Friday, December 29, 2006

How To Win in Afghanistan

How can we win in Afghanistan? That all depends on how you define "win."

At the moment we're taking a very broad approach which means somehow defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Maybe we need to rethink that. The Taliban are really just another bunch of Islamists - Islamic fundamentalists - in a region chock full of Islamic fundamentalists.

Tackling Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan is one thing but the greater challenge to "the mission" NATO has taken on is the Islamist reality in neighbouring Pakistan which the Sydney Morning Herald notes could be our next nightmare:

"IT HAS more than twice as many people as Iran, six times more than Iraq, many primed for Islamic extremism by a legacy of poverty and illiteracy left by decades of misrule by corrupt secular leaders, civilian and military.

"It already has nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles made with North Korean help. It shelters jihadists battling Western forces across its border, and fanatical cells training Muslim youth in Western countries to put bombs on buses and metros.

"If Iraq has turned into a nightmare for the US President, George Bush, think about Islamists gaining power in Pakistan, population 166 million, and their hands on its nuclear arsenal.

"Across the border in Afghanistan, 31,000 US, Canadian, European and Australian troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in the country's south.

"The British-led forces can outbattle the Islamist fighters, but the constant fighting and presence of foreign troops is steadily undermining local support for the government of President Hamid Karzai. Frustratingly for the British and Afghan commanders, the Taliban are able to operate out of neighbouring Pakistan with little hindrance.

"The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is said to live in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, hold his "shura" or council meetings openly in the city, and train his fighters at two camps on the city's outskirts.

Before an attack by 1500 Taliban fighters in early September, the Taliban streamed across the border into Afghanistan cheered on by Pakistani border guards.

"Pakistan's President and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has been confronted several times this year, by Karzai, the British and the Americans, who have supplied addresses and phone numbers for Omar and his cohorts in Quetta.

"Musharraf throws up unconvincing bluster. He claims that Pakistan has done all it can to prevent cross-border military activity, with its army losing 750 killed in campaigns since September 11, 2001, along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Yet Musharraf and his government are deeply ambivalent in their commitment to supporting the Western campaign, in return for which about $US4 billion ($5 billion) in US aid has flowed their way over the past five years.

"With the leaders of the country's two main secular parties, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in exile and opposing military rule, Musharraf relies on Islamists for domestic political support.

"Principal among these is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which explicitly supports the Taliban and reinforces it with recruits from its madrassas (Koranic schools), and which the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency helped join ruling coalitions in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province."

So there, in a nutshell, you have the core problem that the NATO mission cannot hope to overcome. Pakistan, 166-million strong, is the world's first Islamist nuclear power. So long as Islamic extremism prevails in Pakistan there can be no hope of defeating it in its impoverished and feeble neighbour, Afghanistan. Major Islamist tribes such as the Baluchs and the Pashtun don't even see the border between the two states.

Genuine, secular democracy in Kabul is a pipedream. If we cannot defeat the Islamists we need to find some terms on which we can deal with them. Can they be both accommodated and restrained? Can we drive a wedge between theocrats and terrorists? If not, are we prepared to fight Pakistan? How else can we hope to win in Afghanistan?

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