Untangling The Taliban


On the run for more than a fortnight since Oct 8, 2001, the Talibaan faithful rallied somewhat to make a last stand in the five Provincial strongholds around their spiritual capital Kandahar. Once “foreign influence” on Mullah Umar in the form of Osama Bin Laden took off for parts unknown, possibly deep into Pashtun heartland in the mountainous area astride the Pak-Afghan border between Khost and Jalalabad, rumours of imminent collapse in Kandahar because of disunity and internal dissension among the hard-core faithful, seemed to abate. The first US ground troops finally landed in Afghanistan, the Marines securing an airfield in the desert south-west of Kandahar as a firm base. Kandahar is indefensible and will certainly fall but widespread destruction and collateral damage to civilians all over Afghanistan could have been avoided by concentrating on simply isolating this city in the first place in keeping with the primary war aims. Airpower diplomacy of the late 20th century has not quite replaced gunboat diplomacy of the nineteenth. Starting with Iraq in 1991, the zero-sum casualties air-war strategy continued with Bosnia and Kosovo. In the end it is the infantry that must go in, the infantry which must hunt down the enemy. You may call them Special Forces, Rangers, Marines, whatever, high-tech cannot replace the foot-sloggers, they are the only ones who can hold ground. When the “lucky bomb” theory did not work, the only option left is the physical use of ground troops to root out the Talibaan hierarchy.

More and more it seems like deja vu! The same rampant anarchy circa 1994 in which dozens of warlords imposed absolute tyranny in the areas they controlled and facilitated the emergence of the “Talibaan Phenomenon” has returned to the areas not under Talibaan control anymore. Except for the hard fought battle on the approaches to Mazar-i-Sharif, the Northern Alliance are hardly victors, it is the decisive impact of US airpower, helped enormously by teams of US Special Forces and CIA’s “Special Activities Department” (SAD) on the ground, to whom credit must go. The Talibaan may be an endangered species, they are not extinct by far. The hard core will be difficult to eliminate, finding logistical support for an extended guerilla war from a greater percentage of a sympathetic muslim population than before the Afghan War began. The rather careless if not callous off-the-cuff remarks about prisoners of war by the US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has done untold damage to the muslim psyche, provoking bitterness that will have future ramifications unless the US does positive damage control. Given the track record of Rashid Dostum, a man universally known for his duplicity and cruelty, the “foreigners” held in Qila-e-Janghi after surrendering to Rashid Dostum had no chance, they were living on borrowed time. The Qila-i-Janghi prison revolt was a convenient excuse for their massacre. What is despicable is the role of the Pashtun Talibaan commanders who coaxed them on whatever pretext into Dostum’s rather bloody custody. If nothing else, this will persuade the Talibaan to have a “last man last round” mentality. While one feels sorry for the poor misguided Pakistanis who out of faith and commitment went to Afghanistan in support of the Talibaan and are now being hunted down and killed in cold blood as “members of Al-Qaeda”. Betrayed by friend and foe alike, they have served a deep purpose for us as a country with their blood, they have disabused us of an “Afghan fixation”. Once the war is over, each and every Afghan refugee without exception, Pakistani ID or not, must go back to Afghanistan. We have been far too generous as a nation and have suffered Afghan ingratitude far too long.

The Talibaan’s refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden was “casus belli” for the US. With its pitiful anti-aircraft capability destroyed within a matter of several hours and with their enemies out of small arms range, the Talibaan should have done what any guerilla army is supposed to do in the face of superior forces or superior firepower, fade away, disperse, do anything but provide a fixed target. The Talibaan should be excused ignorance of the principles of war, or guerilla warfare for that matter, having hardly heard of Clausewitz or Mao Tse Tung. The very basics that the modern military mind inculcates is safety first against air attacks. Moreover, an unconventional army must never try and fight a conventional battle against superior firepower that it cannot hurt in the field. Exceeding the wildest dreams of American military planners, the Talibaan did what no self-respecting guerilla would do, occupied defence lines on the north and west of Kabul, and in the cities like Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kanduz, Herat etc, with catastrophic loss of men and morale. Lacking the Stinger, the main weapon that had sent the Russian packing, the Talibaan had no answer for the drubbing from the air they got. With B-52s leading the pack, using a cocktail of bombs, US airpower proceeded to do give an early visitation to hell for the poor souls at the receiving end of this cataclysm. Something had to give and when it did, it was like an earthen dam crumbling in the face of constant rain, it was like a flood.

Unfortunately, as the country’s regime, the Talibaan had to continue governance of the major cities to maintain their authority, they were caught in limbo between garrisoning and defending. They fell back on stoking Afghan nationalism in the face of the “external threat”, distributing arms and ammunition among the tribals they had disarmed when they came to power. They gambled in their reckoning of the Afghan character and the knowledge that the tribals had reason to dislike them. While disparate Afghan groups did come together for a short time, concentrated American bombing and the lure of fresh greenbacks (US dollars) tilted the balance against the Talibaan, their “accidental allies” deserted them in bloc. When the main Talibaan garrisons collapsed, it encouraged both dissidents and reluctant allies to show their true colours circa 1994 and become independent fiefdoms eg. Jalalabad, Ghazni, Khost, etc. In the end ethnicity won as it always does in Afghanistan, Pashtun versus Tajik, Uzbek and Shia Wahdat (and the latter already between themselves), a much more potent confrontation equation than any political grouping, the Bonn UN-sponsored unification conference notwithstanding. While all Afghans hated being disarmed and sidelined by the Talibaan, care to ask the enemies of the Talibaan how much their views on women differ in practical terms from that of the Talibaan? A couple of female TV presenters does not emancipation of women make. And except for their strict injunction to grow a beard and pray five times a day, how much does their interpretation of Islam differ from that of the Talibaan?

Islam is far more socialist than all the other religions of the world, different sects practice the same ideology, all have the same basics, it is only in rituals they differ. Hitler bestowed national socialism on Germany on the basis of invincibility of the Aryan race, the Talibs made religious nationalism based on an extremist interpretation of Islam their ideology. When we talk about “Nazi Germany”, were all Germans Nazis? Similarly, when we talk about the Talibaan, only a hard core of 10-15% were Talibs and these included “foreign volunteers”, the rest were Afghan Mujhahideen and former soldiers/airmen of the Afghan Armed Forces. The Talibaan went too far in imposing their interpretation of Islam, most of this radicalism came after Osama Bin Laden took over Mullah Umar and in effect, Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel. A great majority of muslims are moderate, this majority believes that there is no intermediary between man and God. Islam has great respect for privacy and self-respect, the Afghans are jealous about this prerogative and this is exactly what the Talibaan eventually encroached upon under Bin Laden’s perverse tutelage, trespassing into the ordinary citizen’s personal life.

Anybody who brought the warlords to heel in 1994 would have been welcomed by the masses in Afghanistan. But as the situation stabilized, the loss of individual freedom was very much resented by ordinary Afghans. The Talibaan strong bond became a house of cards which needed only a crisis of loyalty to self-destruct. Unfortunately for the Talibaan, when you enter the factor of “inducements” and “incentives” by the opposition, the Afghans are well known for shifting loyalties to the higher bidder. The tendency to defect is the hallmark of the Afghan psyche through the centuries, such an inherent tendency not only in the past but in full media view in the present, makes not only for uncertain allies but for a very uncertain future for Afghanistan. While we cannot change geography, Pakistan would be well advised to wash their hands from Afghanistan. In any case, they need us, we don’t need them.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).