With the US-led international troops set to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the country is once again at the crossroads in its search for peace and stability. Even after the Taliban’s ouster from power and a decade-long war that followed, the spectre of the 1990s is staring at modern Afghanistan. The federal government is now weak, society is fragmented, different militia are rising, the Taliban is strong and international troops are leaving. Will Afghanistan fall back to post-Soviet days?
Veteran journalist Hiranmay Karlekar is attempting to address this question in his latest book, Endgame in Afghanistan: For Whom the Dice Rolls. Backed by extensive research and situation analysis, the book examines “whether the United States can win the Afghan war even if Pakistan continues in its present duplicitous course”. The author is nearly convinced that big trouble is awaiting Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. A jihadi takeover of the country may lead to a similar victory of jihadi groups in Pakistan, which “will not be without serious threats to America”. The fall of Pakistan to Islamic militants “would enable” the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine “to access nuclear weapons”.
Moreover, the presence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in West Asia-North Africa “is beginning to be felt” after popular revolts swept through the region in late 2010. “An Al Qaeda or Islamist takeover of the Middle East will radically alter the global balance of political and economic power.” Mr Karlekar says the US has to do more to avert these pending tragedies. He suggests the US should consider boosting ties with other big powers, especially Russia, which allowed Nato troops to use its air route to take supplies to Pakistan, in its efforts to win the Afghan war, instead of remaining dependent on Pakistan. “Russia’s support will have to be a key element in defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda and ensuring a peaceful, stable democratic order, respecting human rights and gender justice, in Afghanistan and Central Asia,” he writes.
Islamic militancy, however, is not a monolithic phenomenon, not even in Afghanistan. There are serious differences among militant groups, even among the affiliates of Al Qaeda. Look at today’s Afghanistan. It’s the Taliban that’s leading militancy in the country now, not Al Qaeda. The Al Qaeda founded by Osama bin Laden, according to several estimates, is lying low in Pakistan with crippled operational capability, thanks to the hunt started after 9/11 under the American leadership.
The regional affiliates of Al Qaeda, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Shabaab of Somalia, are now more active than the Al Qaeda core. Though these regional groups have declared their allegiance to Al Qaeda’s creed, they are run by local leaders and there are no credible sources that suggest there’s a channel of communication or co-ordination among these leaders. In fact, some leaders such as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud of AQIM are distanced from the Al Qaeda core. As US-based private intelligence group STRATFOR reported in last October: “AQIM has seen severe internal fighting over these doctrinal issues, and several former leaders of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat left the group because of this conflict.
Further, it is widely believed that the death of Somali Al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was arranged by leaders of Somali jihadist group Al Shabaab, which he had criticised sharply.” In other words, the Al Qaeda core constitutes only a very small part of the larger jihadist movement. It has not conducted a successful terrorist attack in years.
Politically, the Al Qaeda brand of Islam has never taken off. It failed to make inroads in Islamic societies except for recruiting some jihadis. It could not even canalise popular anger against dictators in Arab countries. The recent Arab revolts underscore the resurgence of a different kind of political Islam, not that of Al Qaeda. But the Al Qaeda being presented in the book is a homogeneous force spread across border that’s waiting in the wings to strike the world once the Americans are gone from Afghanistan.
Even though the Taliban is powerful in Afghanistan, it’s not a given that the outfit would capture Kabul as soon as the international troops withdraw. It may be noted that the Mohammad Najibullah government stood firm in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. It was after the inflows of money and goods from Moscow stopped, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the Najibullah government was rendered vulnerable to Mujahideen attacks. Still, what followed was not a sudden Taliban takeover, but a prolonged civil war among Mujahideen militias. The Taliban, backed by Pakistan, captured Kabul only in 1996, but failed to defeat Ahmad Shah Massoud’s militias. But according to Endgame the only likely scenario is the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent strengthening of the Al Qaeda brand of political Islam across Asia.
The book touches on several aspects of the conflict, including the ideological threat the Taliban poses to European modernity, and takes the reader for a long ride through the history and complexities of the wars Afghanistan fought. It’s rich in information that any student of strategic studies would find valuable. Even so, Endgame offers a simplified view of the strategic realities in Asia.
ENDGAME IN AFGHANISTAN: FOR WHOM THE DICE ROLLS
Sage; 380 pages; Rs 495