By Swapan Dasgupta
There are good reasons why the commemoration of the eighth anniversary of 9/11 was remarkably subdued in both the US and Europe. The initial fear, followed by outrage and a steely determination to cleanse terrorism from the world has given way to frustration, despondency and defeatism. Iraq may have got off the front pages but Afghanistan, where it all began, is now increasingly being perceived as a hopeless war. Both liberals and conservatives in the West seem agreed that there is little point losing more lives and pouring money down a bottomless pit if the Afghans themselves are not sensitive to the charms of democracy and development.
Predictably, the dreaded Taliban with their medieval fanaticism and warped values invite maximum derision. But Western scorn is being dished out in equal measure at President Hamid Karzai whose exotic elegance once induced the perfect multiculturalist wet dream. Karzai is today being cast as a ballot thief and linked to sinister drug barons and ugly warlords. The ethical commitment that galvanised the post-9/11 crusade against the new evil has been considerably blurred by the realisation that the home side also plays foul. In the framework of moral absolutes, “we” are seen to be as imperfect and sinful as “them”. The will to fight to fight the “just” war in Afghanistan has evaporated.
The implication is obvious: if the West can’t carry the proverbial white man’s burden in Afghanistan and, in Kipling’s immortal words, “veil the threat of terror/ And check the show of pride”, it should concentrate on its own aam admi concerns—like addressing school kids, pushing for universal health care and coping with the recession. A century ago, Empire-builders could take on the fanatical Mahadi and his “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in Sudan to avenge the murder of General Gordon. In those days, public opinion at home didn’t count. Today, as President Lyndon Johnson discovered to his cost in 1968, a spectacular domestic track record can be effortlessly nullified by an overseas misadventure.
In the past six months, the West has acknowledged that it no longer has the political and moral resolve to do what it takes to win the Afghan war. Britain can barely stomach the death of 200 soldiers; a reinvented Germany can’t get over the collective trauma of having ordered the bombing in Kunduz; and the US Congress is taking a dim view of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for a last ditch surge in ground forces.
The war aims of the US-led NATO forces have been dramatically modified. From mounting an assault on a global menace, the West now wants to merely safeguard itself from terror attacks. In other words, if the Taliban can guarantee that it won’t mount terror strikes against the West or help those crazies from Birmingham who want videographed martyrdom, they can earn themselves the uninhibited right to thrash every barber, every musician and every unveiled woman. Their pent-up jihadi impulses can be carefully redirected elsewhere, as long as it is not Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the ones who are likely to oversee the post-withdrawal arrangements.
For Pakistan, the departure of the US-led forces and its own assumption of peace-keeping duties (for a generous consideration, of course) in Afghanistan will be triumph comparable in scale to the recovery of East Pakistan. First, it would have recovered its lost “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, an enormous gain in the context of its hostility with India. Secondly, it would have inherited the entire military arsenal of the retreating army. Third, as a price for guaranteeing zero terrorism against the West, it would have a reserve army of motivated Islamists to work for the “liberation” of India, particularly Kashmir.
India was an unintended beneficiary of Osama bin Laden over-reaching himself and inviting US retribution after 9/11. With the West’s likely retreat from Afghanistan, these gains stand in danger of being nullified. With an assertive China in the east and a re-energised Pakistan in the west, India may have reason to be deeply worried. How long can New Delhi live in denial and continue to raise the threshold of tolerance?
Yet, it’s not India alone that should be alarmed. When the last helicopter departs from Kabul and Mullah Omar returns to reclaim his lost Emirate, the Islamists would have won a spectacular victory. In just two decades, jihad would have been seen to have vanquished two superpowers—first the Soviet Union and now the US. The inevitable triumphalism is bound to infect the entire Muslim world. In Iran, it will reaffirm the conviction that a self-absorbed, decadent Western civilisation doesn’t have the moral gumption to resist a resurgent Islam.
The West should realise that running away doesn’t solve a problem; it often emboldens the enemy.