Byline by M J Akbar : Unicorns in Kabul
At 11 a.m. on 11.11 a cannon boomed in London. For the uninitiated it was a puzzle edged with apprehension. For the British the moment was 91 years old. It marked the end of the bloodiest — till then — conflict in history. The last soldier died only seconds before truce as officers continued to waste “inferior” lives till the last gasp. War can become an addiction.
Enemies change; war never seems to end. The British this week mourned past and present, as coffins arrived from the opium fields of Afghanistan. This Afghan war had nothing to do with the British Raj. Empire had dribbled away after 1945, for the Second World War exhausted victor as surely as it obliterated the vanquished. But the victors barely paused before investing blood and treasure on a cold war which also ended in November, the 9th, two decades ago, when a popular uprising brought down the hated Berlin Wall.
The Afghan war of 2001 has been a war in search of an enemy. It began as a legitimate hunt for Osama bin Laden. When the combined skills of the Pentagon, the CIA and satellite science failed to find a six-foot-plus terrorist with a two-foot beard, the focus moved a few degrees. The Taliban, who had spread into nationalist space by challenging the foreign military presence, became the new reason for the military occupation of a rugged nation. Since the Taliban has refused to keel over, a supplementary logic is being disseminated in a bid to shore up ebbing public support: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal [estimated at between 80 to 100 bombs] must be protected from capture by “Islamists”. The proposition begs an obvious question: can a state which cannot protect its nuclear weapons be trusted to keep them?
The fog of war is being compounded by a mist of confusion over its rationale and finale. The Guardian warns, in a page-wide headline, that it could degenerate into a fiasco of Suez 1956 proportions. President Barack Obama seems keener on an exit strategy than an arrival plan. He dithers about whether to send 36,000 more troops or 40,000, as if 4,000 will convert potential humiliation into a historic victory. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, cables the State Department that he wants no extra troops until Hamid Karzai has ended corruption. The officer-diplomat has a powerful friend in Washington, for his secret missive is leaked to the Washington Post. We soon know who the friend is, for a jet-lagged Hillary Clinton echoes this view during an ASEAN summit in Singapore.
If America is waiting for corruption to end, these troops will arrive in 2109 or Judgement Day, whichever comes first.
I have no idea whether Obama and Hillary have managed to instil some fresh fighting spirit into the Afghan armed forces, but they have certainly aroused the warrior in Hamid Karzai, who seems to have launched a vigorous offensive against Washington. Karzai publicly accused Britain of ferrying Taliban elements by helicopter from their base in the south to the northern provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan, attributing this knowledge to his intelligence agencies. The fecund tribe of conspiracy theorists in Kabul, and elsewhere, eagerly linked this to the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban manoeuvre floated by no less a personage than Obama, near the start of his presidency. Obama refuses to fight a war which George Bush knew how to begin but no one knows how to end.
The perfect end from the Pakistani perspective is the replacement of Karzai by a non-Mullah Omar Taliban, which could declare peace through a bearded mutter and let America leave Kabul at a stately pace rather than via the rooftop helicopters of Saigon. In the absence of any other proposal, this must seem to have some merit. The “good Taliban” would send Afghan women back centuries and the country into puritan coma, but they would be allies of Islamabad and, by implication, its mentors in Washington and London. At least, that would be the theory. Of course Islamabad might have sounded more persuasive if a domestic Taliban had not been detonating its backyard.
Let us leave the last word to a warlord who has never been disturbed by sentiment. I have met the Uzbeg General Abdul Rashid Dostum once, in Mazar-e-Sharif; his views are always forthright even if they are not necessarily right. But he had valid points to make in an interview with Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer of the Daily Telegraph [published on 13 November]:
* Not one Afghan officer of the rank of captain or major has been killed in battle in six years, since Afghans do not consider this their war;
* Western leaders are mistaken if they believe that Taliban soldiers will defect, or betray Osama;
* Western aid has not touched poverty, but only killed local initiative and enriched the political elite;
* Taliban can only be defeated by a pragmatic military strategy that avoids categories like “good” and “bad” and involves local communities.
Dostum dismissed the anti-corruption sanctimoniousness in a classic sentence: “They are demanding unicorns in Kabul.” Touché.