chaos is king in Afghanistan, and thus it ever was

By Leon D'souza

The mood is overwrought. Rhetoric rules the day. The threat of armed conflict looms ominously over a nation divided. Afghanistan lives in the dread of superpower strikes. The nation must go to war.

But then, war isn't new to Afghanistan. The history of Afghanistan has been written in blood, and its future will most likely be written in the same red ink.

For the uninitiated, here's a little bit of historic background to get you up to speed. Afghanistan is a minefield of convoluted political quandaries -- a mess of clan clashes and domestic power struggles. It has been this way for as long as there has existed the notion of an Afghan state.

The region has, in the past, served as an invasion route. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and his rampaging Mongol hordes, Taimur Lang (called "Tamerlane" in a famous poem by Poe), the Turks, the Lodhis and Babur, who carried gunpowder across the Indus for the first time, all crossed and plundered this land. Afghanistan also served as the commercial artery connecting China to the Roman Empire -- a relationship that later inspired expansionism. A cursory study of the region will reveal a land where pandemonium has always prevailed. Consider the muddle of ethnic conflicts. The Pashtuns fighting the Hazaras, the Hazaras at war with the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, the Balochis invading Nuristan, the Mongols running amok. In Afghanistan, chaos has traditionally been king.

And it still is. During the Afghan war, when the Soviets were in control, the Mujahideen -Muslim guerrilla warriors engaged in jihad* -- united as one force against a common enemy. When Soviet hold began loosening however, the Mujahideen split up into several warring factions and engaged in a bloody conflict to take the capital, Kabul. The wrangling that began in 1990 continues even today. The Taliban have established temporary supremacy; however, the Northern Alliance, comprised chiefly of deposed government officials, is persistent in its resistance.

The central problem with Afghanistan, as many experts point out, is that there is perhaps no such thing as an Afghan people. Given the nation's long and troubled history of division, it is possible that most Afghanis have never really understood the notion of a nation-state and have little in common other than an imaginary line that defines Afghanistan's international boundary. In addition, neighboring states (read Pakistan) promote ethnic conflict to exert a controlling influence over the ruling Taliban, thereby making matters worse.

The late Ahmed Shah Massoud, former defense minister and head of Afghanistan's ousted government, explained Pakistan's policy in an interview with Newsweek's Antonia Francis earlier this month.

"In order to control Afghanistan effectively, they do not want to control Afghanistan as a [normal] state or a government. Instead the aim is to reduce Afghanistan to a tribal system in which each ethnic group is dependent upon Pakistan. It is again the old method of divide and rule. A good example: it has been a long time since the emergence of the Taliban but they still lack [a regular] army. Pakistan could indeed establish an army for them, but it hasn't. And they have not established any military school, neither in Kandahar nor in Kabul. [Northern Alliance sources claim that up to 40 percent of the Taliban soldiers are Pakistani.]"

This is Pakistan's idea of "constructive engagement," a policy advocated by Washington before its policy reversal.

Now the United States seems like it wants to pound Afghanistan. The war-torn nation has been an enfant terrible in American eyes for a while now, and the gruesome violence of September 11th was the proverbial last straw. But this war is fraught with danger. Besides placing numerous civilian lives at risk, the US could tumble right into the heart of a fierce domestic power struggle. Several foreign ministry officials of the Northern Alliance have indicated that they are keen to have Western, particularly American, support for any major military offensive against the Taliban. What these officials do not understand is that the United States has currently reduced their Afghan policy to a one-point "get-Osama agenda." The Taliban is the most obvious target, but the prize is the Saudi terrorist. With the two actors pursuing different agendas, the long-term outcome will most likely be heightened misunderstanding and conflict between the US and Afghanistan, worsening the problem of terrorism, because Osama bin Laden is a character type, not a one-man army. And Afghanistan breeds many vengeful men. So killing an Osama at the expense of civilian lives might spawn many of his kind.

Instead, the United States should look into humanitarian issues affecting the Afghan people. Only 12 percent of land is cultivatable. There is little food and little aid available to the sanctions-afflicted country. Nearly five million Afghanis live in refugee camps, displaced by wars and drought. Most are in camps in Pakistan and Iran. A sizable number remain at home for sheer lack of room elsewhere. Hence, when these poor unfortunate souls are offered guns in exchange for a livelihood, they take them up willingly. This then is the core problem, and merits international attention.

In the final analysis, terrorism is a complex issue and counter-terrorism policies will have to be multi-faceted. Humanitarian issues need to be investigated, and social problems must be alleviated. We must take into account the fragile domestic situation in Afghanistan, lest willy-nilly we become embroiled in a messy internal conflict that might have a negative impact on our own national security.

* Many Muslims disagree with the interpretation of jihad as "holy war." The Council on American-Islamic Relations defines "jihad" as "to strive, struggle and exert effort."

On The Web:

Massoud's Last Words

Iraq and Kosovo: Two Regional Wars and a Global Pentagon Budget


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