Observing the Afghan scene

The Game Not So Great

THE FALL of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, and now the chances of imminent fall of Kunduz, to the Northern Alliance forces has dramatically altered the war scenario in Afghanistan. The much needed morale booster for the US in its flagging military campaign before winter was provided not by any expansion of US ground deployment but by the fleeing of the Taliban. Despite such major Taliban reverses there is no sign of let up in the US bombing as a gesture during Ramadan. The spotlight at the time of this writing is on Kunduz where, despite Taliban declaration of ‘surrender’, thousands of Taliban and pro-Taliban forces under encirclement are facing a virtual slaughter. Hundreds have already been killed in reportedly the heaviest bombing of the campaign by the US on Kunduz. Thousands of Pakistani jihadis who crossed over into Afghanistan to fight the US have been sent to the frontline town to act as a ‘human shield’ and they are among those trapped and this has heightened the anxiety in Pakistan. Hence Musharraf’s desperate plea for allowing these forces to surrender.

No matter whether it was a premeditated withdrawal or a disorderly debacle, the Taliban retreat has taken much wind out of their sails. Not only they have not been able to launch any attack against the advancing NA forces but are reportedly facing pressure in Kandahar itself from Pushtun tribal chiefs and mujahideen commanders.

Early fall of Mazar and Kabul was not something unexpected but the ease with which they were taken by the NA forces, which simply rolled into these towns without any resistance worth the name was in fact a surprise. But Kunduz is a different ball game. It was here the Taliban were concentrating their forces and preparing for a resistance in all seriousness. The outcome in Kunduz will heavily influence further course of the war one way or the other. There have been conflicting reports with some saying that a section of ‘foreign militants’ are refusing to surrender and putting up resistance. Will Kunduz -- speed up the demoralisation and disarray in the Taliban camp? Or, it will inflame the passions, stem the tide and give a fillip to the resistance? Will the NA be able to maintain its winning streak? Or, will it have a boomerang effect on Pushtuns? Of late, there have also been reports of fierce local resistance from Taliban forces in towns like Maydan Shar near Kabul. Does it mark a turning point in the dramatic downslide? Well, in an extremely fluid situation one has to wait and see.

The euphoria in the West over the Taliban disarray has covered up the disarray in the US move to put together a ‘broad-based and representative government’ in Afghanistan. Despite military gains, the US political strategy is now under tremendous stress. The Northern Alliance doesn’t appear to be fully amenable to the US. They ignored US warnings not to enter Kabul. The NA even asked the British special forces in Kabul to pack off and leave. Different feuding factions of NA are carving up the fallen cities into different spheres of influence. For instance, in Kabul where one-third of the population are Shiaite, Hazaras have set up their own security command and sphere of influence and it was reportedly this which prompted Tadjik forces to swiftly march into the city ignoring the US objections. But the only entity which is bereft of any influence is the UN. The Americans would soon realise that power in Afghanistan grows out of field guns and not Daisy-Cutter bombs. Meanwhile, Burhanuddin Rabbani has declared himself president much to the US displeasure and ruled out any role for Zahir Shah, the chosen figurehead. What complicates matters further is the fact that Rabbani is already the ‘head of state’ formally recognised by the UN.

The situation in Mazar-e-Sharif is also reported to be tense between the Uzbek warlord Dostum and Tajik commander Atta Mohammad and other Hazara commanders. The respective factions are backed by Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan who have their own tussle for influence. The western town of Herat and its surrounding provinces are controlled by one Ismail Khan, a commander of the Shiaite Hazaras backed by Iran, on whom other NA leaders have little control. In the sudden power vacuum following the disarray in Taliban ranks and the disruption of their command and communication structures, it is a free for all among different NA factions who are militarily expanding at a frantic pace to occupy as much territory as possible to be used as bargaining chips in the post-Taliban phase, unmindful of the fact whether they would be able to hold on to them. For instance, Khan’s forces have been advancing towards Kandahar itself which has upset the US plans of enabling ‘moderate Taliban’ or other Pushtun forces to take over the city. Meanwhile, in Jalalabad the balance has tilted in favour of non-Taliban Pushtun forces including Haji Abdul Qadir, brother of the slain commander Abdul Haq. Down south the Pushtun tribal chiefs marginalised earlier by the Taliban have reportedly started reasserting now.

The advances by the Northern Alliance have put paid to Pakistan’s ambitions of acquiring a “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Big mouthed Musharraf, making loud demands on the US in the name of Pakistan’s ‘national interests,’ is forced to eat the crow after every step. If anything, Pakistan now has much greater stake in the urgent ouster of Taliban from its southern strongholds. Its part in the post-Taliban manoeuvres depends on its ability to deliver on the Pushtun front but many anti-Taliban Pushtun leaders are wary of Pakistan as well. India, keen to have a “roll” in the sticky Afghan mud, is patting itself on the back by sending a few diplomatic staff to open a mission in Kabul.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran, which have reasons to be as much pleased as Americans if not more, about the advances of NA factions, have expressed concern about any prolonged presence of US forces in Afghanistan. But Americans, obviously bolstered by the Afghan developments, have reiterated their decision to go after several other countries. One of the known Hawks, Vice President Dick Cheney, has even released a list of about 50 countries! On the other had, senior EU, and even British officials, have started grumbling about the hawks in the US. The first phase of progress in the American war in Afghanistan thus seems to have ushered in a decisive phase of the Great Game-II.

Any slip in the fragile emerging balance would mean a different civil war and different alliances. All the best laid plans of big powers would go awry. No matter whether it is going to serve any grandiose geopolitical design or not, American entrenchment in Afghanistan quagmire is going to be messy.

But it may be too early to write off Taliban. Though the worse is yet to come for it, at some point, whatever remains of it and the Al-Qaeda, is bound to regroup and, as visualised by Mullah Omar himself, would go on a long-term guerrilla offensive after withdrawing into the mountains.

Conscious withdrawal or uncontrolled stampede, the Taliban retreat seems to have thrown cold water over the socalled jihad in Pakistan and elsewhere. “The Taliban retreat is demoralizing for their supporters throughout the Islamic world,” said Mauladad, a member of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party. “I have started to wonder if the Taliban claims of resistance were as hollow as those of Saddam Hussein,” he added. But the secular global anti-war movement seems to be advancing unruffled as seen in London on November 18.

– BS