Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009
Af-Pak: The World’s Most Dangerous Place
Saturday 26 September 2009, by
One out of a myriad Political Contest Models developed by the arcane theorists, the present one posits a sanguine and diligent comprehension of the notion of a state actor pitted against the non-state actor in a Gladiatorial contest of gargantuan proportions. This used to be a quintessential mode of analysing the arcadia of conflict zones in the international statecraft. The Model delineated a Blitzkrieg scenario, wherein the non-state actors in a given nation-state strive to assess the degree of success of their chances taken with chicanery against the stately apparatus of “The Regime”.1 A designated state-sponsored apparatus does not need to indulge in an out-of-the-ordinary societal and political ministration in order to justify its stand vis-a-vis the tenets of armed rebellion in the scorched and tarred rural hinterland of the nation-state. Juxtaposed against this statist commandeering of it’s Goebellesian propaganda apparatus, the non-state antagonist living the vibes of the likes of Behtullah Mehsud (the leader of the Taliban in Swat) and Sufi Muhammad are exhausted in their single-minded devotion to extricate the hoi polloi out of the so-called morass of state ordained Democracy and praxis. The antagonist leads a rightly vilified and tainted existence, smudged betwixt the multitude of “Manicheastic Portrayals”2 and mundane media renderings, which is not completely uncalled for.
Now, the parameters of the notion of conflict and its definition have been transformed beyond comprehension. There is no clear-cut delineation betwixt a non-state actor and a state actor as Pakistan itself appears to be dwindling towards a stature of a non-state actor, with the non state actors of the order of the Taliban and Al Qaeda acquiring legitimacy in the realm of Swat and the North Western Frontier Province in Pakistan. The regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province have been catapulted to the status of being “the most dangerous place in the world” in the words of Barack Obama, the President of United States of America. Everything takes place under the aegis of a dark shadow of terror-mongers who have resorted to an obsolete and dysfunctional definition of religion in order to cover up for their nefarious designs in the region which was known for the valour, honesty, uprightness and steadfastness of the people in the region in current turmoil.
Strife in Swat: an Insider’s Account
The Taliban insurgents have teamed up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, reinvigorating an alliance that Pakistani and American authorities say poses a serious risk to the stability of the country. The deadly assault in March in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, against the Sri Lankan cricket team and the bombing last fall of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad were only the most spectacular examples of the joint campaign, they said. An Indian Express article in India succinctly summed up the situation in the newly nomenclatured: “Af-Pak”,
President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy puts Pakistan at its centre. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region, visited Pakistan this week. At a dinner for journalists the two men conceded that America was not winning in Afghanistan but seemed at odds over whether it was actually losing.3
The Pakistani Conundrum
President Barrack Obama has nimbly nomenclatured the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier as the world’s most dangerous place,4 a kind of American Wild West. Yet Pakistani officials lambasted the US for conducting a “transactional relationship” with Pakistan; they demand that it shifted towards a strategic alliance. In a newspaper abstract, America’s coffer of goodies is gargantuan in size and girth: $ 1.5 billion in aid for each of the next five years and nearly $ 3 billion in counter-insurgency military aid.5 American officials rate the Pakistani Prime Minister to be corrupt and impotent, and accuse the military intelligence of conniving with the dreaded Taliban. Admiral Mullen often reiterates the long-held view that the Taliban leadership is hiding in the province of Balochistan. In turn, Pakistan is deeply suspicious of America’s plans for India to play a pivotal role in the region. Far-fetched rumours—that 150,000 Indian troops are to be deployed in Afghanistan—are in common currency in Islamabad.
