Where angels fear to tread

Posted by Richard Saturday, 10 October 2009 , , , ,

How easy it is, when dealing with the "war" Afghanistan, to reduce it to the level of The Sun and depict it as a biff-bam contest between "Our Brave Boys" and "Terry Taleban".

Such a child-like pastiche then makes it obvious that, to prevail against this perfidious "enemy", all we need is more "boots on the ground", more kit ... and more "bangs". Aided, no doubt, by heroic bayonet charges from "Our Brave Boys", the Taleban can be driven from their last redoubts, freeing the peasants from the yoke of their oppressors.

The Afghan security forces – dutifully trained by our skilled and dedicated forces - can then be trucked in to guard the liberated Afghans as they applaud "Our Brave Boys" for their bravery and sacrifice. With yet another "job well done", they can climb on board their aeroplanes to jet off home to a tumultuous reception - medals all round and tea and crumpets with the Queen.

At a more elevated level, our Great War Leaders talk profoundly of their "counter-insurgency", and – in the manner of Gen McChrystal – of "protecting the people" and then of winning their "hearts and minds". Others talk knowingly of "force projection", and the need to "dominate the ground", all in the hope of bringing that elusive "security", from which all other blessings will flow.

Then there is the chimera of "Afghanisation" where, miraculously, concerned citizens will line up at the recruiting stations in their hundreds of thousands – as they did in Iraq, presumably – ready to become loyal foot soldiers of the Karzai government, taking on the "Taleban" after being taught their soldiering and tactics from Western soldiers – the same who are being comprehensively outmanoeuvred by ... the "Taleban".

Equally miraculously, Hamid Karzai will suddenly see the error of his way, fire his cabinet and ministers and appoint staunch, upright servants of the people. Eschewing corruption, they will spread their benign rule throughout the land, bringing peace, prosperity and the Afghan equivalent of apple pie.

Amid the tranquillity and happiness that thus ensues, the Afghan peoples, their ancient rivalries forgotten, will stand behind their president and bring the country leaping into the 21st Century to stand proudly alongside the "international community", co-equal with the best, ready to take on such pressing issues as climate change, universal gender equality, gay rights and the destruction of Israel.

There may, however, be an alternative scenario. It has taken us a long time to get there but we have come to the conclusion that we are not dealing with a classic counter-insurgency at all, but with a Pashtun nationalist movement that has as its agenda the reunification of their fractured territories split by the historical Durand line between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That, at least, is one of the agendas that motivate some of the factions. But nothing is that simple. Pashtuns are divided into four major groups dominated by the two largest tribes, the Durrani and the Ghilzai – the latter from which most of the Taleban are drawn. But, at different levels on the family tree, there may be as many as 405 distinct tribes, depending on how they are classified – with 60 being a generally accepted figure.

Additionally, there is a tribe known as the Urmars that is not Pashtun and claims to be of older stock. They speak a different language while residing in the midst of the Pashtuns in the Waziristan Mountains, the Logar Valley, and districts of Peshawar.

Getting to grips with staggering complexity of the different groups, their varied and shifting loyalties and aspirations, political and otherwise, is not to be taken on lightly. This is a road down which we did not really wish to venture, although many have done so, in diverse newspapers and magazines. Many more will follow and, despite our reluctance, we are being forced down this path ourselves.

We are helped on our way by a response to our earlier piece - a lengthy e-mail from a military officer attached to the Special Forces. He had worked in Peshawar in the Autumn of 1988 at the end of the Russian occupation and, more recently, in Helmand had spent much time talking to Afghan interpreters of various ethnic backgrounds and, through them to many Afghanis, including "Taleban" foot soldiers.

Having also spent time in India, looking towards the North West Frontier through Indian eyes, he concurred "entirely" with our point that we have found ourselves at war with the "Pathan nation", for whom "Taliban" is a very clumsy epithet. There are no hearts and minds now to be won, only rented, he tells us.

Our correspondent's view is that, until we start looking at our intervention in Afghanistan in this way, there is no prospect of a "win"; or of comprehending the Pashtun mindset; or in realising that a "one nation" solution to Afghanistan is unworkable.

Indeed, he says, it may well be that we need to redraw the maps, erase the Durand line, and finally create an autonomous, legitimised Pathanistan out of Eastern Afghanistan, the Frontier badlands and North West Frontier Province, working with the governments of Pakistan and India in a regional solution akin to the great European political settlements of the past century.

The payback, of course, would be that in return for nation building support, the Pathans purge the "Arabs" from their hospitality list.

This then addresses the issue of partition, splitting off the south leaving a rump nation of Afghanistan, where the dominant ethnic groups are the Tajiks and Uzbeks. Attractive though this is, it could have far-reaching implications which could impact not only on Afghanistan but the whole region.

Not least, it could energise the peoples in the southernmost districts of Afghanistan, the Baluchis, who would likely be ill-disposed to Pashtun rule, and claim to be "natural allies" of ISAF in helping defeat the Taleban. It could, therefore, intensify the long-standing campaign for a Baluchi homeland.

This, at the moment spans the three countries of Iran (which was given a large part of Baluchistan by the British), Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pressure to restore an independent Baluchistan (something the Pakistanis accuse India of fomenting), is already strong, especially as the Baluchis deeply resent Pakistani repression.

On top of a separate "Pathanistan", this could threaten the territorial integrity of the Pakistani state, as the Kashmiris would not be far behind in demanding full independence. It could even bring into play tensions in the Sindh province of Pakistan, leading to the complete breakup of the nation.

A "local" solution, to resolve a specific problem in Afghanistan, could thus throw the whole region into turmoil (although some argue that the longer-term solution would come from that). By any reckoning, therefore, Afghanistan has to be part of a much bigger regional solution, taking into account a wide range of factors. For the moment though, all our troops can do (at best) is keep the cork in the bottle.

At worse, they are making the situation inestimably more instable - and the more they do the greater the damage done. As they expand their territorial coverage, it simply puts them into contact with even more disaffected peoples, increasing rather than reducing the risk and thereby increasing casualties.

All of this also renders the talk of "counter-insurgency" and "nation-building" child-like in its simplicity. We are creating a situation where young men and women are being poured into a geopolitical cauldron, the nature of which they understand not, and which they themselves have no means of resolving.

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