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Ajai Shukla: Blundering in AfPak's cultural maze

The unfortunate deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a Nato air strike on Saturday raise more questions than answers

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

As with much else in Pakistan, the unfortunate deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a air strike on Saturday raise more questions than answers. soldiers now claim that this was not an accident; they requested a air strike on to the Army post after taking fire from that direction. But Pakistan’s military spokesperson, Major General Athar Abbas, has revealed that Nato, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was given map references of all Pakistan’s Durand Line posts. It would seem, therefore, that Army posts are now legitimate targets for coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan itself, locals have learned over the last decade that it could be life-threatening to fire celebratory gunshots during weddings, travel in convoys through remote areas, or to have the Taliban anywhere in the vicinity. All these invite the arrival of a 500-pound precision-guided bomb fired by US-aircraft at “Taliban activity”. This trigger-happy regime was extended some years ago to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) that delivered death from the sky to the Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, unquestioningly dispatched any family members or innocents who happened to be in the line of fire.

There is little sympathy in India for the Army; its hands are stained with too much Indian blood. Consequently, many Indians would react to this latest coalition fiasco with an indifferent shrug that implies, “The Pakistanis have made their bed; now let them lie in it.” But that would be inhuman, short-sighted and strategically unwise.

Instead, one must deliberate on the western military’s penchant for untrammelled firepower. When a dispassionate history is written, this will be recognised as the key factor in the US-Nato defeat in Afghanistan. In an obvious contradiction, which is sporadically recognised but never resolved, US strategy aims at winning hearts, but the overwhelming use of firepower that underpins US tactical doctrine ensures that for each heart won a dozen are alienated. What should be a smooth continuum between strategy and operational doctrine is actually a glaring fault line that continually undermines US aims.

In this case, a border operation of merely tactical consequence has created such bad blood with Pakistan that Islamabad has stopped the movement of supply convoys to Afghanistan; given Washington 15 days to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan; and begun a re-evaluation of its strategic relationship with the US. Is Washington prepared for such a reaction? If yes, it could have held Islamabad’s feet to the fire on major issues like support to the Haqqanis or ISI operations inside Afghanistan. Instead, Washington is paying a strategic price for a tactical blunder.

A decade along in the Afghanistan war, the West has failed to understand the region, which it continues to view through a western prism. The futile enterprise to establish a strong centralised state in Afghanistan; the reliance for security on a unitary National Army; indeed the unswerving conviction that most Afghans detest the Taliban are some of the key misconceptions that will lead inevitably to a full western pull-out.

For now, Washington is busy creating the fiction of an Afghan National Army (ANA) that will allegedly take over full security responsibility from Nato by 2014. Around that time, or so goes the myth, 260,000 motivated and trained Afghan soldiers will have cast aside ethnic and regional identities and melded into a professional force that will keep the ISI-backed Taliban at bay. Since the ANA would be financed, armed and equipped by the West, and helped along by US mentors, it would gradually morph into a western-style force. Proponents of this fairy tale will remind sceptics that Najibullah’s Russian-funded Afghan Army held off the mujahideen for several years until Moscow’s coffers ran dry.

This narrative of hope should be consigned to the dustbin. Firstly, Najibullah’s Afghan Army was not a newly created, western-midwifed unicorn but an existing professional army with an Afghan tradition. Secondly, today’s figures of desertion and re-enlistment are so abysmally low that raising 260,000 troops seems wildly optimistic. An even thornier problem is the ethnic balance of the ANA. Guidelines issued by former US ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry called for 38 per cent of the troops to be Pashtun, 25 per cent Tajiks, 19 per cent Hazaras and eight per cent Uzbek. But Pashtuns are reluctant to join (many accounts say the ANA is barely 10 per cent Pashtun), and Tajiks dominate the officer corps. Many Pashtuns (and certainly the Taliban) view the ANA as a Tajik militia that former Northern Alliance commander, Marshall Fahim, controls.

When the Taliban piles on the pressure, post-2014, the ANA runs a serious risk of cracking along its ethnic fault lines. Power in Afghanistan has long been fragmented between a patchwork quilt of local militias. Traditionally, power shifts not through bloody battles and fights to the death, but with the shifting allegiance of these local militia commanders, each sniffing the breeze and allying with whoever he believes is best positioned for broader power. An ANA under pressure could well break up into multiple smaller entities, each making its independent power calculations.

It is hard to tell if the US has simply not grasped these Afghan basics, or whether the ANA is merely a convenient narrative for a face-saving pull-out. Given America’s increasing unpopularity across AfPak, and the growing radicalisation that this simmering anti-Americanism catalyses, an early and complete US exit from Afghanistan might be best for New Delhi. Having recouped its strength, the US would emerge refreshed to robustly re-engage the Asia-Pacific, a familiar strategic playfield for Washington where it will hopefully avoid the serial blunders of Afghanistan.

First Published: Tue, November 29 2011. 00:04 IST