One commentator has propounded the sobriquet of “A Wicked Problem” to the scare scenario in Afghanistan and Pakistan, more commonly dubbed as “Af-Pak”. A resolution has been deliberated upon by Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, which posits that a Sharia-like moral code of conduct can be implemented in the region to phase out the Talibanised idiom and comprehension of Islamic Law which would be orchestrated and operated by the regime in Islamabad, thus playing on the indigenous understanding of Islamic Law in Balochistan and other Taliban infested regions. This resolution is a deft and canny answer to the draconian dictates which are being implemented with impunity by the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM). A Pakistani observer sums up the scenario:
Deliberations on what is now termed the Nazim-e-Adl (Shariat) Regulation 2009, still in draft form, since it has not been signed by Zardari and for that reason does not enjoy the legal status of a presidential order under the Constitution, had begun as far back as 2007, in fact before the Army operation in the valley had started. To think that that document is the peace deal is therefore incorrect.6
The history of the current quagmire in Pakistan can be traced back to the elections of 2007 in Balochistan. Much before that, the tale of the rise of the Taliban too needs to be delved into, if an appropriate comprehension of the “Trouble” has to be arrived at. The Taliban was initially an amalgamation of the Mujahideen who fought against the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, and a group of Pashtun tribesmen who spent time in Pakistani religious schools, or Madrassas, and received assistance from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The group’s leaders practised Wahhabism,7 an orthodox form of Sunni Islam similar to that practised in Saudi Arabia. With the help of government defections, the Taliban emerged as a force in Afghan politics in 1994 in the midst of a civil war between the forces in northern and southern Afghanistan. They gained an initial territorial foothold in the southern city of Kandahar, and over the next two years expanded their influence through a mixture of force, negotiation, and payoffs. In 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul, the Afghan capital, and took control of the national government.
In the Pakistani context, Eijaj Hiader narrates very interestingly that
The Army operation in Swat, which began in November 2007, continued until February 2008. It is a measure of the success of the first phase of the operation that elections were peacefully held throughout the Swat valley and voters overwhelmingly voted for the Awami National Party and the Pakistan People’s Party, the two major partners in the NWFP coalition government. After the elections, however, the Taliban elements began sporadic operations again. The second phase of the operation resulted in more collateral damage.8
Since then, the saga of the Talibani warmongering and zealotry has run unabated in the Swat in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a nation-state with immense geo-strategic significance. It is located at the crossroads of Central, South and West Asia, sharing its borders with the Central Asian states of-Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on the north, the Chinese province of Xinjiang in the east, Iran on the west and south-west, and Pakistan and Pak-occupied territory of Kashmir on the south and south-east. Due to its strategic placement, Afghanistan became the focal point of intense rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century. Afghanistan remained at the centre stage of international politics as a theatre in the Cold War games of the superpowers with Pakistan acting as the frontline state of the United States for channelling its financial, material and military supplies to the Afghan Mujahideen. Pakistan used this opportunity to divert part of these supplies to the Indian border States of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, thereby promoting the Kalashnikov culture, trans-border terrorism and religious extremism in India too.9
The Fulton Speech by the legendary British World War-II Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, set the tone for the grand Cold War confrontation. Churchill went on to relate with utmost brio and enthusiasm:
Ladies and gentlemen, the United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement. Opportunity is here and now, clear and shining for both our countries.10
This grand strategy has always been the hallmark of the US strategy which finds its weight being shifted from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan. Pakistan, despite its status as a “Failed State”, runs in with the golden opportunity to be anointed as a frontline nation-state in the western fulcrum of the South Asian regional firmament. The fears of an Indian role in Afghanistan keep the strategists working in tandem with the latest ministrations of the US foreign policy, the recent being not too much “in sync” with the Obama policy, as Pakistan has raised objections to the indiscriminate use of “Drones”11 in the western provinces of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The American relationship with Afghanistan stems from its domestic debate between the twin strains of interventionism and isolationism which have permeated the thought process of the foreign policy-making bureaucracy in the White House and the US State Department, the ubiquitous “Foggy Bottom”.12
General Wallace H. Nutting, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Readiness Command (USCINCRED), has described low-intensity warfare as “the central strategic task facing the United States today”.13 Tackling the Taliban happens to be one such opportunity, where the American understanding of RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) can be diligently put to use. William J. Olsen, of the US Army War College, speaking at a symposium sponsored by the US Air Force, referred to low-intensity warfare, as “the most urgent strategic problem”, of the United States and considered it “crucial to national survival”.14 The current Obama policy has many positives embedded in its rubric. Obama said that Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to root out the Al-Qaeda. “We cannot and we will not give a blank cheque to Pakistan,” said Obama, adding that: “extremists are a cancer that is killing Pakistan from within and we will pursue constructive diplomacy with both India and Pakistan”.15 This is how the American standpoint stood on March 27, 2009 vis-à-vis this strife-torn region in South Asia.
