USA’s War: Infinite Justice, Finite Targets- II

THE campaign realities discussed in the first part of the article have strategic implications in the region around Afghanistan which are likely to further unfold in the coming weeks. Since the direct use of naval including carrier-based forces is likely to be less, the emphasis would be on land bases near Afghanistan. The US has already deployed surveillance and troop transport aircraft in Uzbekistan and is likely to also obtain access to base facilities at least for such support in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan too, especially now that Russia has given them a green signal. Turkmenistan may also come on board later although it has been highly reluctant to date.


Some defence analysts have speculated that if ground operations are undertaken they would be launched from these northern neighbours of Afghanistan with whom it has long borders, much of it demarcated by rivers not difficult to cross and with wide flat steppes on either side facilitating vehicular movement unlike the more mountainous areas to the south. However, this scenario seems unlikely for several reasons.

Russia would not view positively any large-scale US or NATO troop deployment in Central Asia where it itself has over 25,000 troops in Tajikistan for instance and which Russia regards as a crucial buffer between it and states to the south. The greater likelihood is that these bases would be used to provide support to the forces of the anti Taliban Northern Alliance in terms of more weaponry, ammunition and other supplies, and even air cover.

In such a scenario, Pakistan is the more likely base for ground forces despite the military and political limitations. Given the mostly mountainous terrain, entry points into Afghanistan from Pakistan are few, chiefly from Peshawar towards Jalalabad in the south-east and from Quetta in Baluchistan towards Kandahar in the south-west, and being relatively narrow in field are more vulnerable to counter-attack. Rather than large ground force deployment, helicopter-based commando operations backed by air strikes from these locations in Pakistan are then the more probable scenario. Pakistan and the US would both like to avoid this and lean towards bases in the Central Asian states given their common desire to minimise the Pakistani ruling establishment’s internal problems in dealing with Islamist opposition, but there may be little option.


All this may enable the US-led forces to capture or eliminate Osama bin Laden and destroy much of the Taliban’s larger military assets and even, along with other ground operations, drive the Taliban out of Kabul and Kandahar. But, in the medium term, it may not have as much impact on the Taliban and other international jehadi forces in Afghanistan. These forces could withdraw into the mountains paving the way for the more protracted campaigns which have been the notorious graveyard for so many invading or occupying forces in Afghanistan, the last of whom to have succeeded being Alexander the Great who too did not stay for long. This would imply a continued long-term presence of US and allied forces in the region, still operating from Pakistan and other neighbouring countries in preference to a presence inside Afghanistan, in support of whatever dispensation is put in to replace the Taliban in Kabul.

A serious worry in the region is the possibility of massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan in the event of hostilities breaking out. Central Asian Republics, Iran and even China are doubly anxious at the possibility of fundamentalist and militant elements coming in along with the other refugees and posing threats in the future. Pakistan itself is likely to be badly affected if its internal opponents are joined by militant Taliban and other jehadi forces. While Pakistan, along with other neighbouring countries, has claimed to have sealed its border with Afghanistan, most of the 1700 km long mountainous border region is highly porous and populated by fiercely independent tribal chieftains with no particularly national loyalties. This is also likely to provide fresh impetus to separatist tendencies, dormant for some time under pressure of both military action and events in Afghanistan coming to the fore in these peoples minds, in both Pakhtoon and Baluch areas along the northern areas of Pakistan. These tendencies are likely to gain momentum if the Taliban dispensation is replaced in Afghanistan since all its predecessors have had an uneasy relationship with Pakistan and have not recognised the Durand line taken by Pakistan to be the Pak-Afghan border.


Serious moves have already begun to fashion a post-Taliban set up in Kabul as if the war had already been won. Current favourites are the Northern Alliance being the military arm and the government in Kabul being led by the exiled King Zahir Shah.

The Northern Alliance is the term loosely applied to all the somewhat disparate forces who were once part of the mujahideen rallying together against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but who later went into armed opposition against the Taliban. The Alliance comprises not only the political opponents of the Taliban but also most non-Pakhtoon ethnic and religious minorities of who were severely marginalised by the Pakhtoon-dominated Taliban who imposed the Pushtu language and Deobandi fundamentalist Islam on the highly varied ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural mosaic of Afghanistan.

The Alliance includes the mainly Tajik and Farsi-speaking Jamaat-i-Islami forces under the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masood, “Lion of Panjshir”, the valley to the north of Kabul in which it chiefly operates; the mainly Shi’ite Islamic Unity Party operating chiefly in Bamiyan province and including the minority Hazaras who were subjected to ethnic cleansing, mass murders and severe persecution under the Taliban; the mainly Turkic-speaking Uzbek forces of the National Islamic Alliance led by general Rashid Dostum in the area around the strategic northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif and some other scattered opposition forces in other parts of the country. All these forces are components or supporters of the government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani which is recognised by the UN and most other countries including India. The notable absentee is the Hizb-e-Islami led by Professor Burhanuddin’s erstwhile partner, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has declared his support for the Taliban from his base in eastern Iran.

These forces, united under King Zahir Shah, himself a Pakhtoon heading a large landed aristocracy, could certainly unite the Afghan people and restore earlier traditions of Afghan rule including due role to Dari (the local term for Farsi deriving from darbari or language of the court) as lingua franca as it had earlier been and rule on behalf of all ethnic minorities through a revived loyal jirgah comprising tribal chieftains, religious leaders, intellectuals and other community leaders. Such a dispensation in Kabul would doubtless please various regional powers including India, Russia, the secular former Soviet Central Asian Republics and even Iran. Clearly the unhappiest would be Pakistan, whose hackles have already been raised by such a prospect however remote. No wonder General Musharraf told India to “lay off” in connection with the Dushanbe conference to discuss future plans in Afghanistan in which India also participated.

While all this is going on, the BJP-led government continues in its somnolent ways. Its diplomatic moves are mostly reactive, directly almost exclusively at the US, and with only tentative moves towards Russia, Iran and other regional players. It has further reduced its manoeuvrability by continuing high-level discussions with Israel while Palestine and the mid-East are in flames, further isolating itself from Islamic countries as never before. India has played little or no pro-active role and has chosen to confine itself to backroom diplomacy. The BJP-led government has not realised, even after the fiasco in Agra, that campaigning through the media and public opinion is a crucial part of contemporary diplomacy. Unfortunately, when it comes to the media, foreign minister Jaswant Singh continues to rely more on his baritone and clipped British accent, which have long lost their charm, than on content. While the military dictatorship in Pakistan holds wide-ranging consultations with all sections of Pakistani society and polity, in democratic India even the BJP’s NDA allies are scarcely consulted and the Opposition almost never. The 21st century version of the Great Game is afoot, but the Indian player is nowhere to be seen.