By Swapan Dasgupta
In the early hours of Saturday, a force of 15,000 British, American, Afghan and French troops launched Operation Moshtarek aimed at cleansing the Taliban from the Helmand province in Afghanistan. According to a spirited report by the ‘embedded’ Daily Telegraph reporter, Brigadier James Cowan, the commander of the British 11th Light Brigade, spoke to his troops before they set off. “Where we go, we will stay. Where we stay, we will build,” he told his soldiers in a speech reminiscent of the stirring Hollywood war movies. “The next few days will not be without danger. Hold your fire if there is risk to the innocent, even if this puts you in greater danger. For those who will not shake our hand they will find it closed into a fist. They will be defeated. I wish you Godspeed and the best of luck.”
As an Indian, I extend my prayers and wish Brig Cowan and his men the same luck that I would for an Indian contingent mounting an operation against the enemy. The reason is simple: The future peace of India depends on the success of the last-ditch operation mounted by Gen McChrystal to tilt the balance of power in Afghanistan. If the US and NATO forces succeed in dislodging the Taliban from their entrenched bases and disrupting their parallel administration, it will strengthen the hands of those who are resisting the defeatist exit strategy formalised at the London conference on Afghanistan last month.
There was a time when the US and Britain, the two main contributors to the military operations, were hesitant to admit the loss of political will in Afghanistan. These days, any high-ranking official or even those on the periphery of the power structure in Washington and London will readily admit that the goal in Afghanistan is the orderly management of disengagement. The reason is only partly financial. Far more compelling is the push from a large section of those who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and those who are willing to support Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s re-election bid this summer. They are unequivocal in their belief that Afghanistan is “not our war”.
The angst-ridden liberals who are so terribly indignant over last year’s flawed election in Afghanistan, have no problems nurturing the belief that the Taliban are merely ultra-conservative Afghan nationalists who should be left alone to get on with their archaic way of life without interference. Of course, there is a feeble recognition that there are the ‘bad’ Taliban, the ones who extended hospitality to Osama bin Laden and plotted the international jihad to establish another Caliphate. But that problem is sought to be covered up by falling back on Pakistani guarantees.
If the future of Afghanistan unravels in the way the London conference envisaged, there are likely to be profound consequences for the sub-continent. First, Pakistan, the country which provided sanctuary and a lifeline to Mullah Omar and his henchmen after 2001, is going to be gifted Afghanistan on a platter by a disoriented West. Pakistan has claimed that it alone has the commitment and expertise to manage things in such a way that the Al Qaeda doesn’t return to Afghanistan — even if Mullah Omar does. The West is inclined to believe Islamabad and outsource what seems an ‘unwinnable’ war.
Second, the recovery of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan will lead to an immediate escalation of tensions in Jammu & Kashmir. The Pakistani military is aware that jihadi energies will need to find a focus once Western soldiers are out of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s Government toppled and the Afghan Constitution replaced by sharia’h rule. The jihadis will have two clear options: To either aim for a capture of power in Islamabad or resume the battle to ‘liberate’ Kashmir. It may safely be assumed that the Pakistani military will do its utmost to ensure that the latter option prevails.
Finally, regardless of Pakistan’s projection of itself as a modern Islamic nation, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will tilt the balance of power in the Muslim world in favour of the Islamists. The sheer exhilaration of holy warriors having defeated two superpowers in just three decades will result in an immediate radicalisation of Muslims which won’t remain confined to Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. This time it is certain to create tremors all over West, South and South-East Asia, not least India. The West hopes that from threatening the heartlands of the West, jihad will become a purely Asian problem which, at best, touches North Africa. This optimism is based on Pakistani assurances, hardly something a prudent banker will accept.
Over the past months, many Indians have warned the West of the consequences of withdrawing from Afghanistan and outsourcing that unfortunate country to Pakistan’s crisis managers. It is not that India’s warnings are dismissed out of hand but they invariably elicit a common response: But what are you doing about it? The belief that preachy Indians are piggy-backing on the lives of Western soldiers and are unwilling to get their hands dirty is widespread. It may explain why India was marginal to the proceedings of the London conference.
It is not that India has been an armchair pundit in Afghanistan. India’s role in the reconstruction process is impressive and should have got better global recognition. Yet, the absence of even a symbolic military presence in Afghanistan — a soft entry point could have involved assisting the Afghan police — has proved costly.
Following the IPKF debacle in Sri Lanka in the late-1980s, there has been an unstated national consensus against military involvement overseas (except in lucrative UN peace-keeping operations). It may be worthwhile having a second look at this aloofness in the context of Afghanistan.