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100 Years – Cuba To Iraq

The Spanish American War of 1898 represented the very first time that the US intervened outside the North American Continent. As a consequence of success in Cuba and the Philippines, and the very first experience at annexation and as an occupying power, the US established a naval presence abroad, with bases in the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Cuba etc. In 1903 US leased out Gauntanamo Bay from Cuba. Korea should have taught US the hard lesson that land wars are not winnable in Asia, yet Vietnam followed not more than a decade later. The lessons of the killing fields of South East Asia had been taken to heart, the temptation to return the favour of a proxy war because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could hardly be ignored. No logic was applied before entering Iraq in 2003, even worse there is no exit strategy from the cauldron even in 2007.

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Towards A Peaceful Afghanistan

Five years after naively occupying fixed defences along conventional lines and receiving the drubbing of their lives, mainly by B-52 bombers, the Talibaan have re-grouped in the districts around their original base Kandahar and are resorting to classic hit-and-run tactics, the hallmark of guerillas everywhere. During the 80s the Afghan Mujahideen outfought the combined might of the Soviet Union and a strong Afghan Army, multiple times more men, material and helicopters than that presently deployed by NATO. The Mujahideen could then count on a constant flow of arms, equipment and other supplies from (and through) Pakistan. Every one of the nine Mujahideen factions had a Talibaan contingent. After the Soviets left in 1989, the excesses of brutal warlords, corrupt officials appointed by the Northern Alliance led by the Tajiks who controlled Kabul, the general anarchy prevailing and the emergence of a charismatic one-eyed cleric in 1993-94 made them into a unified force.

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Justice Sits Up

The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) has constituted a two-member committee to prepare draft rules and procedures for accountability of judges. For this one must commend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, this initiative was long overdue. If the superior judiciary has no self-accountability, what can one expect down the line? The Council approved a proposal to amend the code of conduct for judges to make it more elaborate, objective and specific.

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Separating Fact From Fiction

As individuals we need to face upto the truth. One of the great contradictions of life is how knowing the truth we pretend it to be otherwise. Sooner or later this failure to recognize facts as they are creates problems of some magnitude. Regretfully, even academics of good knowledge and standing tend to have their judgment coloured by emotions on major issues. How can we then blame the masses for being blind to the obvious? We have a collective propensity as a nation to follow individual inclinations to look a fact in the eye and than blithely deny its existence. In the present world environment where we are held culpable for our words and deeds, particularly after 9/11, this can have dangerous consequences.

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Contradiction and Confrontation

When the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) came together as an electoral entity, the ideological differences separating the six parties forming the alliance made it a practical incongruity. Skeptical as one was at seeing Islam’s warring sects rent apart by years of mistrust uniting under one banner, this could only be possible because of genuine compromise. That fact alone was enough to lull us into believing that MMA’s conduct, whether in governance or in parliamentary opposition, would mean consensus and tolerance would be prime motivating factors in keeping them in line with democratic norms. From time to time MMA did show some signs of intractability, but for most of the six months or so theirs was stable governance. The Mullahs have now discarded their cloak of tolerance, dashing any hopes that they would remain democratic and liberal in the tried and true spirit of Islam at its birth, and not act arbitrarily and convoluted according to their own narrow interpretation of religion. Having seen the Talibaan regime across the border come to grief because of their excesses in enforcing their brand of Islam in Afghanistan, one had hoped (vainly it seems) that the MMA would have learnt some lessons and been more discreet and circumspect.

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Strategic Options

It was not comfortable being either an American or a Pakistani, for widely differing reasons, in Davos this year. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is normally a love-fest, antagonism is almost never aired in the aura of optimism that is normally prevalent. Because of the aversion of most Europeans towards war in Iraq, Americans (constituting a fair percentage of the 1500 persons attending WEF) found themselves in defensive mode even though the much-respected US Secretary of State Colin Powell made an eloquent case for war to topple Saddam Hussain. While one is used to Indians reacting in an offensively defensive manner to our bringing Kashmir on the table, this year the Indians took a back seat orchestrating a world consensus against Pakistan’s very existence as a responsible member of the comity of nations. Speaker after speaker recommended coordinated action against Pakistan’s nuclear potential, there was no fig leaf of innuendo anymore. The straightforward allegation put us in the business of exporting terrorism. The general consensus was that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities were a potential threat to the world, the premise being that if Musharraf was overthrown, the 650000-man Pakistan Army would be overwhelmed by “200000 dedicated Jehadis”. Instead of waiting to be subjected to “nuclear terrorism” their convoluted logic was that the world would be far better off launching a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan, even in priority to Iraq! These were no ordinary persons, they happen to be the world’s top leaders in government, business, academics, etc the elite of the elite! More depressing was to see the blissful ignorance we are living in on returning from Davos. This country is in a state of permanent Basant, God help us!

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Playing Nuclear Chicken

India played nuclear chicken with Pakistan and the world blinked. The President’s swift decision to go with the Coalition against terrorism, and thus against the Taliban in Afghanistan, gave the world (and many of our countrymen) a wrong perception that under pressure he was a pushover. Bureaucrats have it right when they caution new entrants from taking decisions expeditiously. You will be called “hasty”, they say, delay the decision-making, be “deliberate”. Pervez Musharraf was right in opposing terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s backyard and he was not going to allow hell to freeze over before taking a decision. The vast middle ground among the intelligentsia and the masses supported him then, and still supports him on this issue. The President gauged the west’s mood after 9/11 very correctly and he confounded friend and foe alike by being decisive for Pakistan’s sake at a moment of world truth. The religious parties took to the streets and even though the country waited with bated breath the fanatical lot failed to excite the masses, who while plainly aggrieved at the abandonment of the Taliban to their fate, knew that the President had done right by the country. A sustained Indian media and diplomatic campaign thereafter has successfully blurred “freedom fighters” from “terrorists”. One can only imagine to what lengths India would have gone to if Pervez Musharraf had delayed even by a few days. Putting it bluntly, we can resist and even counter an Indian offensive, would we have been able to simultaneously resist concentrated US and allied airpower? And to what purpose?