The fact that the United States has recently backed a United Nations Resolution strengthening sanctions against foreign military aid to the Taliban, without including an embargo on the other armed factions in the country, confirms clearly that the shift in policy has no humanitarian basis behind it. The other factions “when they ruled in key areas, showed a brutal disregard for human rights and for other minorities that was comparable to the Taliban at its worst”, notes the Central Asian affairs specialist, Frederick Starr. Western motives become clearer when one recalls that it was the US that originally trained and armed the faction in Afghanistan, even “long before the USSR sent in troops”, which now constitutes the “leaders of Afghanistan”.16 The record illustrates the existence of an ongoing relationship between the United States and the Taliban.
Thus, Americans need not forget that after the initiation of the interventionist Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation-state of Afghanistan suffered from a grave humanitarian crisis and lurched on from one crisis to another with the aid and succour of the United States, Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The cooperation with the grand old man of international politics, the United States of America, needs to keep in mind the theme of rehabilitation of the war-torn frontier nation-state. It is the grand old paradigm of the “Boomerang phenomenon”, wherein the US hurled a weapon at the Soviets and the same offensive instrumentality seems to be hurtling back at the neck of the international supercop. The United States needs to become more of a “Smart Power” in Joseph Nye Jr’s words, if it wants to appear “just, equitable and humanitarian” in its foreign policy dispensation towards the tumultuous strife-torn regions in global polity, especially the tarred terrain of “Af-Pak”, as they very endearingly nomenclature it as such.
1. Gadi Wolsfield (1997), Media and Political Conflict: News From The Middle East (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 1-10.
2. Manicheastic Portrayals refer to the heresy and admonition, spread by the media and the propaganda machinations of a powerful state actor or a group, which can make or mar favourable public opinion, about a political, religious or any other genre of adversary. The stratagem involves the vilification of a public personality which is positioned in an adversarial manner vis-à-vis the more powerful actor in the power game. The vilification campaign launched by the US media against Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini as the “Great Satan” or as the enemy in the form of a diabolical “Them” pitted against the West or the “Us” in a battle till one vanquishes and obliterates the other in a divine and moral struggle for one-upmanship. The Hitler-like portrayal of Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War-I, in the year 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, and the demonisation of the Viet Kong, the national liberation forces led by Ho Chi Minh, as the “Communist aggressors” during the Vietnam War are some of the outstanding instances of Manicheastic depiction of weaker adversaries in an attempt to sully and tarnish their reputation.
3. “The Slide Downhill”, The Economist, April 13, 2009.
4. Indian Express Correspondent, “Pakistan is World’s Most Dangerous Place” (Online: Web) Accessed on April 16, 2009, URL: http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/Pakistan-is-worlds-most-dangerous-place/258094/
6. Ejaj Haider, “Swat’s Wicked Problem” The Indian Express, New Delhi, April 14, 2009.
7. Wahhabism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam attributed to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th century scholar, from what is today known as Saudi Arabia, who advocated a return to the practices of the first three generations of Islamic history. Wahhabism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. It is often referred to as a “sect” or “branch” of Islam, though both its supporters and its opponents reject such designations. It has developed considerable influence in the Muslim world through the funding of mosques, schools and other means from Persian Gulf oil wealth.
9. Ludwig W.Adamec, Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan: Historical Dictionary of Asia, Oceania and the Middle East (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2003), pp. 150-170.
10. The History Guide: Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech (Online: Web), accessed on November 1, 2008, URL: http://www.historyguide.org/europe/churchill.html
11. Drones are unmanned American attack/offensive vehicles which are used intermittently against the Afghanistan frontier and inaccessible regions in Swat province where the Talibani and Al-Qaeda operatives are said to be hiding in the region’s inhospitable and mountainous terrain.
12. Stephen Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley, Rise to Globalism (London: Longman Publishers, 1998), pp. 20-40.
13. Michael T. Klare, “Low-Intensity Conflict: The New US Strategic Doctrine”, The Nation, 4/1/86, p. 1.
14. William J. Olson, “Airpower in Low-Intensity Conflict in the Middle East” Ninth Air University Airpower Symposium on the role of Airpower in Low-Intensity Conflict, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, March 11-13, 1985, p. 221.
15. “Pakistan’s Afghan Border Regions are World’s Most Dangerous Place”, (Online: Web), accessed on April 16, 2009, URL: http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/india-news/pakistans-afghan-border-regions-worlds-most-dangerous-place-obama_100172225.html
16. John Catalinotto, “Afghanistan: Battle deepens for Central Asian Oil”, Workers World, October 24, 1996.
The author is a Lecturer in International Relations, Gujarat National Law University. He is pursuing his Ph.D at the American Studies Division, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.