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HOW TO TAME THE TALIBAN
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
February 7, 2007

When we met Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Dr Rangin Dadfar Sepanta in London the other day, the news headlines sounded ominous for his country. One headline, running as a strip at the bottom of TV screens said: "Taliban retake Afghan city from Nato! Wow!"

Within minutes, the usual suspects of cyberspace, mostly from the incredibly large number of universities and think tanks in the US, were speculating about the ultimate failure of the democratic experience in Afghanistan and how the Pushtun warriors were poised to defeat Nato as they had defeated Alexander the Great and the British Raj so many centuries ago.

So, was this the beginning of the end? We asked Dr Sepanta who, though German educated, is as phlegmatic as the old products of British public schools. The foreign minister responded with a sigh. "There are those who wish Afghanistan to fail so that the United States and other democracies are humiliated," he said. "Some take their wishes for reality."

When deconstructed, little was left of the ominous headline. It turned out that Qala-Mussa, far from deserving description as a city, is a border village with a population of around 4,000.

Nato handed over the village to local elders months ago after clearing it of the remnants of Taliban and their allies, the Iranian-financed Hizb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The elders in charge had made a deal with Taliban, allowing them to arrive in the village to discuss ending attacks on schools in nearby hamlets. The Taliban, however, broke their promise, sworn on the Holy Book and entered the village armed and overpowered the unarmed elders. There were no Nato troops within a 100 miles and no clashes took place between the Taliban and the forces of the American "Great Satan". (A few days later, Nato dispatched a unit to flush the Taliban out.)

Sepanta admits that the Taliban are preparing for a spring offensive. However, he insists that the security situation is better than last year and improving. He is critical of Nato's decision to hand over Qala-Mussa and a few other remote localities to tribal elders rather than officials from the central government in Kabul.

"We may have to face terrorism for many years," Sepanta says." But, that is not going to slow down, let alone stop, Afghanistan's strategy for democratisation and modernisation."

Do the Taliban still enjoy a popular base?

Sepanta admits that they do. The Taliban appeal to some Pushtun clans in the southeast and reflect the views of some of the most conservative segments of the clergy. All in all, however, without the support of a foreign power, they would not be able to pursue a military campaign for any length of time.

But, which foreign power?

Sepanta says he does not wish to provoke a diplomatic row with Afghanistan's neighbours by naming names.

"Those who know the region know the identity of those who keep the Taliban alive," he says. "Which regional country fears a democratic and pro-West Afghanistan? And which has always harboured the ambition of turning Afghanistan into a client state?"

It is clear that Sepanta is referring to Iran and Pakistan which, though rivals in Afghanistan in the past, now indirectly cooperate to undermine the democratically elected government of President Hamid Karzai.

Sepanta says Iran has created "a vast and solid network of influence" in Afghanistan. "No one knows what harvest Tehran hopes to reap from what it has sown," he says.

Political feuds

Both Iran and Pakistan have shaped their different strategies in Afghanistan on the assumption that the US, plagued by its internecine political feuds, will lack the staying power needed to reshape the Middle East. Tehran and Islamabad are preparing for the day the Americans run away from Kabul before the new Afghan regime is strong enough to ward off predatory neighbours. Once the Americans have fled, Iran will activate its network of influence, including the Hazara Shiites, some heavily armed, along with elements of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban in the 1990s.

For its part, Pakistan, which had put all its chips on Taliban in the 1990s, lost everything when Mullah Omar ran away riding his Suzuki motorcycle. Since then, Pakistan has acted tough against the so-called "Arab Afghans" and members of Al Qaida while treating the Taliban with kid gloves. The reason is that Islamabad sees the Taliban as its Trojan horse in Afghanistan, when and if the Americans run away.

Pakistan has more than half a century of experience in low intensity warfare against neighbours. Until recently, it did so against India in Kashmir and seems to be doing the same in southeastern Afghanistan.

Discussing Kashmir with the then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee a few years ago, I was told what he presented as "the secret of Kashmir".

"The war in Kashmir could go on for ever," Vajpayee said. "The reason is that the Pakistanis always have some 2,000 fighters ready to come to kill and die. We kill the 2,000, the Pakistanis send another 2,000. The supply is endless."

Having ended the war in Kashmir, Pakistan can divert its mischief-making energies to Afghanistan where the numbers required may not be as large. Pakistan can always find a few hundred Puhstuns who, if adequately brainwashed and paid, are ready to become "holy warriors" under the Taliban banner.

As is the case with Iraq, the root cause of the continued conflict in Afghanistan is the perception that the Americans will run away, allowing the "holy warriors" to claim divine victory while rival neighbouring powers activate their pawns in Kabul.

If the various protagonists in Afghanistan, just as in Iraq, were persuaded that the "Great Satan" was not going to run away, few would have the incentive to keep fighting a war they know they cannot win.

Sepanta says any sign that the US and its allies may be losing interest in the democratisation project is certain to fan the flames of war.

So, what does he think of the recommendation by the now discredited Baker-Hamilton report that the US withdraw from Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan?

The foreign minister becomes diplomatic. He does not want to intervene in a domestic American debate. But he admits that the jihadis fighting in Iraq will, if the US runs away from Baghdad, move to Afghanistan to fight the Americans that the Baker-Hamilton "Realists" want to send there.

"This is a war between two visions of the world," he says. "If one side abandons one battlefield, he will have to fight harder in another."

The Afghans are determined to fight the "obscurantist, inhumane" vision of the Taliban and their counterparts in Iraq and elsewhere for as long as it takes, Sepanta says. His hope is that the Western democracies would continue to share the same determination.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and journalist based in Europe.

 

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