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The War Goes On

The war in Afghanistan has entered its six month, the concerted air offensive giving way to occasional airstrikes but mostly ground battles against suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban strongholds. As “Operation Anaconda” has shown, the claws may have been blunted, the sting still remains. And so it will, for some time to come.

The US ran the war according to what was their actual primary mission, to topple the Taliban from power and thus deny terrorism in the form of Osama led Al-Qaeda a firm base to operate from. For the record the war on terrorism was primarily meant to bring Osama Bin Laden (OBL) to justice, however Mullah Umar and OBL continue to evade capture. Bin Laden’s No.2 in Al-Qaeda Abu Zubayda, was hauled up recently during raids on urban hideouts in Faisalabad city. On the premise that the tougher they seem the softer they are, he should be a mine of useful information to the US, for whom every bit of knowledge about Al-Qaeda’s intention is necessary in their plans to counter-effectively in their “Homeland Defence”.

According to US military sources, a group of Al-Qaeda fighters who ultimately were estimated to be about a 1000 were spotted gathering in cave complexes east of Khost near the Pakistan border. The battle that developed forced reinforcements by more US troops into the fray than earlier anticipated, it also underscored the fact that the Al-Qaeda/Taliban were now re-grouping in small units, with the ability of coming together very rapidly when faced with an air/ground assault. “Anaconda” was a major test in the US resolve. Having had relatively an easy time evicting the Taliban from the cities of Afghanistan, the US had only the recent Tora Bora experience to go by with respect to fighting a counter-guerilla war in Afghanistan. In Tora Bora, while the fighting was intense, most of the firepower was directed from the air and quite a lot of the guerrillas had managed to escape because the mercenary militias employed by the US failed to come to grips with the enemy. During “Operation Anaconda”, a better quality of Afghan soldiery was clearly in existence with the result that greater firefights took place between combatants on the ground. The induction of a Panjsheeri Tajik armoured unit was resented in the Pashtun area but it remained a resentment only because they were not employed. US spokesmen claimed that 800 of the approximately 1000 guerilla fighters had been killed, this could not be verified as very few bodies, less than two dozen, were actually discovered. The intense air activity must have resulted in high casualties but it seems that the bulk of enemy forces slipped through the net that had been laid for them in high mountain passes and narrow valleys. Obviously the route was into Pakistan across the border where they would get shelter from sympathetic elements. However this help would only be a temporary transit permit, not as a permanent base to carry out cross-border attacks. This is an important point. While there will be sympathy for them and their grievous travails at the hands of Coalition Forces it will be far diminished than the earlier enthusiasm because of the treatment that the Pakistanis got at the hands of Afghans within Afghanistan. Even if an enemy turns up at your gate and asks for help, Pashtun honour cannot refuse that help. What Pakistan has paid in social disintegration and economic devastation thereof as a cost of such help can only be estimated.

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Untangling the Taliban

On the run for more than a fortnight since Oct 8, 2001, the Taliban 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 Taliban hierarchy.

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The Battle for Mazar

If bombs of differing lethal value were not falling on Afghanistan with increasing frequency, the “war on terrorism” could well be a phony war. Despite the urgency of the air campaign, thirty days into the war there is no ground battle worth the name except around Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province. Literally meaning the “tomb of the saint,” the Balkh River makes this city a part of Afghanistan’s most fertile regions, producing cotton, grain and fruit. Once the Soviet Union’s chief transit point for trade, Mazar (for short) is 35 miles south of Termez, a major river port of Uzbekistan on the Amu Darya (Amu River), the border with Afghanistan. Mazar-i-Sharif’s chief claim to fame is the purported discovery in the 12th (or was it the 15th?) century of the tomb of Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Whatever the truth, the shrine next to the blue-tiled mosque is venerated by all muslims, in particular the Shia sect. 200 miles away to the south-east, Kabul is connected by road through the Salang Tunnel, Herat is about 300 miles away to the south-west near the border with Iran.

An extensive and difficult mountain territory, the Alborz Range, lies south and south-west, with a flat desert terrain to the north, east and south of the city. Populated mainly by the Uzbeks, Mazar’s nearly quarter million population has a fair percentage of Tajiks and Hazaras, Pashtuns make up about 10%. The surrounding population is also mainly Uzbek, with a sprinkling of Tajiks to the east and Hazaras (Shias) in strength to the south in Bamiyan Province. Mostly Uzbeks populate the provinces of Samangam and Baghlan due east, as well to the west in Jozejan and Faryab. Through Kholm a road goes east to Kunduz, Takhar and Badakshan Provinces. A road passes south through Ap Kupruk to Bamiyan Province. Once the capital of Afghan Turkmenistan, the loss of this crossroads city of Mazar-i-Sharif will be a grievous blow to the Taliban, maybe not a fatal one. Without occupying Kabul as a capital city in its grasp, the Opposition can only claim some legitimacy if they have physical possession of Mazar-i-Sharif. Its capture may invite wholesale Uzbek and Tajik defections from the Taliban ranks. More importantly, on “the domino theory” the Provinces of Balkh, Samangan, Faryab, Jozejan and Ghowr would link up with the Alliance territories of Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar, Badahshan, Parvan and Kapisa, in effect providing the Northern Alliance not only with continuous real estate but its government legitimacy of sorts.

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